A dinkum scoop

2014-10-29 00:00

I RUBBED my hands in glee last Thursday afternoon as Witness chief reporter Rowan Philp skipped into the newsroom with a dinkum, old-school scoop in his pocket.

Philp had been chasing down a lead floated two days earlier suggesting that delegates from the Russian state nuclear energy company Rosatom were in Kwa­Zulu-Natal, holding a secret presentation for South African energy officials as they pitched for the country’s R1 trillion nuclear energy deal.

As so often happens in stories like this, a bit of hard-nosed sleuthing and a handy dollop of luck led Philp to a Drakensberg resort where he had reason to believe the talks were going down.

The two of us debated whether it was worth him taking a bit of a flyer on an even-odds chance that his information was correct.

Figuring he could get no more value working the phones, we decided that he should take the chance, book into the resort and do some snooping around. So off he dashed, toothbrush tucked into his back pocket and notebook secreted away to see what he could find.

A day later, he had a well-baked scoop for The Witness to trumpet on the front page under the headline “Secret KZN nuke talks”. It turns out his information was spot on and the secretive pitch to the South Africans was going on in the central Drakensberg resort.

Philp audaciously eavesdropped on proceedings he was able to access, snuck around the outskirts of breakaway sessions and gathered a good deal of information before, on being ejected from one sensitive session, announcing himself as a journalist from The Witness to the astonishment of the officials there.

To their credit, the South African officials were pretty open with him once they realised who he was, and he came back with a brilliant story and some useful on-the-record material from some of the leading energy officials.

Besides giving us a great story, it was worth doing because it gave us an unmitigated peep into the early deliberations surrounding a potential deal which our children’s children will still be paying for, and which could fundamentally change the fortunes of South Africa.

What struck Philp — and which he reflected in his reporting — was how the South African officials were grilling the Russians on the specifications and capabilities of the technology they were pitching to us. The tone of the discussions he witnessed were in stark contrast to the early steam of conspiracy rising over this deal, which suggests that the Russians are a shoo-in after a supposed deal done with President Jacob Zuma on a recent visit to Moscow.

What Philp witnessed and reported on gives me some confidence that our officials, if not our politicians, are doing their jobs with candour and vigour, and certainly were not sitting there to rubber-stamp an apparent “done deal”.

It was a reminder of why transparency over deals of this magnitude is so important, especially when you consider the pong that still hangs over the arms deal, which the latest commission of inquiry is doing little to fan away nearly two decades after the fact.

Imagine if all the pitches to be done by the Chinese, French and others happened in an open forum where the citizens of this country — who will be footing the bill ultimately — get to hear what is being promised and how our representatives are engaging with potential vendors. The public interest in that would trump televising the Oscar Pistorius trial by a clear mile.

But what thrilled me the most about our exclusive was that it was true to the essence of what our masthead proclaims and which I wish we could live up to more regularly — being a witness.

Resource constraints make this difficult to achieve daily, but there’s nothing to beat “being there” at ground zero on a news story as the eyes and ears of our readers.

The credibility of a story told by a reporter as witness cannot be compared to a compilation of source accounts. I wish we could do it more often and it remains our daily challenge.

But, finally, I relished Philp’s recounting of the astonished South African officials’ reaction when he popped up in the Berg. “How did you know we were here?” they asked.

To which I would reply: “Because you are in Witness country, my friends. That’s how.”

• E-mail: andrew.trench@witness.co.za

• Twitter: @andrewtrench

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