A series of Sunday Times stories that have been widely criticised have led Anton Harber to wonder what is going on at the newspaper.  It appears under political pressure, and the launch of a daily title has caused some internal tensions.    

Anton Harber writes in Business Day:

I WAITED anxiously this weekend to see how the Sunday Times would follow up their dramatic Transnet story of the previous week. And they wrote … nothing. Not a mention. Not a peep .
It was the most surprising response possible. They had made dramatic, front-page claims against Transnet, suggesting the parastatal had secretly sold large chunks of off-shore territory along with the Cape Town Waterfront to an international consortium. It was a fantastic story, in every sense.

Transnet’s denial was quick and unequivocal. It came from the very top and was backed with documents. They showed the paperwork to opposition groups who had been quick to jump on the bandwagon, and these groups retracted their criticism.

When approached by some media for comment last week, I said we would have to wait and see how the Sunday Times responded. If they had it wrong, they would have to grovel. If they got it right, they would produce the evidence. Let’s not jump to conclusions — after all, it is a large and powerful paper with a formidable reputation. Where there’s smoke, I was thinking….

I understand now that the Sunday Times team is checking the story and will respond in good time. They chose not to tell us this — and leave us guessing. The unavoidable implication is that a week after publishing the story, they are uncertain if it was right or wrong. That does not look good.

I am the first to say that the news media make mistakes under pressure. Sometimes they get suckered by a bad source, sometimes they just get it wrong. The expectation that they produce accurate history in the first, rushed draft is not a realistic one. The suggestion that they be more cautious leads quickly to boring and self-censoring newspapers — the kind governments love and readers hate. Newspapers have to provoke us and make us sit up and think — and while they have to keep themselves in check with accuracy and caution, sometimes they lose their balance.

BUT the Sunday Times’ difficulty is that last week they also ran a ruling by the press ombud that went against them. The ombud found that they had “hyped up unnecessarily” accusations against Land Bank officials. That is much the same charge they are facing in the allegations they published a few weeks ago, charging that the president had accepted R30m from one of the arms deals companies, giving the bulk of it to the African National Congress and R2m to Jacob Zuma.

The difficulty was not that they reported that this allegation had been made by a British risk assessment company — it is that they treated it as fact. We awaited the follow-up evidence, and it has not come yet.

What is going on at the Sunday Times?

Part of the reason is that the much- respected editor Mondli Makhanya and his paper are under pressure. There is a great deal of political pressure, because he is certainly not finding favour with the powers that be. Their problem is not where the paper may have got it wrong but where they got it right, such as in their treatment of the health minister.

Also, the Sunday Times has launched a high-risk and costly daily edition and ventured boldly into the online world and this has inevitably drawn on their resources and cause tensions in their operation.

Newspaper sales are looking flaccid. Sunday Times’ total sales are pegged at just more than 500000, but the number they give away in bulk deals and handouts has been growing — a sign that they are having to prop up their numbers.

The Sunday Times is a formidable institution and Makhanya one of their bravest and strongest editors. I would caution against jumping on the bandwagon with those who want to use what appears to be a speed wobble to knock him or the newspaper off track. Let’s remember how much they have got right in recent years, and hope they fix what they got wrong.

* Harber is Caxton Professor of Journalism at Wits University. This column first appeared in Business Day on 3 September 2008.