‘Most consistent bad journalism I’ve seen over period of time’ – Anton Harber on ‘rogue unit’

Johann van Loggerenberg poses for a picture at his offices in Rivonia, 3 September 2020. Picture: Tracy Lee Stark

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

Veteran journalist Anthon Harber says there needs to be closer and further investigations into who is corrupt and the roles state security agencies have played in corruption over the years.

Harber was speaking during a 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 Services (SARS) executive Johan van Loggerenberg on why was it 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” and why media houses were not following through on the state capture and rogue unit topic?

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

He said while more investigations and examinations needed to be uncovered in state security agencies’ role in state capture, some had already been revealed but not all.

“And it is something we have to confront and deal with. I think people are mistakenly saying we have to move on; we 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 agency 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 and reflecting on the mistakes in the reporting of the Sunday Times in 2014 around the controversial rogue unit, Harber said there was no question the publication’s reportage was 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.

Answering whether he thought the reporting was the worst he had encountered, Harber said: “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.”

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

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

He added work 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 needed to both be dealt with.

News24 reported last year that former Sunday Times journalist Malcolm Rees apologised to Van Loggerenberg over 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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