Tuesday, May 17, 2016


Dear Newspaper Readers,
Pravin Gordhan
          The Johannesburg based Sunday Times is using lotto journalism with increasing regularity. This is in spite of the fact that the Editor Bongani Siqoko told us last month, as part of a whole page apology about its so called “SARS rogue unit” expose`, that they had got “some things wrong” and one of the reasons was they “overly relied on our sources.”
          This didn’t stop the paper doing exactly the same thing this last Sunday to boost its sensational front page splash Pravin ‘arrest’ shock.
          How what I have dubbed “lotto journalism” works is this. The paper decides on the most sensational line for the story and then gives you, the reader this regardless of the facts by using anonymous “sources.”
The apology 3 April 

          The most glaring example of this was in its latest episode of its “rogue unit” saga that has been going on for two years. It was about how Pravin Gordhan South Africa’s current Minister of Finance and eight other former South African Revenue Service officials, who were said to have been members of the “unit,” were about to be prosecuted for “espionage.”
          The paper claimed that the unit, which was supposed to have illegally spied on tax payers among other things, was formed when Gordhan headed SARS as its Commissioner.
          In its last Sunday edition the paper quoted the National Prosecuting Authority spokesman Luvuyo Mfaku as saying: “It is incorrect that a decision has been made to prosecute anyone. The matter is still under investigation.”
Sunday 15 May
          Keeping that bad journalism cliché “don’t let the facts spoil a good story” well and truly alive the paper then covered itself both ways by falling back on its unreliable “sources” with this:
          “But highly placed NPA sources confirmed that national director of public prosecutions Shaun Abrahams ‘is ready to prosecute.’”
          That made Mfaku out to be a liar.
          The reliability of the Sunday Times’ “sources” was exposed a day later on the Monday when The Times, a daily in the same Times Media stable as the Sunday Times, came out with Reprieve for Gordhan as its front page lead.
          It quoted Abrahams, the man the Sunday Times inexplicably could not get hold of, as saying: “It is completely incorrect to say that anyone is going to be arrested or even faces arrest.”
          The Sunday Times story which ran from the front page onto page two contained allegations and information in no less than seven statements from anonymous “sources” and stated as fact that “Gordhan is being accused of breaching the Intelligence Act for his role in the formation of the ‘rogue unit’ when he headed SARS.”
Monday 16 May
          The trouble with relying on these is that anyone can sit in an office and make up quotes from “sources” to make a story more sensational. And if the paper is ever called upon to prove in court the allegations made by one of these anonymous people it would not be able to do it because journalists conveniently have a long standing tradition of never revealing their “sources.”
          Siqoko emphasised this aspect in that whole page apology, which must have been some kind of record, when he wrote that it was their responsibility “to build, sustain and protect a relationship with our sources.”
          As the Sunday Times and The Times have now given us conflicting versions of the story one of them must be lying.  And my “sources” tell me it is the Sunday Times.
Van Loggerenberg

          In that whole page apology on April 3 2016 that I mentioned earlier Johann van Loggerenberg, SARS Group Executive, Tax & Custom Enforcement and Ivan Pillay, the Deputy Commissioner, both of whom the paper had accused of being part of the “rogue unit” were allowed to have their say under the banner headline: Finally we agree to lay to rest the controversy surrounding SARS and the Sunday Times even though both of them had resigned from the tax department.
          Van Loggerenburg’s statement was headed: ‘Rogue’ unit never broke the law and was very effective. And Pillay’s one put the case against the Sunday Times in a nutshell with: The ‘rogue unit’ narrative was a great disservice to public interest, and made up of lies and distortions.
          On the other side of the page under Our response the Editor Siqoko sort to justify this huge climb down as being an “amicable settlement.” He confessed that in the 30 or so reports that had been in the paper so far about the unit they had got things right but had also got some wrong and had also given incomplete information.
          He blamed their unnamed “sources” for some of the problems and conceded that they had stated some allegations as fact.
          What he wrote about the investigation in general gave the impression that the newsgathering short-comings of the paper were a lot more serious than just the ones that had occurred in this inquiry
          “The SARS story has given us an opportunity to take a closer look at our news-gathering and production processes,” he told readers.
          “We have found some serious gaps. Efforts are being made to close these.”
          In a block at the end of his response he stated that “an amicable settlement’ had been reached with the two men “in respect of various matters before the Press Ombudsman” and in terms of this all Ombudsman (presumably the complaints the two men had made) matters would be withdrawn by all parties. Van Loggerenberg had also agreed not to institute any civil claims against the paper.
          “The settlement is considered full and final and on this basis no further actions will be taken.”
          This latest Sunday Times report names Van Loggerenberg and Pillay as being among the ex-SARS employees likely to be arrested. It now raises this BIG QUESTION: HAS THE PAPER BROKEN THE SPIRIT OF THE AGREEMENT, AT THE VERY LEAST, BY TARNISHING THE IMAGE OF THE TWO MEN ONCE AGAIN, THIS TIME EVEN MORE SERIOUSLY THAN BEFORE?
          Far from laying to rest the controversy surrounding SARS and the Sunday Times this has made it a lot worse, especially if it turns out to be “made up of lies and distortions” as Pillay labelled the earlier reports.  
          According to the story the Hawks, the country’s top investigative unit, had handed over a case docket to the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) for a decision to prosecute.
          Since the beginning of the year the paper has published quite a few apologies for not getting both sides of the story in various reports and it now appears to have done that again.        
          Van Loggerenburg was quoted as saying he had “done nothing wrong”
 and would co-operate with any investigation.
          There was no mention of Pillay having been contacted and of the other people named two were said to be “unavailable”, another one “did not respond to questions,” while “Gordhan’s office declined to comment.”
None of the three reporters (why you need three for one story is beyond me) doing the investigation appear to have even tried to speak to the other three men named.
As this was not any run of the mill story I would have thought the Sunday Times would have been more circumspect than usual, especial in view of the history, to make sure it go everything absolutely right.
          If Gordhan was to be arrested it was expected to plunge the country into a new financial crisis similar to what happened when President Zuma axed Nhlanhla Nene, who had only been in the Finance Minister’s job for seven months. He was replaced with little known, small town mayor David van Rooyen, before being shifting four days later.
Van Rooyen had his cabinet post swapped with Gordhan, the Minister of Cooperative Government and Traditional Affairs at the time.
          Even two of the Sunday Time’s own reporters were not happy with the paper’s handling of this long running investigation. Pearlie Joubert resigned after taking it to task when Phylicia Oppelt was still in the Editor’s chair for what she believed was the unethical way the probe had been conducted. This was denied by the paper.
          Piet Rampedi, who with other reporters had gathered evidence of what the paper claimed showed that SARS had spied illegally on taxpayers, took to Twitter under the user name Mr. Putin to slam the agreement that was made with the two tax men.
          “Yes ST’s bleeding commercially. But we're so desperate 4 adverts & 2 please Gordhan that we sell editorial integrity,” was one tweet followed by:
          “Despite a self-serving deal between ST & criminal suspects I believe our stories were factual and can prove in court.”
          As you can imagine these outbursts are hardly likely to advance their journalist careers. Rampedi is also no longer with the Sunday Times.
          To be fair to Siqoko he only became the Sunday Times Editor at the beginning of the year, so the majority of the “Rogue unit” stories were published under his predecessor Oppelt, who was moved “up stairs” as the saying goes.
          Did the way this SARS intrigued was revealed have anything to do with this? My “sources” are mum on that.
          Jon, The Poor Man’s Press Ombudsman

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