Dark stain on our journalism

The darkest of clouds hangs over South African journalism this week, following the admission by a former Cape Argus reporter that he took money from an ANC politician to assist in his intra-party battles.

Former political reporter Ashley Smith says the then-premier and now ambassador-elect Ebrahim Rasool gave contracts to his wife’s company and worked with him and his political editor, Joseph Arenes, to plot against Rasool’s rivals in the ANC. Arenes and Rasool deny it.

“Brown envelope journalism”, as it is known in those African countries where it is common practice, where companies are routinely expected to hand out cash at media conferences if they want coverage, is the kiss of death for the news media, destroying its standing, credibility and value. Either it is eradicated, or the media’s ability to act as a watchdog is compromised. It is corruption that cuts to the heart of an open society such as ours.

Ironically, only the Cape Argus itself emerges from this with at least some honour. The editor at the time, Ivan Fynn, and subsequent editor Chris Whitfield pursued these allegations for years before last week’s admission. From the very first rumours of these shady payments, they investigated and did not let go, and current editor Gasant Abarder did the right thing in splashing the story across the front page: “Reporter: I was paid to pursue Rasool’s agenda” alongside an editorial, “Our stand”.

It was the heartiest of mea culpas. “(The allegations) suggest a conspiracy leading from the top office in the province to the heart of the newspaper … Naturally, we are aghast and have to acknowledge a failing on the Cape Argus’ part.”

Journalism’s governing bodies, like the SA National Editors’ Forum and the Press Council, need to start a public discussion on how they can isolate the culprits, and make it clear to others that banishment is the minimum sentence for taking a brown envelope. The Press Council needs to change the rule that prevents the Ombudsman from investigating these allegations unless they have a formal complaint. All our professional resources need to be turned to the task of showing the public there is good reason to trust journalists.

The incident is uncommon, but it is not isolated. Vusi Mona left the editorship of City Press when it was found that he had an undeclared interest in a provincial public relations tender. This after his paper had run the false accusation that Jacob Zuma’s accuser, Bulelani Ngcuka, was an apartheid agent when other editors had declined to run the smear, and he had broken the confidence of an off-the-record briefing in which Ngcuka laid bare his pursuit of Zuma. Mona took money and took sides. His employers, Media24, moved decisively to clean up behind him, but he was rewarded with a senior job in the presidency, and moved this week to the government communications body, GCIS.

Similiarly, Rasool is due to move to Washington to take the top ambassadorial job there.

It takes two to tango with the truth. For every journalist who takes a bribe, there is someone who gave it. The media has to keep its house in order, but if we are to stop the rot, the ANC also has to take action against those in the ranks who seek to compromise journalists. Rasool’s role needs to be fully investigated and his appointment put on hold until his name is cleared.

As Washington ambassador, every journalist he deals with will start with the knowledge that there is strong evidence that he was responsible for the most appalling attack on their profession. He cannot do an effective job unless he rids himself of this taint.

We should also recognize that the path to brown envelopes is strewn with gifts and freebies. Hand-outs to journalists are commonplace, and only a few media institutions keep tight rules and practices on how to deal with them. Travel and motoring journalism in particular are tainted by forms of corruption which have been granted a convenient but tendentious legitimacy: free trips and borrowed cars, taken up even by some of our most senior journalists.

It is time to revisit the rules and implement them strictly.

• This column first appeared in Business Day 8 July 2010. It originally said that Whitfield was Argus editor, whereas he is now group editor-in-chief. I have corrected this.

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