The sad decline of the Sunday Times II

by The Editor

FEATURE: This is the second piece I wrote in 2009 about the decline of the Sunday Times. It concerned a story given exclusively to the Sunday Times, by the Democratic Alliance, which it turned down in a rather incoherent fashion, only for the story subsequently to be prominently carried by other print, radio and television media outlets. The question I tried to answer was: had the Sunday Times lost the ability properly to identify the news?

The sad decline of the Sunday Times II

By: Gareth van Onselen

2 September 2012


It is the principal function of any newspaper to report the news. Intrinsic to that requirement is the ability to identify which stories constitute news and then to report those stories in a manner that is both accurate and objective. Much of the debate surrounding news reporting in South Africa concerns the latter part of that ability – the nature of reportage – and perhaps not enough attention is given to the former – the content of those stories. How often do newspapers fail to report issues that are newsworthy?

The answer, of course, is all the time. There is no real limit to the number of news stories that exist at any given time. Indeed, almost every current affairs issue is news, in the strict sense of the word. There is, however, a filter that newspapers rely on to distil those myriad stories down to a set of key issues that are of interest to their readership and reflect the most important matters of the day.

That process requires some skill and, on the margins, it is possible to argue most stories one way or the other. But at the extremes there is little argument; and the best way to distinguish those stories from more debatable issues is retrospectively. This is perhaps a cruel test for a journalist, because they rarely have the luxury of being able to survey the response of other media to an issue before making a decision. But it is an indisputably good test none the less, and one I wish to apply to the Sunday Times.

The news

Last week Tuesday the Democratic Alliance gave an exclusive story to the Sunday Times. We did so for two reasons: first, because the Sunday Times, being a newspaper with a substantial readership and, thus, considerable impact in the country, is a powerful platform from which to break a story we felt to be of some significance; and, second, because the Sunday Times is a weekly newspaper, by giving the story to them early in the week they would have some time to research it, to supplement it and to investigate it in a manner the DA could not. At the eleventh hour the newspaper declined to publish; at which point the DA put the story out nationally and to all media, the vast majority of which gave the story great prominence and extensive coverage the following day.

The story in question was the following: On 19 January 2009 senior officials of the Msunduzi Municipality (Pietermaritzburg) retrospectively authorised payment of just over R1 million for an event called ‘The Nkosi Mlaba Cultural Day’. The actual event supposedly took place on 18 January. However, as far as the DA could ascertain, there was no evidence it ever took place at all. Instead, the only event to take place on 18 January was an ANC election rally at the Qokololo Stadium, attended by some 50 000 supporters. In other words, it appeared that the ANC had misappropriated R1 million worth of public money for a party political purpose.

In support of its case, the DA gave the Sunday Times a series of documents. They included:

• A payment approval form, signed by various senior members of the municipality’s administration;
• Two approved quotes; and
• A copy of the booking sheet for the oval where the event was supposed to take place (it showed that, on 18 January, the oval was booked for a cricket match).

The DA also gave the Sunday Times a statement from our national spokesperson on the Standing Committee on Public Accounts, Mark Steele MP, who had been leaked the story in the first place. In summary then, the Sunday Times had the requisite hard evidence, a statement from the official opposition and a series of powerful leads which suggested something serious had gone wrong.

We gave the story to the Sunday Times on the condition that, when it was written up, the DA would be given due credit for breaking the story and that the paper would, of course, run the story in the coming Sunday edition. Significantly, we made it clear that the paper was under no obligation to run the story – that decision was at its own discretion – but if it did want to run the story, that it should give us that assurance and, in turn, we would not give the story to other media.

After talking to Mark Steele and looking at the available evidence, the Sunday Times agreed to all these provisions, convinced that it was indeed an important story and well worth being covered by the newspaper.

How the Sunday Times shot itself in the foot

It is difficult to ascertain exactly how the Sunday Times decides which stories should make its final edition and which stories should not but, if the recently commissioned report into how its various malfunctioning reporting lines work is anything to go by, it is something like this: A potential story is flagged with a conference of the great and the wise on Tuesday morning; that story is either approved in principle or vetoed; if it is approved, it is then written up and, once again, put before that conference later in the week, where a final decision is made.

The members of that conference might also suggest a rewrite, or emphasize a certain news angle over another; they might also intervene at a late stage to determine the final make-up of the Sunday paper.

That conference is also obviously deeply problematic. I have set out before the way in which it manufactures news. The Sunday Times’ internal report (referred to above and the full version of which has yet to be made public) routinely cites it as the cause of many problems, including the “top heavy” influence of a “proliferation of senior managers” and the sidelining of weekly diary meetings in its favour, all of which manifests in “rewriting by senior editors”, who would effectively manipulate average stories into front page “splashes”.

Read between the lines and you have a conference loaded with people who do not possess the requisite skills to make good news judgements, determining the content of the paper. No doubt this is what happened in this case. And, once again, they made the wrong call.

The Sunday Times spent the whole week working on the DA’s story. After an initial buy-in from the conference, the paper’s hard news journalists (who are clearly not to blame) did sterling work investigating the story, phoning the various parties and regularly consulting with the DA to check the facts, to get to the bottom of the matter. At 11am on Saturday, as a courtesy, a final version of the story was read to Mark Steele. Judging by that story, it was clear there was indeed an issue worthy of the public’s attention – the evidence held up and there was certainly something amiss in the Msunduzi Municipality.

On top of what the DA had provided, the newspaper had uncovered that the person after whom the ghost event was supposedly named – Nkosi Mlaba (a chief from KwaXimba, near Cato Ridge) – was entirely unaware of any event to be held in his honour. It had managed to confirm that no event took place at the venue identified in the documents, and that a cricket match had indeed taken place instead. It had also managed to obtain from the Msunduzi Mayor, Zanele Hlatshwayo, an admission that there was “something suspicious” about the matter and an undertaking to investigate. Significantly, it had also had a denial from the municipal manager about the event or payment for it, despite his signature appearing on the payment approval form.

Here was a news story.

At 9.30 pm on Saturday, however, the DA received an SMS to say that the story would not be carried on Sunday because “the Sunday Times was too tight”. Instead, it would be carried in the daily Times, on Monday.

Someone at the Sunday Times had decided at the last minute, for whatever reason, the story in question was not newsworthy enough for the newspaper.

That decision, as we shall see, was a spectacularly bad piece of judgement.

The DA’s response

Having reneged on its agreement (a cause for some concern in and of itself) the newspaper now wanted the best of both worlds. Not only did it deem the story not worthy of its flagship publication, it wanted the right to run it exclusively in the Times (a publication with a substantially smaller readership and far less influence). That sort of arrogance has unfortunately come to define the paper’s attitude over the past few years.

The DA, of course, was having none of it and proceeded to release the story – in the form of a Sunday press statement – along with the accompanying documentation, to the entire national media core. The Sunday Times had failed to properly identify a big news story and, in the DA’s opinion, no longer had a right to break that story.

The media’s response

The media’s response to the DA’s statement was overwhelming. Various internet news sites picked up on it immediately. Virtually every national and regional radio station ran the story on Sunday and Monday morning. SABC news covered it on television and various national and regional newspapers (including the Natal Witness, which ran it as a front page banner headline) carried the story prominently on their current affairs news pages.

Here is a brief – and by no means conclusive – summary of that coverage:

Radio News (all these bulletins are from 6 July, there were also numerous stories on 5 July):

• Algoa FM (5:31 am), (6:01 am) and (6:29 am)
• Gigasi FM (11:02 am)
• 5FM (6:00 am), (7:01 am)
• Radio 2000 (6:00 am)
• Lotus FM (6:00 am) and (8:01 am)
• RSG (5:03 am), (6:04 am) (6:21 am) and (6:10 am)
• Motsweding FM (6:00 am) and (7:02 am)
• Phalaphala FM (6:01 am); (7:01 am) and (8:03 am)
• Thobela FM (7:02 am) and (8:03 am)
• Kaya FM (12:02 pm)
• Ligwalagwala FM (5:59 am)
• Lesedi FM (7:02 am)
• Umhlobo Wenene (7:01 am)
• Ukhozi FM (6:02 am)
• SAfm (5:30 am), (6:01 am), (6:30 am), (7:01 am) and (7:33 am)
• Metro FM (6:01 am) and (7:01 am)
• Fine Music Radio (8:00 am)
• OFM (6:02 am)

Television News:

• SABC 2 Morning Live News (6:06 am) and (7:03 am)


• The Mercury (6 July 2009): ‘Taxes funded KZN rally’ – Pg 2.
• The Witness (6 July 2009) ‘R1mln council fund ‘hijack’ – Pg 1.
• Cape Times (6 July 2009) ‘DA calls for probe into ‘council cash used for rally’ – Pg 5.
• Citizen (6 July 2009) ‘ANC ‘used R1 million on rally” – Pg 4.
• The Star (6 July 2009) ‘Funding of ANC rally queried’ – Pg 6.
• The Daily News (6 July 2009) ‘DA cries foul over R1 million ‘cultural event” – Pg 2.
• Ilanga (6 July 2009) ‘Uvelephi u-R1m we-ANC?’ – Pg 1.
• The Times (6 July 2009) ‘Rates spent on ANC’ – Pg 3.
• The Sowetan (7 July 2009) ‘Ratepayers’ money spent on rally’ – Pg 3.

There can be little doubt then, using the retrospective test I identified in my introduction, that the DA’s story was unquestionably newsworthy. And not on the margins either, it was big news, that generated significant coverage across the board. Even those hard news journalists who wrote the story up for the Sunday Times knew it was newsworthy, because they called the DA on Sunday to express their dismay at the party having put the story out nationally (indeed, The Times story, the story that would have run in the Sunday Times, is testament to this).

Given that fact – and the extent of the coverage the story generated in the media – the question is: why did the Sunday Times choose not to run the story?

An inability to identify the news

The short answer is, who knows?

But you can be sure it has everything to do with a dysfunctional newsroom and a series of senior editors who cannot properly identify a news story; and whose intervention cost the Sunday Times a big story that would have made a significant impact.

Certainly it had nothing to do with the other stories run by the paper this past Sunday. Its front page lead – an innocuous story about how South Africa’s ‘super’ rich are getting poorer – was distinctly underwhelming. It had nothing exceptional to report on its politics pages; indeed, the biggest item on the page was a photo of Jacob Zuma.

There is no plausible reason why it chose not to run the story about the Msunduzi Municipality. It had everything going for it: breaking news, a substantial amount of evidence and, at its heart, a scandal where the South African public – its own readers – had apparently been fleeced of R1 million worth of their hard earned money. More to the point, it had the story as an exclusive. No one else had any idea it even existed.

One is led inevitably to the conclusion that one of South Africa’s great publications – a newspaper which once boasted ‘its not news until it appears in the Sunday Times’ – has lost the very ability to properly identify the news in the first place. This, along with a number of other problems, has seen it slide steadily downhill over the past few years and it is now teetering on the brink.

That shortcoming hurts no one but the Sunday Times itself – all the more so in the current economic climate when advertisers and readers alike are scrutinising the value they get for the money they spend.

The competitive nature of professional journalism means South Africa’s mainstream media will never let a good news story slip past unnoticed. Unless the paper begins to put the news at the top of its agenda, as opposed to the many other factors which seem to influence its decision making, its complete transition from considered read to vacuous tabloid fanfare is as good as complete.

This article was first published on 7 July 2009

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