Keep journalism honest – no matter how ugly the truth

South African rugby fans bade farewell to James Small on Thursday. The controversial Springbok winger died the week before after a suspected heart attack – and the obituarists had their work cut out sidestepping the crash tackles that were his personal life.

Most succeeded, some simply went the easy route and air-brushed it. And then life, as it always does, came back with a vengeance. He’d died, said Rapport on Sunday, naked on a gurney in a Bedfordview hospital, having been delivered to its doorstep from a sex club. Given his life story it was a deeply ironic, though incredibly apt, epitaph.

Within hours of the scoop, the fight back began. Two of his team mates from the now mythologised 1995 World Cup winning side appealed for media circumspection on behalf of Small’s minor children. One former well known radio broadcaster was choleric in an open letter to Rapport on Facebook saying many other ‘respected’ journalists had known the exact same story but had chosen not to break it.

Two weeks ago, the Daily Maverick ran an incredible piece of enterprise journalism when veteran journalist Marianne Thamm took it upon herself to go through the rubbish left outside a luxury villa in Cape Town’s ultra-upmarket Atlantic seaboard which had been rented by the populist pro-poor Economic Freedom Fighters. Her ensuing report seemed to unequivocally prove the shameless hypocrisy of what many have always believed underpins the EFF.

The reaction was binary. Some were appalled that any journalist would pore over rubbish and report on the volume of used and unused condoms among the legions of empty booze bottles. Others rejoiced, because it affirmed their long-held prejudices. 

When my friend and former colleague Brendan Seery poked holes into the underlying logic of the story after its publication – and its poor execution – he was vilified, mostly by journalists who you’d expect to know better, effectively for being a sell-out. Nobody argued with him on the merits. 

The backlash this week against Rapport has elements of the same.

You can’t have it both ways. If the media is properly free and independent, there’s going to come a time when it asks questions and runs stories that are deeply discomfiting, shaking our cosseted social media echo chambers.

Media freedom is not the freedom to read news that you agree with, it’s actually the very difficult obligation on editors to publish news and exposes with which they actually might abhor, but which need to be aired so that the truth can come out. It’s also about keeping journalism honest – and to an even higher degree of scrutiny than these watchdogs of society exert over others, otherwise that freedom itself becomes perverted.

Knowing the truth and choosing not to run it or speak out when public interest demands it – out of respect for someone’s sensitivities – is censorship. Real journalists fight against that, irrespective of whether the pressure to do so is external or in house. 

Those who don’t are fans with laptops; writers, columnists even, but certainly not journalists. When that happens, our blushes might be spared, but we are all a lot poorer because of it.

Published by the Saturday Star on 20 July 2021.