Unethical conduct? Look at the facts

02 June 2013 - 02:13 By Phylicia Oppelt
Communications Minister Dina Pule. File photo.
Communications Minister Dina Pule. File photo.

I have been called to account for my "unethical" behaviour and that of my colleagues Stephan Hofstatter, Rob Rose and Mzilikazi wa Afrika.

There is a mob of the self-righteous, led by a former Sunday Times employee, a government minister and a rival newspaper, who are the self-anointed moral guardians of the ethics and conduct of this 107-year-old publication.

Engaging my accusers in this newspaper, of which I am editor - and explaining myself to our 3.4million readers - seems the right thing to do.

So let us examine my perceived unethical conduct.

Members of parliament's ethics committee approached us for information regarding stories we had published on Communications Minister Dina Pule and her relationship with businessman Phosane Mngqibisa.

The committee, comprising individuals from across the political spectrum, was formed to determine whether Pule's conduct in office had been influenced by her personal relationship with Mngqibisa.

The stories - first published in June last year, eight months before I became editor of the Sunday Times - have focused on exposing exactly that: how the relationship between Pule and Mngqibisa has resulted in a government department being hijacked.

Committee members from the ANC, DA and IFP approached our journalists for assistance in the form of sharing information with them. We did so. We did not hide the fact.

Pule's spin doctor, Wisani Ngobeni - on loan from Free State premier Ace Magashule - has repeatedly accused us of breaching the press code and of unethical behaviour. He further alleges that we have influenced the ethics committee's deliberations by handing over information.

Ngobeni states that "the Sunday Times has disgraced South African journalism" and accuses it of being a lapdog of the DA.

We cooperated with the ethics committee, not a political party. Perhaps it might have been more palatable to some if an ANC committee member had been the direct recipient of the information.

Furthermore, the information underscores our stories - it is neutral. It is the committee's prerogative to interrogate its veracity in dealing with the complaint it has been asked to hear. We did not burn our sources in the process - they gave us permission to share the information.

It serves Ngobeni's purpose to ignore these facts. But it does not negate the very central fact that Pule, with her extraordinary web of lies and deceit, has disgraced the cabinet. What, indeed, is Ngobeni's view on his new boss's conduct in office? He does not engage with this matter, but prefers - as behoves the mandate of a hired spin doctor - to deflect attention from his puppet mistress's inconsistent and downright whacky behaviour.

For the record, Pule's unministerial conduct includes:

  • De facto ceding of control of her portfolio to her boyfriend, Mngqibisa, who engineered positions for his friends and relatives on the boards of the SA Post Office, Sentech, the Universal Service and Access Agency of South Africa and the SABC with the full knowledge of Pule. (She has complained about our coverage of this to the press ombudsman - we are awaiting a decision);
  • Bullying telecoms companies Telkom, MTN and Vodacom to pay R25.7-million towards an ICT Indaba in Cape Town - only for Mngqibisa to draw millions of this money "to pay suppliers". He even used some of the money to buy a pair of red-sole Christian Louboutin shoes for Pule; and
  • Making defamatory claims about our journalists - that Hofstatter plotted to plant spies in her office and that she had been threatened that Wa Afrika would be "unleashed" on her unless she gave shady businessmen a multibillion-rand set-top box deal. She claimed that captains of the telecoms industry had Rose in their pockets.

We have previously refuted these outlandish allegations. When asked for evidence of the "plot", Pule's argument was that if the Sunday Times could accuse her of things without proof, what proof did she need to accuse the journalists? But we can back our stories up with documents, paper trails and other information.

The Sunday Times is not the first newspaper to have cooperated with a government institution. But has anyone bothered to ask other editors whether they have ever helped the public protector's office, for instance? Clearly, it does not serve the agenda of individuals to have a broad debate about the role of the media and its responsibilities to bodies such as parliament.

And let's also not forget that Hofstatter and Wa Afrika have previously been vilified after exposing former national police commissioner Bheki Cele's police headquarters property deal. Then, parties with vested interests rubbished the Sunday Times. In the end, because we respect processes, the truth prevailed and Cele was relieved of his duties.

This brings me to another issue - the role of City Press and its editors in the Pule matter. Here, I have to question the impartiality of its editors in the manner that they have gone about presenting Pule's side of the story and turning the Sunday Times into the focus of their coverage. City Press's first story on the front page appeared on the same day the ministry took out a full-page advert in the paper . Was this coincidence or reward?

And can editor Ferial Haffajee and her deputy, Adriaan Basson, truthfully say that they have never cooperated with a government institution or inquiry?

Has the City Press coverage of the Sunday Times really been, as stated by Basson, in the public interest, or has it served the very narrow interests of a failing publication?

But let us return to the central actors of Pule and Ngobeni, who are determined to draw attention away from the minister's behaviour. For the short time that I have been editor of the Sunday Times, it has been clear that Pule is desperately holding on to her job. When I met her deputy director-general, Themba Phiri, at the much-denied meeting in Sandton in May, he tried to convince me that the minister really wanted to see me - that as "sisters" we should talk about the newspaper's stance against her. Earlier that same day, her lawyer had described her bewilderment at what was happening to her, because she did not think it fair that she was being targeted as a single mother. I could say the same about my present circumstances.

But I refuse to find succour in a state of victimhood and I am prepared to defend this newspaper against legitimate accusations raised through legitimate channels.

Already the press ombudsman, Joe Thloloe, has chastised Ngobeni for his behaviour. Earlier this week, Thloloe issued a statement saying: "Mr Ngobeni, an experienced journalist, also knows that if he is dissatisfied with the decision of the public advocate, he is entitled to appeal to the ombudsman. If he is still unhappy with the ombudsman's decision, he may appeal to the chair of appeals, retired Judge President Bernard Ngoepe.

"We urge Mr Ngobeni and the department to use the system as it was meant to be used before arriving at and publishing illogical conclusions."

We are currently dealing with two complaints to the ombudsman from Pule. Another one, brought by Mngqibisa, has already been dismissed. We will answer all the complaints.

The Press Council has decided to revisit Ngobeni's ethics complaint against me. I will answer to the council.

I am beholden to the court of Sunday Times readers. I have a duty to explain my conduct to you, because our Pule articles were published in this newspaper. I will continue to do so while I am privileged to be editor of this newspaper.

  • And while I am dealing with accusations against the Sunday Times, I should clarify an issue that appears to pain the twitterati. Since appointing Gareth van Onselen, I have been charged with employing DA staffers. For the record, Van Onselen - one of the smartest young men I have had the privilege to work with - does not work for the DA. He used to - just like Business Day's Carol Paton used to work for the ANC.

He wrote a column for Business Day for three years - much like the ANC's Pallo Jordan does.

Do I hear the rumbling of discontent gathering on the horizon about Business Day being an ANC mouthpiece? I think not.