Having known Jacques Pauw for 30 years, my initial reaction to his story was to laugh and wonder if “strong drink had been taken”.
When journalist Jacques Pauw woke up on a Sunday morning in a filthy police holding cell in Cape Town, the world didn’t look the same, as The Eagles sang, back in 1973.
It was horrifically different for a white man who had spent his life writing about the injustices of the apartheid system and its ANC successor government. White people aren’t locked up unless they are being targeted in a vicious and racist way. His angry, hungover brain would have seen that.
The booze-induced gaps in his recall didn’t bother him. I’m going to nail these people. I am a famous journalist. I have connections. I have power. His outraged story about wrongful arrest and police brutality went to his mates at the Daily Maverick, who would show his deep wounds to the world.
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And thus began a shameful episode for South African journalism. Not so much for Pauw but for the media as a whole, which has now been caught out running the very sort of fake news it says social media publishes. Having known Jacques for 30 years, my initial reaction to his story was to laugh and wonder if “strong drink had been taken”.
In the early 90s, he was known to chase draught beers with the same alacrity as attractive women, in places like the Yard of Ale in Newtown in Joburg.
Back then, Cope leader “Terror” Lekota (then a senior ANC spokesman) was a frequent visitor. And many were the hacks who woke up the following morning – sometimes in a strange bed – with little recollection of events of the night before.
What I could not get over, though, was why Daily Maverick ran the story in the first place, given the laundry list of questions any news editor worth his or her salt would have asked. This piece of “reporting” – or even “opinion”, to be generous – would never had made it into the printed pages of The Citizen.
That is because, when judging sensational stories which have clear holes in them which you cannot fill, editors should walk away. Your credibility is not worth the momentary blood rush excitement of outrage-causing headlines. If you can’t confirm, you don’t run the story. That’s not difficult. Yet, sadly, many South African journalists suspend their powers of critical thinking (those that have them) if the person involved is either a hero or villain.
So, Jacques Pauw? Courageous fighter for the truth – he wouldn’t lie. Robert Mugabe – megalomaniac, genocidal ruler … run anything you want, the more outrageous the better. Ditto with Jacob Zuma. And with Julius Malema. Yet, every story demands the same, unbiased, analytical, questioning approach, whether you love or loathe those involved. Otherwise, the result is not journalism, it’s shoddy clickbait.
Even more disturbing for me, sitting on the sidelines, is that when Pauw retracted his story and apologised, his rabid fans in the current and former world of journalism failed to follow suit and apologise for jumping on the outrage bandwagon.
What would have happened, someone tellingly asked on Facebook, had the reporter been black and found to have lied?
As for Daily Maverick, even though you apologised, you deflected much of the blame on to Pauw. In reality, you are the biggest culprit in this sorry saga.
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