For a celebrated purveyor of truth, Jacques Pauw lied to suit his own narrative

There’s an old adage in journalism; when you get it wrong, apologise quickly, prominently and sincerely. It’s something that Jacques Pauw seems to have taken to heart.

On Tuesday, he issued a full and grovelling mea culpa for a piece he’d written and which the Daily Maverick had published the week before. The article in question was a first-person account of something that had happened to him, it wasn’t an “opinion piece”.

He’d been out at a restaurant at the Cape Town waterfront two Saturdays ago; his credit card bounced, he left intending to draw the money at an ATM, but was arrested instead and put in the cells overnight. He also accused the cops of stealing R1000 in cash. 

Last Friday, his article alleging all of this was posted by the website. The response was as quick as it was predictable and prejudiced – because what he claimed rang true to so many readers’ beliefs: that the police are corrupt, that privileged people are preyed on at the Waterfront and elsewhere. It also helped that Pauw was a highly celebrated investigative journalist, most recently famed for writing an acclaimed expose on former President Jacob Zuma.

The only problem was that it never happened. The only true parts were that his credit card bounced and that he was arrested. Not even the R1000 in cash had been stolen – at least not by the police. The officers hadn’t been summoned by the restaurant, they’d been in the vicinity and heard the affray.

This all became clear to Pauw after he was shown CCTV footage of the entire incident – and so he apologised, fulsomely and unequivocally. He had, by his own account, been drunk and deeply ashamed of being arrested. The worrying thing is why he thought he could get away with it in the first place. It’s even more embarrassing for his publishers. The answer unfortunately to both is privilege: professional, class and, possibly, ethnic.

It’s a salutary lesson for all of us: For journalists who have an increasing tendency to insert themselves into their own stories, for editors who trust some sources unquestioningly and for a public that desperately wants to believe their heroes.

It’s difficult to see how Pauw will recover from this self-inflicted wound. For a self-styled and celebrated purveyor of truth, he lied – repeatedly – to suit his own narrative. He played on exactly the same identity politics that have been part and parcel of the predicament we find ourselves in. His own goal, gifted the RET lobby a win against him that they could never otherwise have achieved. They will flog it to the death against him – and try to use it analogously to rubbish the motives of other investigative journalists and the merits of their work.

But equally, let’s not forget that Pauw did own up. He did take responsibility. He did apologise – very publicly. It’s a rare trinity of accountability and remorse in this day and age, especially in South Africa. 

Let’s not get too Pauw-faced as we put the boot in. He’s certainly not the first and, sadly, he won’t be the last.

Originally published by the Saturday Star on 20 February 2021.