New culture of verification, scrutiny and caution needed in journalism, says Anton Harber

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Anton Harber
Anton Harber
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  • The launch of veteran journalist Anton Harber's new book took place virtually on Thursday evening.
  • Harber was in conversation with journalist and author Jacques Pauw.
  • He said more investigations were needed to uncover those who were corrupt and to investigate the roles of state security agencies.

Veteran journalist Anton Harber has said closer and further investigations are needed into who is corrupt and the role of state security agencies in corruption over the years.

Harber spoke on Thursday evening during the virtual launch of his new book So, for the record: Behind the Headlines in an Era of State Capture.

He said this while answering a question from former SA Revenue Service (SARS) executive Johan van Loggerenberg on why it was not front page and constant news that major media houses and journalists were manipulated, coerced and played by the "state capture gang, rogue intelligence operatives and criminals". Harber was also asked why media houses were not following through with the state capture and rogue unit topic.

In his book, Harber lays bare the role of the State Security Agency in "playing" the media during former president Jacob Zuma's presidency and also delves into good and bad journalism during the state capture era.

EXTRACT | So, for the record: Behind the headlines in an era of state capture

He said more investigations and examinations were needed to uncover state security agencies' roles in state capture because not all had been revealed.

"And it is something we have to confront and deal with. I think people are mistakenly saying we have to move on; we're over state capture. Some people argue that. Others are, I think, quite nervous but digging deeply into this phenomenon.

"It seems to me that if we are to tackle brown envelope journalism, if we are to tackle the problem of whether or not some journalists have been corrupted themselves, we need this to come with. And I think while the people who did the investigations into state security agencies did an important and good job, they didn't go deep enough.

"Their brief was not to go deep enough to say these were the people who were corrupted in the process and the truth is we need to know that," Harber said.

Speaking to journalist and author Jacques Pauw during the launch, he reflected on the mistakes in the reporting of the Sunday Times in 2014 around the controversial SARS rogue unit. Harber said the publication's reportage was "without a question" the worst he had encountered.

Some of the stories he and Pauw highlighted were how the publication reported that Van Loggerenberg had made a confession to former SARS commissioner Tom Moyane that there was a rogue unit, and a trail of other reporting around the rogue unit for more than two years.

About whether he thought the reporting was the worst he had encountered, Harber answered: "There is no question, because even if you take the most benign explanation that they started by making errors on these stories, and you have to be really benign to see that because as you say the evidence either didn't exist or was so thin or they just ignored the counter evidence."

Harber said: 

But on the most benign, okay... the brothel story you get caught because it sounds very juicy but it becomes immediately apparent and then you have Van Loggerenberg and Adrian Lackay, and the SARS people say 'where on earth do you get this from? It's just not true' – but they just persisted and dug their hole deeper and deeper instead of allowing any counter story, they just stuck with their story over years. Dozens of stories. It is the most consistently bad journalism I've seen over a period of time.

ALSO READ | SARS 'rogue unit' reports: Former Sunday Times journalist apologises to Johann van Loggerenberg

He added it was also "extraordinarily bad" that it took the publication so long – and a change of editor – to retract and apologise for its stories.

Answering a question on what needed to change to ensure the mistakes of the Sunday Times were not repeated, Harber said there needed to be a change in how journalism was done.

He said work also needed to be done on the basis that there were different and conflicting narratives.

"You have to remain open-minded to the other side of the story, and you have to constantly say to yourself that getting it right is more important than rushing it into press because that's often what they did."

A new culture of verification, scrutiny and caution was now needed, Harber said.

He added getting a story right meant accepting stories were complicated and there were competing narratives, which both needed to be dealt with.

Last year, News24 reported that former Sunday Times journalist Malcolm Rees apologised to Van Loggerenberg over the rogue unit reports by the newspaper in 2014.

Rees claimed his articles had been edited and was different to the final draft that left the inbox of his then-direct editor Rob Rose hours before it went to print.

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