In order to do their job, journalists need to keep faith with their audiences, writes editor Mondli Makhanya in his column in the Sunday Times. In a week when the paper ran a front-page article backing away from a much-criticised report that Transnet had sold a section of Table Bay, Makhanya says the paper will be tightening up on internal procedures.  

Sunday Times Editor Mondli Makhanya writes:

The Sunday Times is not about to give up on its proud tradition of bold reporting and laying out the truth in its most naked form.

But in order to do that, we have to maintain the intimate trust relationship we have with our readers

It was French writer Marguerite Duras who uttered these words: “Journalism without a moral position is impossible. Every journalist is a moralist. It’s absolutely unavoidable.”

Cynics will snigger at this and say that we are just a tribe that rummages through closets and hangs around smoke-filled bars in search of the next sensational headline. They would say that “morality” and “media” cannot be used in the same sentence.

We would obviously argue otherwise.

One of the main things that attracts journalists to this profession is a sense of idealism — a belief that the world can be better and that each human can do their little bit to make it more livable. And our bit is to tell stories: we inform our readers about their world and their societies, we entertain them, we anger them sometimes, and sometimes we make them sad and despondent.

We go where many others are not willing to go: tramping through damp swamps, dodging dangerous people and taking risks that would not make sense to other humans.

But we do it because, in our deepest of hearts, truth is our calling.

Most importantly, we hold power to account — be it state, corporate or social power.

Sometimes we do this well and sometimes we do not do so as throughly as we should.

We are not angels and — as idealistic as we are — we have never purported to be on a higher plane than the rest of human society. Just as others make mistakes, so will we.

And when we do, it is incumbent on us to say sorry — sorry not only to those we have hurt, but to the readers who consume our information.

This newspaper has been under fire from various quarters in recent weeks over a front-page apology we ran regarding stories on the Land Bank, and a story about Transnet’s sale of the V&A Waterfront.

Much has been said by all and sundry on the V&A matter, and the Sunday Times has been castigated for inaccurate reporting. The fact that the story ran on the day we published a front-page apology exacerbated matters and gave ammunition to those seeking to undermine the credibility of this 102-year-old institution.

It would be worth talking a bit about the role of journalists beyond reproducing the press release and regurgitating the media conference — a sure-fire way to stay out of trouble.

In conducting our reporting, we journalists rely on public documents, secret documents, live sources and the public platforms where issues are discussed.

Where the documentation is inadequate and the live sourcing is stronger, we do our utmost to verify and cross-verify our facts.

We are always conscious that sources have agendas, and we do not simply swallow a source’s word, hook, line and sinker.

Sometimes the subject of a story is able to respond strongly to one’s sourced information with hard documentation, and sometimes it’s a case of smoke and mirrors.

These are the travails of journalism, particularly when the stakes are high. Sometimes the spin machine is just so much more powerful than the truth.

As the Sunday Times, we are aware that the information we publish — no matter how accurate we believe it to be — has to be irrefutable, regardless of the nature of the source.

We owe this not to ourselves, but to the nearly four million people whose weekly diet this newspaper is. We respect our readers and we want them to believe every single word they read on our pages and to trust the information that we share with them in this Sunday conversation called the Sunday Times.

At the same time we do not want to be held back from unearthing nefarious activities by those with powerful spin machines and legal firms with names the length of psalms.

That would be the death of journalism, and South Africa would be done a great disservice.

One of the great successes of our democratic breakthrough was the entrenchment of media freedom, which has spawned a myriad voices and a strong culture of questioning. This has also resulted in pockets of excellent investigative journalism, which in itself is risky business. When you conduct investigative journalism, you necessarily expose yourself to being shot down, both literally and figuratively.

The risk of being silenced is even higher when those being questioned are upstanding members of society and have the means to hit back hard.

The Sunday Times is not about to give up on its proud tradition of bold reporting and laying out the truth in its most naked form.

But in order to do that, we have to maintain the intimate trust relationship we have with our readers.

In this regard we will be embarking on a process of reviewing the way we do our journalism, and strengthening our verification and authentication mechanisms. This will be an honest, critical look at ourselves.

We will be commissioning a panel of eminent individuals who will help us through this process.

We hope to grow from the slings and arrows that have been shot in our direction in recent weeks and emerge a superior newspaper that is able to tell the truth without hindrance, and help create a morally upright republic.

If we fail you in any way, reader, tell us — and tell us loudly.

*Makhanya is editor of the Sunday Times.  This column appeared in the newspaper on 7 September 2008.