Ordinary South Africans could be forgiven for feeling overwhelmed and confused trying to keep up with the revelations that have come out of the Zondo Commission of Inquiry into Allegations of State Capture and the Nugent Commission Commission of Inquiry into tax administration and governance by the South African Revenue Service (Sars).
The audacity of some of the evidence led of schemes to extract money from the state, as well as the huge amounts of money involved, are complex and truly gobsmacking.
But there is another part of the enabling of state capture that has not received enough scrutiny: it is how some media and journalists were ‘played’ – some unwittingly and some, it would appear, knowingly.
The overall result has been to erode trust in South African journalism and the media, with the damage going way beyond the people and media that were directly involved.
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In a time when mis- and disinformation is so ubiquitous in the Wild West that is social media, Anton Harber’s book ‘So, For the Record: Behind the Headlines in an Era of State Capture’ (Jonathan Ball Publishers, September 2020) serves as a timely reminder of how ‘fake news’ planted in mainstream media can be weaponised to fight factional political battles, and how it was used to get rid of people who stood in the way of the state capturers.
This is where Harber, one of South Africa’s foremost journalists and muckrakers – a label any good investigative journalist wears with pride – has focused his attention. It is a story of how a malleable media, in pursuit of scoops, was played in order to lay the ground for the capture of key state institutions like Sars, the National Prosecuting Authority and the police and intelligence services.
But it has come at great cost to the people who were the subject of their reporting, leaving wrecked lives and ruined careers in its wake.
Harber approached the book as a journalism investigation, spending almost two years reporting and then writing it.
His approach was interesting: he signed up for a master’s degree in creative writing, and it shows in the accessible long-form approach he has taken.
Rather than a dense read on state capture, it reads like a real-life thriller taken straight from the news headlines.
Harber used his credibility and access to interview many of the people who were involved or had first-hand knowledge of the how and why of what went wrong. His keen observations and analysis, based on his years-long experience as a practitioner and teacher of journalism, add valuable context to his reporting.
A large section of the book is dedicated to the Sunday Times and its now disgraced secretive investigations unit and its reporting on the Sars ‘rogue unit’, the Cato Manor ‘death squad’ story and the infamous Zimbabwe ‘renditions’ story.
All these stories sent shockwaves through South Africa, and all were eventually retracted.
At the heart of it, Harber concludes, are several contributing factors, especially the so-called “Sunday Times treatment”, which – by virtue of its traditional page-one design with a huge, bold, screaming-out-loud headline – demands a big, agenda-setting story, week in, week out.
The “treatment”, says Harber, includes choosing a narrative and sticking with it through thick and thin, with no real space given to any competing narrative.
So, instead of there being an allegedly illegal ‘rogue unit’ within Sars, the Sunday Times consistently referred to the existence of a rogue unit in its reporting.
And the false revelation that Sars ran a brothel is stated as a fact, without the most basic step of verifying its existence and location having been taken.
The story was based on a claim by a single source in a document.
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Add to this the untouchable status of the investigative team within the Sunday Times editorial hierarchy, which meant their stories were often not subjected to the same level of fact-checking as that of other reporters.
That the Sunday Times was played at different times by agents of both national intelligence and crime intelligence, and both sides in the murky tobacco industry, is clear from Harber’s book.
He writes: “In South Africa, attempts to manipulate the media weren’t new. On the contrary, the apartheid security police had honed techniques of distortion and disinformation to a fine art. But never had one of our major newspapers been more vulnerable to it.
“… the arrogance that sustained it was built into the Sunday Times newsrooms’ DNA, the journalistic culture and practice.”
The damage to Sars’s ability to investigate and bring to book big tax dodgers is eloquently summed up: “At the time the investigative unit was closed down it had roughly 90 investigations on the go. They included Operation Honey Badger, an investigation into the illicit cigarette industry, which was to prove to be the unit’s downfall,” writes Harber.
“The other 89 groups of high-level tax dodgers must also have celebrated.”
But the book is about more than just the Sunday Times.
The role of the Guptas
One of the most fascinating aspects is the behind-the-scenes insight into the Gupta leaks, which finally exposed the role of the Gupta brothers and their cronies who profited massively from state capture.
It reveals how a tightwad employee, rather than pay R10 000 to fix a damaged hard drive, abandoned it – and set off a chain of events that resulted in one of the biggest news stories in decades in South Africa.
Harber spoke to the whistleblower who explained how they obtained the hard drive and their motives for leaking the emails.
He also solves the mystery of how the emails ended up in the hands of the Sunday Times and its sister publications before Daily Maverick and investigative journalism organisation amaBhungane – to whom they were originally leaked – had published a single story.
It’s too good a story to spoil here other than to say that the leaker was a very well-known businesswoman who had a political agenda far removed from that of the journalists involved.
“But Sunday Times wasn’t the worst of the media culprits in enabling state capture,” says Harber.
“That position is hotly contested between three contenders: the Gupta’s ragtag media group, New Age Media; Iqbal Survé’s rogue Sekunjalo Independent Media group; and the national broadcaster, the SABC – all of which became open, active and committed participants in the state capture project.”
This is not just a book about journalism, nor is it only for journalists.
Anyone interested in understanding the shameful role of some media in a low point of South African media history will benefit from reading it.
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Raymond Joseph worked for the Sunday Times for 19 years and now works as a journalist, specialising in data-driven investigations.