This week sees an unhappy birthday for our news media industry.
The Sithole Decuplets, or Tembisa 10 as they are sometimes called, would have turned one this week – if they existed. Instead, we are marking the anniversary of the low point in South African journalism: the day the Sekunjalo Independent media group sold us this fact-free story that went around the world. It was not the only low point of our industry’s 200 years, as we have had a few, but probably the lowest.
It was bad enough that the Pretoria News, whose editor Piet Rampedi, was personally responsible for the story, allowed themselves to be so spectacularly misled, but they persisted with the story even when it clearly had no basis in truth. They now maintain that the babies were the victims of human trafficking, though many months of investigation have failed to provide a single piece of credible evidence to back this conspiracy theory.
Sekunjalo’s proprietor, Iqbal Survé, threw his weight and money behind this craziness. When the story fell apart, he instituted multiple inquiries, then cherry-picked their findings to suit himself and ignored the one independent inquiry that pointed to the need to correct, apologise and discipline those responsible for this embarrassment. As if he sought to sink ever-lower, he then personally led the conspiracy charge, digging an ever-deeper hole for himself and his journalists.
All this would be painful but amusing history, if those responsible were not still purveying their disinformation. The incident did enormous damage to journalism at a time when we were all working hard to rebuild credibility to secure the future of our work against the onslaught of dangerous disinformation. That the individuals responsible are still practicing as journalists and Survé’s newspapers still have currency with advertisers, speaks of a deeper problem in our industry and our society.
Sekunjalo’s newspapers have hurt, with their sales sinking to the levels of school newsletters. The Pretoria News reported 1 400 paid sales last quarter (from a peak of 26 000 in the early 1990s); the Cape Argus is at 7 000 (111 000); The Cape Times at 8 000 (62 000); The Star 15 000 (235 000); the Saturday Star at 5 000 (176 000). All papers are down, it must be said, but few quite as dramatically and consistently across the board. They are giving away for free almost as many copies as they are selling.
That these papers continue to damage journalism and undermine the credibility of news reporting is a blot on the industry. They have withdrawn from the Press Council and Ombudsman system of industry co-regulation and the National Editors’ Forum (Sanef), who have denounced the story but have been unable to do much more. Sekunjalo Independent has gone rogue and nobody can seem to reign them in, allowing them to continue to play a damaging and divisive role.
They are clearly not sustained by readers. They can continue because some advertisers have not found a better home, and the previous administration of the Public Investment Corporation generously donated a few billion of pensioners’ money to help keep Dr Survé going.
There are still many people on social media, though, who still believe the mainstream media are hiding the true decuplets story and tie this to other conspiracies around the politics of the media.
Why, one has to ask, do such baseless stories gain and hold currency? In the US, polls show that about 35% of the population still believe the last presidential election was stolen; and about 20% believe the QAnon theory that the government is controlled by Satan-worshipping paedophiles running a child sex-trafficking ring. Donald Trump can be blamed for the election myth, but the paedophile story is too much even for him (at least so far, probably until he believes it can win him votes).
What is it about our societies, our education systems, and our every-more-ubiquitous media that allows the perpetuation of such dangerous ignorance? One factor must be that we no longer have major media platforms that draw people together around a baseline of accepted truth and reality, but a fractious social media which thrives on spreading disinformation. Ironically, having more media has not led to more enlightenment. On the contrary, it has made space for those who would make money or spread chaos through disinformation.
But these stories must also speak to some deep discomfort in us, something that makes us want to believe the unbelievable, even when the evidence is stacked against it. Something that makes us distrust governments, journalists and others with power, even distrust the facts.
*Harber is director of the Campaign for Free Expression and Caxton Professor of Journalism.