The Sunday Times smack down


The Sunday Times smack down has begun with all and sundry having something to say after the paper retracted its front page story on Transnet supposedly selling most off Table Bay to “foreigners” (‘Transnet sold our sea to foreigners‘- August 24, 2008).

Several quotes to sum up the general mood;

“The paper under Makhanya has lost its credibility, and it is time that readers become activists against gutter journalism and be vociferous in their disgust at the Sunday Times.” – Sentletse Diakanyo

“Never before, in its proud 102-year history, has the integrity of the Sunday Times been under so great a threat. Once again, it has had to retract a sensational front page lead story – this time about Transnet “selling out our sea to foreigners” that appeared last week, ironically on the same day the paper had to print an apology on a story it ran on the Land Bank.” – Chris Moerdyk

It seems that The Sunday Times has messed up big time. This is not as uncommon as you might think. Newspapers as diverse as The New York Times and The Guardian have had to retract major stories in the past. Cost-cutting in newsrooms and plain old fashioned human error are some of the factors that cause fact checking procedures to lapse. Yet these newspapers remain, and more than that, remain authoritative.

I found the Sunday Times headline in question distasteful given the recent xenophobic riots and as a result did not pick up a copy of that paper the week this story broke. Transnets reputation was tarnished (one would think Metro does a good enough job of that) by the story but their speedy response and engagement with the media prevented worse damage.

Getting it wrong is a risk in journalism but one that should be measured against the role a free media plays in the democratic process. The fact that the paper have stepped up and admitted wrong-doing is a positive step towards protecting its reputation. The Sunday Times will be more careful with its fact checking on major stories going forward but must remain a powerful voice against corruption and business and political excess in our country.


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