Monday, March 29, 2010

Business Day: "...and a spunky little community paper called the Highlands Herald of Mpumalanga"

From This year's bumper crop of entries for the Taco Kuiper awards represents cheerful proof that SA's journalists are breaking solid investigative stories regularly, writes Anton Harber in Business Day.

Anton Harber writes in Business Day:

SOUTH African journalists — at least some of them — can hold their heads up high and stop flagellating themselves. Something has revived in at least some of our media — the fighting spirit that is essential to keeping our country’s leaders on their toes.

In recent months, the talk in media has been of cutbacks in newsrooms around the world, closures of titles, consolidation and the loss of senior and experienced journalists. We have been asking what would happen to in-depth journalism when newsrooms did not have the time and resources to do the digging. And what will this mean for democracy?

Well, I have good news for you (and bad news for the scoundrels of politics and business).

I spent some time in the past few weeks as part of the panel of judges for the country’s biggest journalism awards, the Taco Kuiper Prize for Investigative Reporting. In previous years, we have received about a dozen entries, never more than 16, and only a few were contenders.

This year, the entries flooded in — a total of 44, and the standard across the board was much higher than ever before. They came from television, radio, internet sites and print. Entries were received for the first time from SABC,, Radio 702, Politicsweb, Sake24, Business Times and a spunky little community paper called the Highlands Herald of Mpumalanga. Others came from Noseweek, City Press, M-Net’s Carte Blanche, Sunday Times, Mail & Guardian and the Daily Dispatch.

What it showed us was that, despite the tough financial climate, there were pockets of dedicated journalists in many places doing hard work and great stories. One does not always notice the pattern from week to week, as these stories are scattered and sporadic, but look at them lined up together and it amounts to nearly one good muckraking story breaking every week somewhere in the country.

Journalists took the government to task, but also the private sector. It was not just the usual stories about corruption, but also tales of environmental degradation, xenophobia, animal welfare, white- collar crime, prosecutors who plagiarise dubious opinions to get their political bosses off the hook, the police’s shoot-to-kill policies and even sport issues in the form of the Leonard Chuene affair.

It was an amazing array of material, most of it well produced, powerfully presented and full of impact. It was the most cheering thing I have seen in South African journalism for some time.

The notable gap was in radio, which drew only one entry. It is a great pity, because radio is our most popular medium and a wonderful platform for nailing no-goodniks.

It is still true that there is less reporting of essential daily matters such as the courts, the city and town councils. It is true that in the routine stuff, there is too much reliance on PR handouts, and too many free lunches, trips and cars.

But we are doing well on the big stories that tackle the powerful and the wealthy. We are not talking here about stories where journalists were handed information by politicians to trash their rivals. Or where documents were slipped under the door. We are talking about endurance journalism, where reporters have taken the time and trouble to push and to probe and to piece together evidence to make a story, often over months and with great courage, taking on the worst elements of our power structures.

It may not be public policy to do lifestyle audits of politicians, but the media is doing it anyway. Parliament may be slack in forcing the president to declare his assets, but newspapers are on the case. Our public prosecutor will know that when he compromises his independence, reporters will be all over him. The ruling party might hire a spokesman who commits fraud and owes money all over town, but you can be sure it will make the front pages. The president’s friends may use deceit to get out of prison early, but there is no escaping the photographers.

There will be one entrant who will take home the big prize next Friday, March 26, but the big winner is our democracy.

- Harber is Caxton Professor of Journalism at Wits University. This column first appeared in Business day on 24 March 2010.

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