Wednesday, February 24, 2016


 Dear Bongani Sigoko, Editor of the Sunday Times,

          I know you have only been in the job of heading South Africa’s best selling national Sunday paper for a few editions but is there any chance of you arresting the journalistic rot that has set in on your paper.
          The Sunday Times is giving a new impetus to that old cliché “You can’t believe everything you read in the papers.”
          How else can you explain the “Matter of fact” apologies that are becoming such a regular feature on Page 2 with other more serious ones getting slightly more exposure elsewhere.
          The question readers will increasingly be asking is: Apart from these apologies is the rest of it a “matter of fact”?
          What’s the thinking behind these half hearted, grudgingly given confessions that never appear with anything like the same prominence as the original story?
          I accept that the Press Ombudsman, Johan Retief has ordered your paper to print some of them. But when it comes to the voluntary ones are they there to appease the complainants with the aim of preventing them taking the matter any further or are they there to show your paper has done the right thing by admitting it was wrong?
          One thing is certain however and that is they all advertise your paper’s declining journalistic standards.
          For a newspaper that expects others to be open it keeps very quiet about the members of your editorial team who have been responsible for these clangers.
          You happily protect your own from the glare of publicity while you have no qualms about taking other people to task in print for their shortcomings.
          You even choose a Mampara to have a go at the person you judge to have done the stupidest thing of the week.
          Last Sunday it was the turn of Dan Retief, whose glittering career as a sports writer, TV presenter and author over a period of 40 years can’t have been bettered by many. He is the only journalist to have been the Sports Writer of the Year on three occasions and in the early nineties he was a Senior Correspondent for your paper.
          So presumably to emphasise the Sunday Times’ impartiality whoever writes these things couldn’t resist putting the boot in when Retief was forced to apologise for a controversial Twitter comment that got him into trouble.
          “It is not often that one who has graced the pages of this august newspaper with his pen in the past ends up being the Mampara,” your attack on him began.
          How august, prestigious, esteemed or illustrious can a paper be when its poor reporting is producing an increasing amount of questionable stories?
          You castigated him for “earning this dubious honour” while there must be other journalists who would qualify for Mamparadom, if only they were not protected by still being on your staff.
          Then too your Retief dig showed up another of your paper’s journalistic deficiencies. The writer evidently assumed that all the Sunday Time’s 3-million or so readers would know what Retief’s “remarks” were, so there was no need to tell them. It was left to those who didn’t know to use their imagination.
          What school of journalism teaches this?
          An Afrikaner himself Retief tweeted: “SA carried to victory by two White Afrikaners … politicians and media commentators take note …for what it is worth.” 
This was after our national cricket team's win against England.   
In a country where Blacks outnumber Whites by nearly 10 to 1 this caused the inevitable outcry which Retief had no way of justifying. But if your paper is going to chastise him the way it has done it should also have the guts to tell its readers who your current journalists are who can’t bring their fairy tales down to earth.
As you no doubt know he apologised soon afterwards but it was too late to prevent City Press, that other Sunday paper that is aimed mainly at Black readers, from deciding not to take his articles in future. He had evidently been freelancing for that publication.
Just in case you don’t know exactly what I am referring to here is your paper’s most recent “sorry” story.
6. December 2015: An Editorial headed Our commitment to the truth is absolute. Not only was this in itself not true but the entire Editorial was more fiction than anything else
 and  press-councils-special-protection-for.). 
And it wasn't made any more truthful by your paper's admissions that followed in the next few weeks.

20. December 2015: This Apology to the Minister of Finance Pravin Gordhan was not one of your paper’s voluntary ones. You were ordered to carry it by the Press Ombudsman so I can’t understand why your paper waited for his ruling before conceding that “We accept we were in breach of the Press Code for failing to seek Gordhan’s comment ahead of publication.” That’s one of the basics of journalism that every cub reporter gets taught - to always get both sides of the story. So wouldn’t you have expected this to have been uppermost in the reporter’s mind, particularly when he was writing an expose` involving somebody as important at the Minister of Finance?
          31. January 2016: Here was another embarrassing climb down your paper was forced to make by the Press Ombudsman. The headline Apology to Lakela Kauda cried out that the Sunday Times was in the mire once again.
14. February 2016: This Matter of Fact was a double bill. First of all your paper apologised for attributing something to the wrong Government Minister in a story appropriately entitled: “Five years of denial, cover-ups and bluster.” The next part emphasised once again that your entire staff are very slow learners. The second part was yet another admission that the writer had failed to get both sides of the story. Of course this is not only a reflection of the reporter’s apparent ignorance but also of the sub-editor who dealt with it and an Editor who allows this kind of thing to persist. You do have sub-editors in this high tech age or am I still in my typewriter and shorthand days at your paper? 
           21. February 2016: I assume that even in these ostensibly serious Matter of Facts your paper likes to have a bit of fun now and again. I don’t know if you’ve seen how laughable this one is. Readers were told that Gabs Mtshala did not say what your paper claimed he had said about Ngqula. It added, “We also neglected to give Ngqula an opportunity to respond to the allegation.” What! Ideally one of your reporters should have asked Ngqula to respond to a non-existent allegation. This also shows that not getting both sides of the story is endemic on your paper. I managed to track down the “Dicksy says he’s no criminal” piece which has the bylines of Bongani Magasela and David Isaacson on the top. This raises the question: Who was to blame for this shoddy bit of journalism. Even with two scribes tackling this rather ordinary tale your paper couldn’t get it right. This report, which ran right across the top of a page, illustrated perfectly how your apologies are given nothing like the prominence of the original story.
          In 2008 your paper’s news room was in such disarray that an independent panel was appointed to establish what was wrong and how it could be fixed. Perhaps it’s time you had another one of these before things get any worse.
          Jon, the Poor Man’s Press Ombudsman, who gives the other side of the story.        

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