10 babies – someone should have fact-checked

This was another bad week for South African journalism – in a year that’s already had its share. After crowing of a world exclusive for more than a week, editor Piet Rampedi was forced to concede that he had been duped about a Tembisa woman giving birth to 10 babies.

His humiliation was complete when her partner’s family issued a statement saying they believed they had been lied to – and that there weren’t any babies. As the story spun on its axis, the media industry turned on itself.

Rampedi has as many enemies as he has fans. There is no middle ground; for his haters, Rampedi is either a complicit pawn of the RET-istas or a victim of his own overweening hubris who was so determined to ignore the gaping holes in the logic of the story that he fell through it and killed his career. For his fans, Piet is a hero who says the things that the Thuma Minions won’t, who showed the promises of the New Dawn to be false by exposing the PPE rot.

The factionalism spreads to industry watchdogs; SANEF was so fast out of the blocks to condemn your head would have spun, until you realise what an easy target Rampedi and Independent’s proprietor Iqbal Surve are. They are loathed by much of the SANEF’s membership almost as much as Rampedi and Surve detest them as viscerally in return.

Much will be said about the speed and tenor of Sanef’s statement, its meaning will be parsed in an orgy of whataboutism, South Africa’s post-apartheid moral relativism that will kill us far more surely than the slow asphyxiation of state capture.

And that’s the problem. As everyone tries to settle scores or dodge responsibility by rehashing other crimes, no one is held to account. Rampedi, like his former arch media enemy Jacques Pauw, will forever have to live with his editorial decisions, but the caravan will – and already has – march on. 

What the industry needs to look at is the collateral damage; another break in the supposed golden thread of trust in a public that is already so fickle it no longer supports sustainable media but craves the clickbait of fake news – only to hypocritically turn in disgust when someone points it out for what it is. We are living in a time of the greatest access to information and yet we have never been so misinformed, because we believe what we want to believe. We have never needed credible media more than we do now, but often journalists are their own worst enemies.

There are plenty of red faces this week – and deservedly so.

This should be a time of quiet introspection and humility. But it’s unlikely. What will happen instead will be a witch hunt to find out how they were taken for a ride. A vulnerable woman will be burnt at the stake of injured propriety. If that happens, that will be the biggest crime of all. 

It wasn’t her fault that we believed her. It was our fault that no one checked. 

Originally published by the Saturday Star on 19 June 2021.