More to the news

2008-05-16 00:00

Ithink we, members of the public, are often disadvantaged by our ignorance of what lies behind the sensational and superficial stories we read in the media. Perhaps it is because we don’t want to know any more that we appear to be satisfied by scraps of knowledge, the tastiest morsels which lack the nutrition to stimulate our intelligence. Newspapers demand shorter articles because, they claim, readers do not want to read too much. Often it is impossible to do justice to a particular issue, however, when the meat of the argument is removed in the interests of brevity and a captivating headline. Opinion pieces written by analysts or professional commentators are more stimulating, but they reflect, inevitably, particular points of view and, because we know this, we do not expect them to give us the unqualified truth. That we expect to find in the news article, even though experience tells us that the quality of journalism is often indifferent and there is little in-depth exploration of the news item so that we may be presented with the full, and unbiased, picture.

Consider, for example, what we really know about the Scorpions. The media have led us to believe, variously, that Thabo Mbeki and his supporters have used the crack unit to deal with political enemies, that the Scorpions are above reproach, or that Jacob Zuma’s faction want them disbanded because they have been vigorous in pursuing some of the new African National Congress president’s supporters. The opposition has come out strongly in support of the retention of the Scorpions because, I suspect, this standpoint is thought to have greater appeal among critics of the Zuma camp, if not the ANC government. We have all been led to believe that the work performed by the Scorpions will cease once the unit folds and that the specialist campaign against organised crime will be abandoned. Recently, it has been suggested that a good deal of the talent in the unit will be lost to other countries. Do we think so little of the SAPS that we cannot conceive of it accommodating its own highly specialised unit comprising people with equal skills, or even many of the specialists themselves?

I ask the question: what do you know, as opposed to what you think you know, about the Scorpions? For my part, I know very little. I cannot say whether they have made a difference to the incidence of crime and corruption. They have been successful in some prosecutions, but less so in others. Some prosecutions have been averted by plea bargains and whether these have been good, bad or indifferent in terms of the pursuit of fair justice, I have no way of knowing. While some high-profile people have been brought to book, others have not, apparently. In our city, there has been some activity on the Scorpions’ part. This seems to have been accompanied by raids of quite intimidating nature — lots of raiders, screeching tyres, unmarked vehicles and the like. And with the media almost always on hand to record the event. That has puzzled me, for it is inconsistent with a neutral and professional police operation that the media should be informed in advance of such actions. Moreover, despite the theatrical fanfare of the raids, almost all the cases being investigated following these inaugural sallies, seem to have fizzled out, at least in terms of prosecution and consequence. Maybe more has happened than we know, for it is also in the nature of the media and the public to lose interest once sensational novelty has passed. Were these cases not so serious after all? Or was there some other agenda being played out?

If we believe what we are told, we will be left with the notion that our leaders are essentially empty-headed. And yet, this matter of the Scorpions has been extensively investigated by the scrutiny of models to be found in other countries and precedents, for exactly the kind of accountability issues that became so controversial in South Africa. The debate, which has raged outside of the public earshot, is influenced greatly by matters of principle and is, in fact, a far cry from the whims of two opposing political factions. There is no intention of weakening the ability of the government to pursue the perpetrators of organised crime. Even the worst of political leaders would be unlikely to countenance such dereliction. In order for the fundamental issues and underlying principles to be brought to the notice of a gullible public, sound media management was required. Unfortunately, this has been absent and in the vacuum we have been deprived of the chance to apply our minds instead of just our hearts.

• Andrew Layman is a former headmaster and now the CEO of the Pietermaritzburg Chamber of Business.

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