Peer Review - But this Time for Journalists
In what amounts to a strange coincidence, several newspapers ran editorial comments on Friday denying that director of national public prosecutions Bulelani Ngcuka sought their help during a confidential "off-the-record" briefing he had with them.
After much debate and consideration for the sanctity of the off-the-record principle, City Press is rather surprised at how the contents of what was supposed to be a confidential meeting have leaked to so many people and also to those editors who were not part of that briefing.
There is already a document circulating which gives graphic details of that meeting.
The question should be asked: Who leaked that information as there were only editors in attendance at that meeting, which is furiously developing into a subject of emotional debate and controversy?
There is no doubt that the editors themselves who were part of that meeting must shoulder the blame for this apparent leak. Apart from that, we understand that just a few hours after the meeting, the office of the national commissioner of police, Jackie Selebi, and the ANC as well, were already informed - blow by blow - about that meeting.
Who - apart from editors themselves - could have informed both Selebi and the ANC ?
Not only that, hardly a week after that briefing, one of the editors approached former minister of transport Mac Maharaj, who happened to have been one of the people mentioned in that briefing. Unashamedly, this editor revealed to Maharaj "someone in the Scorpions" as his source of information about Maharaj's wife. That in itself was a betrayal of the principle of off-the-record sessions.
The editors themselves - in their attempt on Friday to deny that Ngcuka sought their support - have actually contributed in sparking massive public interest in the matter, unwittingly breaking the off-the-record principle they now seek to protect.
Since the meeting has become the subject of public debate, City Press has finally taken the liberty to pronounce itself on the meeting. We must also mention that - as reported in this newspaper - a section of the Indian community has already lodged a complaint with the Human Rights Commission.
It would appear Ngcuka is reckless with information. If not, why would he invite so many people to an off-the-record session? It became something of a public off-the-record briefing.
Apart from that, it appears the meeting itself became a character assassination session no different from the anti-Ngcuka e-mail circulating at the time.
The meeting with Ngcuka was a unique session indeed.
It would also appear some editors were misled as to the true purpose of the meeting.
Whereas an impression was given during a telephonic invitation that the purpose of the meeting was to provide background on the e-mail, some editors revealed they were uncomfortable in a meeting where they were being asked to support Ngcuka - which some of them are now denying.
Ngcuka suggested during an interview on television that the meeting was "routine". It is a view shared by some of our colleagues in the media.
For City Press, there was nothing routine about it.
There are people in this country whose past - and dare we say current - crimes stink to high heaven and yet they are treated with far greater respect than freedom struggle icons. And let us emphasise that in our view these heroes are themselves not above the law.
The meeting was bound to compromise Ngcuka in the long run. The national director of public prosecutions should know as a jurist that, given his position, he cannot speak in the manner he did, publicly or privately, about cases he is still investigating. Thus mistakes like approaching Maharaj and revealing sources would never have happened.
As much as we journalists expect African political leaders to subject themselves to Nepad's peer review mechanism, we think it is probably about time we ourselves in this profession be subjected to a similar peer review mechanism.
With acknowledgement to the City Press.