Journalism of courage

2014-04-16 00:00

I WAS surprised at the end of last week when I picked up a message on Twitter from former Witness editor Angela Quintal, now editor of the Mail and Guardian , and Daily Dispatch editor Bongani Siqoko, congratulating The Witness team.

It turns out that we made the short-listed finalists for South Africa’s most prestigious investigative journalism awards, the Taco Kuiper Award for Investigative Journalism, which were presented in Johannesburg last week. We were all so busy working, we couldn’t take a break to attend the ceremony!

This is a really tough competition, with dozens of entries from some of the real big-hitters in investigative reporting from print and broadcasting, including the Mail and Guardian’s investigative team and from the Sunday Times .

Rowan Philp, Jonathan Erasmus and Mhlabunzima Memela from The Witness entered their series of reports on Jay Singh, the tycoon connected to the Tongaat Mall collapse; a collection of thorough reporting, including some demanding investigative work on deadline.

The overall, and without a doubt the most deserving, winners were the amaBhungane team from the Mail and Guardian for their sterling work on the Nkandla saga, including their successful access to information battle, which revealed thousands of pages of documents relating to this story, which continues to dominate headlines.

Joint runners-up were the Sunday Times for its stories which ultimately toppled Communications Minister Dina Pule, and Carte Blanche for its expose of a major housing tender scandal.

For The Witness to be in contention against such quality work is a feather in our cap and provides some reward and acknowledgement for a lot of hard work that the team have been putting in over the past six months.

I was also thrilled to see my former newspaper alma mater, the Daily Dispatch , up there on the short list. We may be smaller, regional papers, but there’s no reason why the puppies can’t run with the dogs.

I’ve written before about the importance of investigative reporting in this column space and there is an increasing consensus among media pundits that this is a field deserving of significant investment, especially by print publications facing major challenges from digital platforms.

The volume of Taco Kuiper Awards entries shows that investigative reporting is alive and well in South Africa, despite the economic environment that we operate in. Anton Harber, Caxton professor of journalism and media studies at Wits University, and the convenor of judges for the competition, observed: “Despite cutbacks in newsrooms, there are journalists playing a crucial role in ensuring accountability in the state and private sectors, oiling the machinery of our democracy with a journalism of determination and courage.”

Your Witness, I’m pleased to say, includes these journalists.

I think it’s worth sharing some insight into how demanding this kind of work is. It is hard enough to do even with substantial resources and a dedicated team at your disposal — as I had when editing the Media24 Investigations team — but doing this journalism in daily newspapers running on the sniff of an oil rag requires Herculean efforts.

Each day that a reporter is given the time and space to focus his or her work on an investigative piece of significance means other colleagues are carrying an extra load. Any acknowledgment like we enjoyed last week is an acknowledgement of the efforts of everyone who bring this paper out, and not only the reporters whose names are on the stories.

The great gamble with this kind of reporting is that you can spend weeks pursuing leads and sources, only to hit a dead end at the end of it. There’s absolutely no guarantee about what lies at the end of your hunt, and in today’s staff- and time-stressed newsrooms, that’s often a gamble too rich for most.

The Witness faces the same challenges that all South African papers do currently. We have had to slash costs, reduce staff and do all the other things media entities are doing to remain competitive.

But we will also make the effort to invest in instilling a DNA of investigative journalism in our paper’s culture. It’s important that we do this for the society we serve and it’s also important for the profession that we cherish. While realities mean we are unlikely to produce this kind of work each week, I’m confident The Witness will not be a one-trick pony. For example, we have been working on an investigative project now for nearly three months: a gripping tale of crime, greed and what the consequences are for you, which we hope to begin publishing soon.

Watch this space.

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• Twitter: @andrewtrench

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