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By Brendan Seery

Deputy Editor

The truth hurts, Bongani, but what about Manto?

It may be time for the Sunday Times to also return the awards its reporters won for their piece of innuendo, rumour and gossip about the former health minister.

Dear Bongani, I salute you for your courageous – and correct – decision, as editor of the Sunday Times, to repudiate the garbage your journalists churned out about what they labelled as the police “Cato Manor Death Squad”.

We hacks seldom admit it when we are wrong, so this is refreshing. You have also undertaken to return all the prizes and money won by the reporters involved.

That is also correct. But, while you’re about it – and I know this was also before your time, when there were more cowboys in the Sunday Times newsroom than in the Boot Hill cemetery in the Wild West – please also return the awards your reporters won for their piece of innuendo, rumour and gossip about former health minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang being a drunk.

When I read that original story back in 2007, I did it as a news consumer … and who doesn’t love a bit of salacious news about a minister who was not very well liked, to put it mildly?

However, when I read it again with my critical journalist’s eye, one thing struck me: there was not a piece of evidence to back up the claims.

A few re-reads confirmed this: the piece was a collection of rumours, innuendo and claims by unknown sources. The sort of thing for which we in the journalism business have become known and which damaged our credibility long before the advent of internet-driven “clickbait” or “fake news”.

I have challenged your paper publicly on three occasions and had no response, so I repeat it: show me the actual evidence for the story and I will apologise. And you can keep the prizes.

If not, well then do the right thing. One of my pieces was read by David O’Sullivan, former 702 talk show host, who is now with Kaya FM.

He’s not only a journo, but also a trained lawyer, and he asked me on to talk about it … because he agreed.

David’s colleague in Cape Town, John Maytham, dismissed my arguments with the comment: “It’s well known that Manto is a drunk.”

It was also “well known”, John, that the Nazis executed 4 000 Polish soldiers at Katyn Forest in 1940 … until the early 1990s, when Mikhail Gorbachev revealed that the Soviets were responsible.

Bongani, I hope your stand yesterday leads to some serious soul-searching among journalists and hopefully it will be, as veteran investigative journalist Jacques Pauw put it, be seen as a “defining moment” in South African journalism.

I also share the concerns of Sarah Britten Pillay, an ad strategist and communications expert, who tweeted: “I have so many questions about the judges involved in SA journalism awards. This is a bigger problem than one newspaper.”

I agree. When journalists and journalism judges get swept up in a shocking front-page story, it all too frequently happens that critical faculties are suspended.

When somebody, or something, is perceived as “bad”, then we don’t think the normal journalist rules – about balance, getting comment or even checking on allegations – apply.

And we have quite a rogue’s gallery of these people: Jacob Zuma, Donald Trump, Robert Mugabe, the Guptas, the EFF, Helen Zille, the “right wing” (whatever that means), anyone who expresses concerns about illegal migrants…

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