Genevieve Vieira
3 minute read
12 Sep 2013
6:00 am

Pushing the envelope of investigative journalism

Genevieve Vieira

Every Sunday night, when the familiar Carte Blanche jingle beckons, people are reminded that the weekend has come to an end

Social media is flooded with this realisation, as people publicly discuss the week ahead. Occupying the same slot for the last 25 years, Carte Blanche has established itself as a powerful brand.

Love it or loathe it, the show plays an important role in South African history. To celebrate its quarter-century on air, managing editor Jessica Pitchford has put together a book titled Carte Blanche: The Stories Behind The Stories.

“I think that one of the reasons that Carte Blanche has been such a success is because the timing was perfect,” says Pitchford.

“In 1988, South Africa was changing and television was not very well developed. It was a very exciting time for a programme like this to start. Nobody clamped down on it because things were changing – Mandela left Robben Island in 1988, and things like the Group Areas Act went and other apartheid legislation disappeared.”

Pitchford interviewed past producers, presenters and researchers – some who’ve since settled abroad – to get the scoop and contextualise her stories. Having joined Carte Blanche only five years ago, Pitchford had to dig through archives and old tapes to be able to answer questions like what colour shirt Ruda Landman was wearing on a particular night, or what the set looked like.

 

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“I treated this book a bit like a documentary. I would go interview people on camera, do all the research, and watch all the tapes,” Pitchford explains.

“I wanted to show that television is really a team effort and what a fantastic team we have here. People really think that Carte Blanche is done by [presenters] Derek [Watts], Devi [Sankaree Govender] and Bongani [Bingwa]. They’ll phone and ask to speak to Derek, but there are other people who work here too.”

When asked about Watts’s book, which has been a long time in the making, Pitchford laughs.

“It’s a joke in the office, Derek’s book. When I told him I was writing a book, he arrived with all his notes and a list of stories he would have liked to include. He was so happy someone else was doing it. I chose to focus on the stories people remembered. “I sat here all weekend and I wouldn’t move,” she says. I’d bash it all out and the next day I would go through and clean it up. I’ve never done anything like it; it’s extremely lonely.”

Although Pitchford has not been there from the very beginning, she has an understanding of the show that an outsider would not have.

“I work here, so I know everybody – I know all the stories. I could look up anything on the archives and had access to the tapes. I know the kind of phone calls we get. People phone because they’ve been crooked out of R20 000 and want it to be on television. You’ve got to explain that we’re journalists, that we’re a television programme and although we’d love to help everyone, we can’t.

 

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Having come from a background in news, starting as a news presenter at SABC and later working on Special Assignment, Pitchford has her own stories to share.

“When I started out at the SABC in the early nineties, I covered mainly township violence – Katlehong and Tokoza. I saw my first dead body and then it was just a continuation of the most horrific violence before the elections,” she says. “The problem is, you become kind of inured to it, because it’s all through a camera.

“I’ll never forget, once, while we were filming, these guys set a taxi driver alight because he’d gone to the hostel to pick up some people. And then you think ‘Do we carry on filming, or do we try and stop it?’

“Those were the decisions you had to make. You didn’t want to intervene because you were scared it would happen to you.

“It was these experiences that helped me to write the book because I knew that period of our history. I could tell the Carte Blanche story with a lot more insight,” Pitchford concludes.