Why We Did Not Run the Ngcuka Spy Story
The Sunday Times answers to no one but you, our readers. Stories that we print have to pass a test to ensure that the information they contain is as accurate as possible. Any story, no matter how important it might be, will not go into the paper until and unless the editorial executive team and I are satisfied that it passes a number of tests.
These include accuracy, public interest, balance and fairness. They must be legally defensible and, importantly, well written, easily digestible and not shot through with jargon.
Since July, a member of our staff, Ranjeni Munusamy, had worked on a story based on allegations that the National Director of Public Prosecutions, Bulelani Ngcuka, had been investigated by an ANC intelligence unit for spying for the apartheid government.
The investigation, which involved Mo Shaik, Mac Maharaj and Jacob Zuma, had found that agent RS452 "could be BN" - Ngcuka's initials. The documents at hand did not contain the information used to arrive at that ambiguous conclusion.
It emerged in the course of discussions that the investigation file had been given to Zuma more than 10 years ago, and the question had to be asked: why was this information only being revealed now that Zuma, Maharaj and Shaik's brother Schabir were being investigated by Ngcuka?
We also had to ask ourselves: was the report we had in our hands a true version and not a latter-day fabrication to achieve other ends? In an attempt to answer these questions, Munusamy travelled to Port Elizabeth where she met one of the security policemen who was alleged to have been RS452's handler.
The ex-policeman is said to have confirmed that Ngcuka had been a spy, and identified a Karl Edwards as Ngcuka' s direct handler. The expoliceman did not want to be quoted in the story. Munusamy could not find Edwards, who has since publicly denied having anything to do with Ngcuka. The story was tabled at one Sunday Times editorial executive meeting where it was turned down for having too many holes.
Munusamy later brought in a copy of a telex which appeared to be a report by agent RS452. That still did not prove that Ngcuka was in fact RS452; it merely showed that agent RS452 existed and had reported on meetings of a lawyers' organisation. Munusamy told me she had been shown a database compiled by ANC intelligence operatives which contained more than 200 names of people investigated by the ANC unit and found to be spies. These names included those of Cabinet ministers, journalists and Ngcuka, she said.
Munusamy said the telex copy would have to be returned to the people who gave it to her once we had finished with it.
I directed her to confront Ngcuka and see what his response was. Ngcuka would not return calls and later said through his spokesman that he would not comment. Munusamy was adamant we should run the story that Ngcuka had been investigated but I told her we could not do that unless:
The initial ANC investigators gave us all the information that was at their disposal at the time so that we could see what made them reach their conclusion;
Having looked at the information, we were satisfied that we would come to the same conclusion; and
The intelligence unit that had shown her the database gave us the list of over 200 names so that we could subject all of them, or as many of them as we needed, to an investigation.
Munusamy said she would not be able to meet these conditions and that the people who gave her the telex copy wanted it back. I told her that if the owners of the copy wanted it to be returned I could not stop her from obliging.
A few weeks later she gave her information to another paper, which ran the story. Subsequent investigations have suggested that RS452 was a white woman.
I am satisfied that our decision not to run the story with the information at hand was correct.
Journalists are by nature curious people and obtain information from many sources. In almost all instances, the giver has a cause to fight for. Sometimes the motivation is sincere public interest but sometimes there is a personal agenda.
Our role as a newspaper is not to refuse such information, but to subject it to rigorous tests for accuracy, and to ask ourselves whether publication is in the public interest. The latter is done by answering, as best one can, the question: what purpose or interests are we serving by publishing this?
I remain convinced that publication of the story with the information we had at the time would have served interests other than those of the public and exposed our newspaper to litigation.
The Sunday Times has not, and will not, take sides on this issue. We will continue to report fairly so that our readers are able to consider the matter with all the facts at hand. Where there is a need for the paper to take a stand on a point of principle, we will continue to do so without fear or favour on our editorial pages.
A lot has been made of the off-the-record briefing by Ngcuka to a select group of editors where I was also present. Journalists often attend such briefings to gain insight into an issue. But information gleaned at such briefings must be subjected to the same rigorous tests as that obtained from any other source prior to publishing, and this was the case in this instance.
We believe we have striven harder than many to give as unbiased a view of the Ngcuka/Zuma fiasco as possible. We respect our readers too much to give you information that we ourselves are not convinced is correct or which is patently designed to serve personal agendas.
Munusamy was suspended last Friday after admitting that she passed the story to City Press. She resigned this Friday. - The Editor
With acknowledgement to the Sunday Times.