Publication: Cape Times Issued: Date: 2003-09-11 Reporter: Helen Douglas

Maharaj Doesn't Deserve Being Drawn Into This Media Circus



Cape Times

Date 2003-09-11


Helen Douglas

Web Link


Trial by media is a nasty business. Like casino gambling, the house plays by its own rules and the house always comes out ahead.

Consider the case of Mac Maharaj. And let me be open: my husband and I kept house for Mac in the late 80s. We have always respected his integrity and continue to do so.

The first house rule: trial by media works by insinuation and implication.

The Sunday Times (August 17) righteously asserts that "we have at all times ensured that no claims of bribery or guilt are vented in our stories".

Well, of course not. Claims would have to be substantiated.

And claims could be refuted. What we have instead is a clever rhetorical device: disclaiming the intention to mention something which, of course, is nevertheless mentioned in the disclaimer.

What is not claimed against Maharaj is specifically bribery or guilt, and so bribery and guilt are simultaneously put on the table and snatched away. That's not fair.

The second rule in trial by media: the house controls the play. By far the most serious (non)claim was that Maharaj took money from Schabir Shaik in return for influence in the Department of Transport tenders.

On August 15, the Cape Times reported that the FirstRand inquiry "cleared him of bribery and corruption allegations" - but only in the second paragraph of an article whose bold lead headline: "New questions for Maharaj" dwarfed the secondary one: "Cleared by FirstRand inquiry".

In another swift move, the house cuts its losses on the high stakes hand, then immediately shuffles the cards and deals again. Suddenly the focus shifts to lesser questions about a family trust and a R15 000 hotel bill - and yet the original intensity is maintained. Why?

The third rule: the house decrees the merit of the player's cards.

Maharaj has responded throughout his ordeal as an honourable and innocent man. When the story broke, he asked for an independent investigation and offered to resign.

He and his wife have by all accounts assisted that investigation and are co-operating as well with the state investigators. And now, referring to the burden that all of this has placed on FirstRand and on his family, he has resigned.

Maharaj has responded to the new issues, but this has been downplayed in the print media - with the exception of Wiseman Khuzwayo (Business Report, August 17). Khuzwayo also knows and admires Maharaj from the bad old days, and while he finds the explanation "not convincing but not implausible", he is also the only commentator to acknowledge that, with the "press daggers" out for him, Maharaj is quite right to refuse to speculate publicly without corroborating evidence from his bank.

Otherwise, Maharaj's efforts to conduct himself honourably have been received with a cynical sneer of disbelief by journalists who, much as they "would like to believe him" (Cape Times), insist he "must show his true colours" (Sunday Times).

They carry on like absurd conspiracy theorists: as if the absence of conclusive evidence only goes to show how shrewd a crook he really is. Come on.

And now I want to put aside my casino metaphor because after all, this isn't a game. Allegations of corruption in public office; allegations of impropriety within the ranks of the Scorpions; the media playing fast and loose with a man's good name: these are all serious matters, and there are fundamental issues of justice at stake.

We often hear that no one is above the law, but equally, no one can be denied recourse to its procedures and protections. A person - even someone in the public arena - is to be considered innocent unless proven guilty.

This isn't because our mothers taught us to believe the best about people: it's because the burden of proof rightly belongs to the one who makes the accusation.

The one who is being accused has the right to face the accuser and reply to the charge, and that reply has to be taken seriously. Mac Maharaj doesn't deserve this circus, and the country can certainly not afford it.

With acknowledgements to Helen Douglas and the Cape Times.