A golden era for investigative journalism? Or a last hoorah?

Hennie Serfontein died last week isolated and forgotten.

That a leading investigative journalist of the 1960s-1980s should end his life this way was a reminder of the vulnerability and lack of recognition of our bravest muckrakers.

Serfontein took over the expose of the Afrikaner Broederbond after the journalist who broke the story in the Sunday Times, Charles Bloomberg, fled the country in 1963. Bloomberg died a few years ago, also unrecognised and in near-poverty.

Week after week for over a decade, these two produced front page coverage of one of the most important stories of the day: the role the secretive Broederbond was playing in the apartheid government and how key appointments and decisions were being made by this covert organisation. Interestingly, their work was based on masses of documents which originated from a whistleblower, whose motivation and credibility was questioned in the same way that the source of the current #Guptaleaks documents is being doubted by those who don’t like what we are learning from the leaks. It emerged later that the Broederbond documents originated with Beyers Naude, now considered a national hero.

Serfontein’s exposes were stopped when Tertius Myburgh took over the Sunday Times editorship, leaving Serfontein frustrated and embittered. But his work
continued for many years. He was the first person to report in the Weekly Mail (now the Mail & Guardian) in 1989 that the government had been in secret discussion with Nelson Mandela while he was in Pollsmoor Prison for more than two years. It is worth remembering that Thabo Mbeki stood up in New York and, with a straight face, denied the story and denounced the newspaper for falling for “government propaganda”.

Now we are in a new era in which our investigative reporters are again at the fore of exposing corruption and state capture – and are being targetted both politically and physically. And it comes at a time of decreasing space and resources for this kind of expensive and time-consuming work.

A few years ago, handing out the Taco Kuiper Award for Investigative Reporting, I commented that we had received a large pool of world-class entries and it was notable that there were at least four top-class investigative teams at our major media outlets. They had been responsible for exposing the Nkandla story, ousting two successive commissioners of police, one of whom went to jail, and jailing a prominent MP, Tony Yengeni, to cite just a few of their triumphs. It was something of a golden era for muckraking.

Within a few years, though, with the newspapers facing collapsing circulating and revenue, most of these teams had been dismantled or dispersed, and the prospects for this kind of reporting looked bleak. We began to see more factional, tendentious reporting based largely on different elements of the state and ruling party leaking dubious material about their intra-party rivals. This peaked with the dubious SARS rogue unit story, which the Sunday Times later retracted and apologised for.

#Guptaleaks have revived the field of investigative reporting and highlighted what a critical role it plays in our democracy. At a time when many of our institutions of accountability – the Hawks, the NPA, the Public Protector’s Office, the SABC – have been rendered ineffectual and others – such as Parliament and the Judiciary – are under pressure to fall in line, our private sector media institutions are more important than ever in sustaining a democracy under attack.

It is significant that the #Guptaleaks hard drive, containing some 200 000 of the most revealing emails, came first to the small, somewhat fringe, but feisty, online operation, Daily Maverick (DM).

DM didn’t have the staff to deal with it, so they pulled in Amabhungane, the independent investigative journalism unit that originated in, and a few years ago broke away from, the Mail & Guardian. The formidable team of AmaB, as they are known, were working on the material, raising money to move their team and the source to safety out of the country, when someone became impatient with the two-month delay and took it to the Sunday Times on the eve of the ANC’s crucial NEC meeting. Some say AmaB/DM were too slow, but they say there were doing what journalists have to do: verify and secure the source.

The Times group (which has just changed their name to Tiso Blackstar) has now put together a war-room to tap the full potential of the document dump, and DM/AmaB have teamed up – unusually for the cutthroat competitive world of journalism – with mainstream outlet News24, leading to a regular flow of powerful stories. The Mail & Guardian, long the bastion of such reporting, sits on the sidelines, as does the Gupta media (New Age and ANN7) and the Independent group, both compromised by their owners’ closeness to the Zuma government. The SABC should be the medium that takes this story to a mass audience, but, financial and politically bankrupt and without effective leadership, it is struggling to find its voice again.

Fortunately, the existence of the internet and an independent body such as AmaB ensures that no editor can kill the story completely, the way Myburgh did with Serfontein’s story.

But can this new surge of investigative reporting be sustained? What future is there when the media is under such financial and political pressure, and when ruling party allies have a tightening hold on a growing number of media institutions?

AmaB gives its material for free to partner publications, and is sustained by philanthropic grants of about R8-m per year. Without the likes of the Open Society, Bertha, Claude Leon and Raith foundations, and the Millenium Trust, this work would not be done. They and DM’s new unit, Scorpio, make constant appeals for crowdsourced funding. It is reminiscent of the 1980s when alternative papers that were prepared to confront and expose the apartheid government relied on international funding. When that funding dried up in the early 1990s, the only one to survive was the M&G.

This investigative work is costly and risky and those who support it have to face the risk of being sued and physically attacked, as we saw with the violent disruption of an AmaB town hall meeting last week. It requires a serious financial commitment and a long-term journalistic vision to keep it going.

Do our media owners have that? With much of this work increasingly dependant on philanthropy, are the private sector and civil society looking for ways to ensure that this work can continue?

Our democracy may depend on it.

*This article first appeared in Business Day

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