11 questions an editor should have asked Marianne Thamm before publishing her trash piece

Brendan Seery.

Brendan Seery.

Just because one may not like the EFF, or think they’re hypocrites, doesn’t mean we should leave our standards at the door.

Last week, journalist Marianne Thamm ignited a huge debate with her self-proclaimed “trash journalism” piece in the Daily Maverick about what she allegedly found in rubbish bags allegedly filled by members of the EFF when they were staying in Cape Town. (I use allegedly because, as you will see, proof or real evidence is conspicuous by its absence in her article).

The story would never have made it into The Citizen print newspaper in the form it appeared on the Daily Maverick website. And that is not, please note, because we are EFF groupies. It’s because we take the craft of journalism seriously.

Let’s leave aside the basic premise of the story, which is a separate debate. My view is that if we were to pursue every instance of hypocrisy shown by politicians, businesspeople or even ordinary citizens, we would have little space left for anything else in the media.

It is far more hypocritical for a journalist to proclaim herself a valiant, investigative crusader against injustice and hypocrisy by ignoring the very tenets of the craft of reporting – which are that there need to be verifiable facts and evidential connections.

We are not police investigators or prosecutors, but we are the next best thing and it is our duty – especially in this age of fake news – to get the basics right

Had this piece been put through a proper news editing process, it would have been sent back with these questions and comments to be answered by the reporter.

1) What is the relevance of saying the “villa” the EFF party stayed in costs between R7,100 and R25,000 a night, when you later say the party paid R60,000 for eight nights’ stay? This works out to R7,500 a night. In other words, your story might well have said: “EFF scores bargain in luxury accommodation.”

2) How many people were in the house? You don’t say. If you were able to get information on the amount paid and who made the booking, as well as little snippets of gossip from “neighbours”, surely that wouldn’t have been too difficult?

3) The house has four bedrooms. What if these were occupied by four EFF officials, each with a partner? This would run out at less than R1,000 a night per person. Hardly splashing out … The point is there has been no attempt to deal with possible alternative explanations.

4) You went through the bags on June 29 – two days after the EFF checked out. How do you know all the bags of trash were theirs? How do you know that other bags were not added by other residents of the “villa” after the EFF left?

5) You say there were 14 bags and they were “left out in the street”. Where is the evidence that they were all from the EFF, or even that the seven of the 14 bags you went through were from the EFF? And a few ticket stubs with Mbyuseni Nldozi’s name in one bag is not evidence.

6) You say that the “city council was due to collect the bags that morning”. Could it be that other people in the road put their bags out along with the others, as often happens on refuse collection days?

7) You took pictures of the bottles of booze but none of the bags in situ. That is either journalistic incompetence or deliberate.

8) How do you know the clothing tags – showing purchases at H&M, the chain targeted by EFF protesters last year – came from goods bought by EFF members? If you had their names on paper, like receipts, you could have edited out the private information, surely?

9) Your communication with Ndlozi is not a request for comment or for answers. It is a political rant against the EFF for their “hypocrisy” for living the high life while preaching revolution. It forms the basis of your article. It has no place in a news story. This is ideological opinion, not fact.

10) You mention “R40,000 damage” to the villa. What damage? Did they break windows? Smash the TV? Break the fridge? What was your source? This is no better than rumour-mongering.

11) The same goes for the “women” you say were seen outside the house after the EFF had left. No detail, just innuendo (look it up … this piece is full of it.)

This looks like the reporter started out wanting to nail the EFF and assembled half-facts, gossip and innuendo to do so.

What is worrying about this piece is not only the fact that it made it into a reputable news site in this form, but that many of the people praising it are journalists (although mainly of the white, liberal, variety). They have been unable to look past their prejudices against the EFF to ask the pertinent questions. And that damages all of us in journalism. When I get challenged about fake or sloppy reporting and someone uses this piece as an example, how do I defend journalism?

This also shows that, in our journalism in this country, there are certain people who are perceived to be “bad” – by popular acclamation in ranks of the aforementioned journalists – and, therefore they do not deserve the respect of proper, thorough, reporting. It’s quite a long list, but it includes the late Dr Manto Tshabalala-Msimang (accused by the Sunday Times of being a drunk without a shred of real evidence); Robert Mugabe, Julius Malema, Jacob Zuma, Helen Zille, AfriForum, Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin. Anything can be written about these people and whatever is written is usually defended by emotional, ad hominem attacks on critics of such writing.

I am fully expecting the latter, but I don’t care. I know what I have done in journalism and I am proud of it. And I do know what real investigative journalism is. I’ve been there, I’ve done it. And, when I haven’t had enough evidence, I’ve walked away from many juicy stories.

In one of her responses to criticism I made on a Facebook site for SA journos, Thamm remarked: “That is why you work for The Citizen and I work for the Daily Maverick.”

To that is there is only one appropriate response: Thank goodness for that.

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