Spies in the newsroom

This new world – it’s another kind of revolution, I suppose. One damn revolution and another spurious revelation after another: you’d think we’d all be tired of them by now. The Beatles, around the time I was born, had the answer: “Well, you know, we all want to save the world”. Now I come to think of it, the first time I wandered into a newsroom looking for a job, then Natal Witness Editor Richard Steyn told me very firmly that wanting to save the world was a very bad reason for anyone to be a journalist. I became one anyway.

Those were the twilight years of apartheid. The Little Grey Men were already talking about unbanning the ANC in their padded nests, but the ordinary folk carried on oblivious. Segregation, angry protests, marches and demonstrations, bullets and teargas, internecine violence, blanket censorship and states of emergency increased in momentum. Journalists weren’t well paid, and lots of political journalists, myself included, moonlighted for international news agencies, broadcast services or any news outlet who paid. And then, of course, there were the Famous Forty and their ilk – those journalists allegedly paid to “spy” on their colleagues, as emerged in the furore surrounding the video Winnie, released last year, where StratCom head Vic McPherson claimed to have had 40 journalists who worked for him “directly or indirectly” writing malicious articles about Madikizela-Mandela.

This spying story was always around. We all suspected certain colleagues of being resident spies in our newsrooms, and beleaguered crime reporters often got the torrid infiltrator reputation because of their having to suck up to police sources in order to scoop the competition. In fact, I remember in my early career being called to the security police headquarters in Durban along with our current crime reporter, who just watched and grinned while I was thoroughly bollocksed upon and questioned: we were all convinced he was the recipient of StratCom funding, which accounted for the gleam of his Italian shoes and his branded clothes. But he wasn’t my friend, we didn’t socialise, we seldom covered stories together, and quite honestly, if he was a spy, I’m not sure what he was getting paid to do. Perhaps some of these alleged “spies” weren’t being paid at all, but pimping on colleagues out of some sick patriotic glee. Besides, apart from often being too busy to care, most of us were quite used to the spy factor, having been either to university or technikon, and general living under apartheid.

And now we have Huffington Post SA run the hagiographic video Winnie (for which they have subsequently grovelled in apology and withdrawn said video from their website) by a relatively unknown foreign filmmaker featuring the late Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, in which she accuses journalists Anton Harber and Thandeka Gqubule (then at the Weekly Mail), among others, of being spies in charge of a smear campaign against her, and the Twitterati and media in general go hysterical. Spurious allegations without evidence. Rubbish rather than revelations. And for what?

And that’s the fascinating part. Why try and discredit reputable journalists in this manner, at this point in time?

Advocate Dumisa Ntsebeza agrees, reportedly saying that the video’s director, Pascale Lamche, “had an agenda”. A commissioner during the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which heard a great deal of evidence about many of the allegations levelled against Madikizela-Mandela and her Football Club, Ntsebeza said he could not believe Lamche’s arrogance in admitting that she had not given any one a chance to defend the allegations made against them. Lamche clearly missed the first rule of ethical journalism – hear the other side – which is why I am not referring to her video as a documentary.

Perhaps Lamche was trying to construct an alternative narrative, but what is missing in the video is any sort of acknowledgement that tough personal compromise can hurt other people badly.

Gqubule and Harber have both dismissed the allegations as utter and malicious hogwash, and very dangerous. This kind of shaming and naming (not to mention “alternative” narrative building) is extremely worrying, not least because it encourages ordinary people to see journalism as dishonest, rather than as a public good.

The South African National Editors’ Forum (Sanef) in a statement said it acknowledged the brutality of the apartheid regime and its misinformation campaigns, but given the context of lies and propaganda, it believed it was critical that concrete evidence be produced to substantiate claims that specific journalists supported the apartheid state’s security establishment. To my mind, this will never happen, due to the overheated shredders of most governments.

And does it really matter that much? Spies will always be with us. The corporate world is filled with espionage and skulduggery. International spooks are currently making headlines. Global academia is filled with backstabbing and tattle tales. And newsrooms, because of the power of information, continue to be infiltrated by governments.

In current South Africa, the power politics at play is resulting in different groups vying for different areas of the media. Discrediting journalism is a wonderful way to win votes, and what is most important for ordinary citizens is to protect and respect the integrity of a free press. Newsrooms are still largely populated by those who want to change the world, and long may this last.

This piece first appeared in The Witness newspaper in April 2018.

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