Publication: everfasternews Issued: Date: 2006-11-21 Reporter: James Myburgh Reporter:

Myth-Making at Business Day




Date 2006-11-21


James Myburgh

Web Link



Somewhat paradoxically, the (mis)reporting by Business Day and The Weekender of the Supreme Court of Appeal’s mistaken attribution of the phrase ‘a generally corrupt’ relationship to the trial court has launched a number of new myths into the public domain. These include the suggestion by Karima Brown and Vukani Mde that the SCA judges may “not have read Squires’s original judgment convicting Shaik, and may have relied only on news reports which generally but wrongly attribute the phrase to Squires.” As Carmel Rickard points out in her column for The Weekender this week:
 For anyone to say the court's mistake raised doubt as to whether the judges had read the Squires decision shows how important it is for commentators, no less than judges, to read a judgment properly before saying anything about it. Even a cursory reading of the two appeal decisions indicates just how thoroughly that court had studied the trial record and judgments.
Nonetheless, Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi regurgitated this rather absurd assertion telling Brown and Mde that, “Instead of going through Squires’ judgment line by line, the Supreme Court merely parroted newspaper editorials.” Peter Biles, the BBC’s Southern African correspondent also repeated it, claiming the mistake suggested “that the Appeal Court judges had not actually read Judge Squire's original judgement”. Advocate Dumisa Ntsebeza of the Black Lawyer’s Association went further, baldly stating in the Mail & Guardian that it was “the second case where they had not read a high court judgement and yet pronounced on its merit”.
Another damaging claim, and one that has acquired considerable purchase, is that it took 17-months for Judge Hilary Squires to attempt to correct this misattribution and that he did so “in a letter to the Weekender” written in response to the SCA’s judgment. What follows is a detailed account of why this claim is false; how it entered into public discourse; and, what Business Day editor Peter Bruce did, and did not do, to correct the error. 
When did Judge Squires first write to Business Day and why?

On the 16th of November 2005 Business Day’s legal affairs correspondent, Ernest Mabuza, wrote in Business Day that Schabir Shaik had been granted leave to appeal “the high court ruling that found that there was a 'generally corrupt relationship' between him and former deputy president Jacob Zuma."

The following morning at 8:32am Judge Hilary Squires sent a letter by email to Bruce in which he pointed out that he had not used the term a “generally corrupt relationship” in his judgment. In it he politely requested Bruce’s intervention to dispel the mistaken impression that he had used this quotation in his judgment.

If Bruce received the email (and it was sent to the correct address – he did nothing about it; for not only was no correction run but the following day Vukani Mde and Karima Brown wrote that Shaik had “won the right to appeal against his conviction for a 'generally corrupt' relationship with Zuma." (Business Day 18th November 2005)
In addition, the following week,
Brown and Mde repeated the error, claiming that Zuma was "likely to face further charges of perjury and tax evasion, all stemming from a relationship with Schabir Shaik which was found by the judiciary to be ‘generally corrupt’." (Business Day 25th November 2005)
Close on a year later, on the 27th of September 2006, Mabuza wrote, again, that Squires had “found that Shaik had a ‘generally corrupt’ relationship with Zuma”. On Wednesday the 4th of October, Squires now wrote directly to Mabuza. The letter was sent to Mabuza’s personal email address and it was headed “For Ernest Mabuza”. It began, “Dear Mr. Mabuza” and in it Squires pointed out that “Unless you can indicate to the contrary, please note that I did not make the statement and it should therefore not be attributed to me. I have long since advised your Editor of this but he has clearly not disseminated the correction to his staff.”
For whatever reason, Business Day
did not turn the letter into a story, nor was a correction run. Moreover, the error was repeated. In The Weekender on Saturday the 7th of October Karima Brown and Amy Musgrave wrote that “Shaik was found to have had a ‘generally corrupt’ relationship with Zuma.”
The only discernible effect of the letter was that in his report on the SCA’s judgment on Schabir Shaik’s appeal Mabuza removed the quotation marks from the phrase “generally corrupt”. He wrote instead: “The judgment considered the first count of corruption -- in which it was found that there was a generally corrupt relationship between Shaik and former deputy president Jacob Zuma -- in detail.” (Business Day 7th November 2006)
The Weekender's representation of the letter, and its effects

It was only Friday the 10th of November 2006 that
the staff of Business Day decided to use the letter as the centre of a campaign against the SCA *1. The flaws in their reporting of the SCA’s judgment have been dealt with here. In addition, however, they misrepresented Judge Squires’ letter through errors of both commission and omission.
The front page headline of The Weekender on Saturday the 11th November 2006 stated: “‘I never said Jacob Zuma was corrupt’—Squires” (which was
not an accurate representation of what Squires had said). His letter was now published in full, although mysteriously the “Dear Mr. Mabuza” had become “Dear Sir”. It was also not dated. In the lead article Mde and Brown wrote that the SCA had wrongly attributed the phrase a ‘generally corrupt relationship’ to Squires, adding that “Squires has written a letter to Business Day, The Weekender’s sister publication, pointing out the error.” All this combined to create the impression that this letter had been sent to the newspaper (i.e. was not personal correspondence), that it was meant for publication, and that it had been written in response to the SCA’s judgment.
In a follow up article for Business Day on the 14th November 2006, Karima Brown
compounded the error by claiming that a political storm had erupted following “a letter written by Squires to Business Day's sister publication, The Weekender.” This misleading reporting opened up Judge Squires to criticism and ridicule. The cartoonist Zapiro caricature d him as a latter day Rip Van Winkle who – after 17 months of slumber – had only just woken up to the misattribution.
On the 14th November Bruce received a thi
rd letter from Judge Squires (published on the 15th) which reiterated that the letter to Mabuza“ was the second time I had written to this newspaper to try to rectify the misquotation.” Nonetheless, Business Day columnists and letter-writers continued to be given free rein to go after him. In a letter on the 15th of November one Phillemon Mathane asked:
 Is it not important to ask what motivates Judge Hilary Squires to wait for more than 12 months before saying that the phrase ‘generally corrupt relationship’ is nowhere to be found in his judgment in Schabir Shaik’s case? Is it not fair to ask what motivated him to go to the media first about this? Is it wrong to be concerned about why the judge does not care about being seen to be contemptuous towards the judicial system, let alone about publicly embarrassing his esteemed colleagues?
In his column on the same day Steven Friedman wrote:
Despite the halo in which he has been enshrined, Squires has much to explain. That his judgment was so often misreported is an embarrassment for the media. But why did he remain silent for 17 months? …Much damage could have been avoided if Squires had pointed it out when it first appeared. By failing to do so, he has arguably let down the country and placed the judiciary in peril.
 Friedman claimed that Bruce had told him that he “could not recall” receiving Squires’ original letter. In an editorial (15th November) Bruce himself stated :
 All newspapers make mistakes all the time. What matters is how quickly they correct when they become aware of them. Despite Judge Squires' contention in a letter to a member of our staff, we have no record of being advised by the judge earlier this year of the error we were repeating by using the phrase. This editor first discovered the existence of Squires' (latest) letter last Friday afternoon and it was reported in our weekend edition, The Weekender, the very next day. 
This editorial contained the implicit suggestion that Judge Squires
could not be taken on his word on this matter, and it was up to him to prove his ‘contention’. The assumption that the letter had been sent earlier in the year indicated that Bruce had not bothered to do the obvious thing and contact Judge Squires to determine when the original letter had been received and what it had said. This would not have been particularly difficult or time consuming as he already had the email address of Squires in his possession.
How and why Peter Bruce apologised

On Thursday the 16th of November a third party sent Bruce the actual letter – which he could have asked for himself, but didn’t – that Judge Squires had sent him in November the previous year. This was copied to a number of senior journalists and editors. Despite this, on Friday Business Day published a column by Vuyo Mvuko which repeated the claim – which Bruce
now knew to be false – that it had taken “Judge Squires more than a year to make a huge discovery, that he had actually not said what had been attributed to him so repeatedly and so loudly.” 
The misrepresentation by The Weekender of Judge Squires’ letter of the 4th of October, and the failure to correct it timeously, has had a knock-on effect on the media reporting on the matter. Thus, in the Sunday Times Paddy Harper
reported that “In the preamble to their judgment on Shaik’s appeal against asset forfeiture, the judges misquoted Judge Squires, ascribing the words ‘generally corrupt relationship’ to the trial court. This, in turn, saw Judge Squires write to Business Day and correct the misattribution.”
In his column on Monday Peter Bruce attempted to undo some of the damage that his newspaper had done to Judge Squires. He said that it was “unfair” to blame Squires for the “apparent timidity of his efforts” to stop the misattribution of the phrase to him. Bruce wrote:
 As far as I can tell, Squires tried twice to warn us at Business Day about the fact that he never said what we (and everyone else) were reporting he said. Both efforts were made before the Supreme Court rejected Shaik’s appeals. He first e-mailed me on November 17 last year. I do not recall ever seeing his message and I suspect it may never have arrived. I cannot explain why or how, other than to refer the sceptical to other sources in Johncom, who I would hope may confirm how erratic our e-mail service used to be.
(As an aside, if Johncom’s email has been so unreliable in the past one wonders why Bruce put so much store in his having “no record” of an earlier notification in his editorial of the 15th November.) Bruce claimed that Ernest Mabuza had, on receiving the second email from Squires on October 4, read the e-mail, “noted its contents and told his news editor about it as something worth remembering for future coverage. He also mentioned it to other colleagues writing about Shaik and Zuma. I assume delivery of this information was typically low-key and that, for this reason, its import was not immediately appreciated.”
It was only on Friday afternoon (10th November), Bruce wrote, that “someone mentioned to me a letter from Squires denying he had used the term generally corrupt’.
The hair stood up on the back of my ageing neck. I believed it would be in the public interest to report what he was saying. The rest is history. Squires, of course, has been unwillingly drawn back into the limelight and to the extent that it has hurt him, I am very sorry.”
Bruce’s column was a
relatively gracious apology, albeit a belated and incomplete one. The same cannot be said for the letter of Steven Friedman’s sent to the newspaper in response. In his column last week Friedman had made two egregious errors. He had accused Squires of remaining silent for 17-months. He had also claimed that the SCA judges had “incorrectly attributed to Shaik trial judge Hilary Squires the phrase that Shaik sought to ‘intensify corrupt activity and at the highest level in the confident anticipation that Jacob Zuma may one day be president’.” In fact, as Bruce acknowledged in a correction published on the 17th of November 2006 “the SCA judges were correct in their attribution. The phrase was uttered not in the Shaik judgment, where Friedman looked for it, but in his sentencing, which took place later. We apologise to the SCA judges for the error.” In his letter Friedman makes no mention of the latter error, and he makes no apology for the former. Indeed, he states:
 Bruce argues that Judge Hilary Squires should not be criticised for failing to inform us that his judgment was being incorrectly quoted because ‘someone in Durban’ told him that the judge tried to convey this to Business Day a year ago but that his letter did not reach the newspaper. This does not clear up all the anomalies in the published account of why Squires responded to the error in the way he did.
 It is not clear why Friedman regards the previous notification (17th November 2005) by Judge Squires as still a matter of dispute. Squires did send an email to Bruce in an effort to rectify the error. If Business Day failed to act on this – whether due to human or technical fallibility – it was their fault not his.

With acknowledgement to James Myburgh and ever-fasternews.

*1       A general shame on these nincampoops.

Seven days in the stocks and a general public issue of over-ripe tomatoes is the sentence.