A real-life soap opera called ‘Journalism’

2009-12-15 00:00

PEOPLE are often puzzled when I cannot participate in conversations about the latest goings-on of characters in popular TV soaps. They just cannot believe that I really don’t watch Generations, Isidingo or The Cold and the Beautified. What they don’t understand is that I don’t need to because I’m a journalist.

In the course of an ordinary day at the office, we often witness the unfolding of story lines more fantastical about characters more fictional than the average scriptwriter dreams up.

Take last month, for example. It fell to me to follow up on a story about a Richmond* man who was in trouble with authorities in Turkey, apparently through no fault of his own. “Just call his wife and get an update,” they said. The telephone book, Yellow Pages and calls to Telkom inquiries revealed no one called Richard and Maureen Mockingbird* living anywhere near Richmond and my contacts there couldn’t help either.

Inquiries to the local offices of the multinational corporations involved, an advertising agency and a beverage giant, garnered rebuffs varying from almost polite to what my British grandmother would have called “ill-mannered and uncivilised”. They were as much help as an e-mail to a government department spokesperson. Mockingbird was a professional, so I checked with the representative body, but he wasn’t a member.

Facebook couldn’t help and neither could Google, except that it turned up a James Richard Mockingbird living in the Northern Cape. I e-mailed him on the off chance that he might be the son of the luckless Richard.

An echoey voice curdled with suspicion reverberated all the way from Somewherebabieb like the wind blowing across the red Kalahari. “Yes,” he said, “The man is my father, but I’ve had no contact for 20 years and where on Earth is Richmond?”

However, he did give me his mother’s contact details, and that’s where the story-behind-the-story overtook the actual story. As is often the case, it never got written. Despite what journophobes (people who hate journalists and newspapers) believe, we really don’t write stories based on rumour, conjecture and thumb-sucks.

“That’s a tall story,” said the voice on the end of the line when I told the woman about the hapless Richard’s Turkish plight. “That one, he’s a con artist of note,” she said, sounding appalled and amused in equal measure. It turned out that she was the first wife of the man in question and had had several children with him. “He’s been married at least four times since I divorced him and I don’t think he’s married to his current partner, who is number five, or maybe it’s six? He’s got children all over the world. I wouldn’t believe his story for a moment.

“As far as I know he lives in Richard’s Bay but his current partner has a property in Richmond. I don’t know her surname, so I can’t help you find her.” None of the phone numbers she gave me for Richard were current, so the trail went cold.

I am endlessly fascinated by the way people respond when we ring up and say “Hello, I’m so-and-so from The Witness”, or sit in front of them with a notebook or tape recorder. Although there are those whose panicked stuttering is inaudible over the slamming of personal doors and shutters, many others bubble up and spill over like a desert spring after a drought. Give them a chance to talk, and many say things they didn’t mean to and probably shouldn’t have. People often respond as though we are priests, sometimes sheltering under the phrase “off the record” as believers seek sanctuary in a priest’s vow of confidentiality.

As a journalist, I’ve heard many stories never told to anyone, not even a priest. I’ve listened to tales of prostitution, abusive childhoods, illegal price fixing in the construction industry, bribery in business, corruption in government, homosexual affairs and a murder committed in the fifties. None of these stories have ever made it into print, because, as I said, not only do we not write stories based on rumour, conjecture and thumb-sucks, but I’m also busy writing a script for a soap opera called Newsroom.

* Names and details changed.

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