The Arms Deal and the Media
2003 Vodacom Journalist of the Year
A speech given at the Democracy Development
Programme (DDP) Political Forum
* This speech was given in his private capacity
There are dozens of questions that arise from this topic and I hope that you will raise many that I might not have considered and we can have a dynamic discussion. But let me sketch out two issues that seem to me to be the main ones.
1) The question arises as to how and why the arms deal became such a prominent media story? Arguably the reason why this deal became and remains such a public scandal has been because of the significant and sustained media attention.
2) The second question is how has the media fared in the coverage of this issue - has it ‘sensationalised’ the story - and has it become one of a growing list of South African institutions, and individuals, that have been compromised by this deal?
I think the prominence and longevity of the arms deal as a public scandal derives from the confluence of a number of different factors that have helped to drive it as a story.
I think the issue emerged at a particular point in our political history, when the Mbeki presidency began to be seriously contested and questioned by persons in the ANC and the wider political landscape, including the media. One should recall that the initial dossier of allegations publicised by Patricia de Lille appeared in early 2000 and that that document was in fact drawn up with the assistance of concerned or disaffected ANC intelligence people. The point I want to make is that a very important part of the development of this story was through leaks and disagreements within the ruling party itself.
It should also be noted that, at that time, the President’s dissident views on AIDS had begun to emerge, but what had also become clear is that there was very little room for public debate or disagreement over AIDS within the party. Thus the arms deal became an area where there was an outlet for dissent. Further, that dissent was legitimised, at least initially, by the oversight institutions established by our democratic constitution - in particular, the Standing Committee on Public Accounts (Scopa) and the office of the Auditor-General.
In both cases, my perception is that there was a sense that the executive had become arrogant and that here was an opportunity to bring it to account. For those in the media who took their role as public watchdog seriously, I think the same attraction existed government had become impervious on many fronts - this was a chance to puncture that aloofness and bring it down to earth.
I think the nature of the story also had so many compelling journalistic features. Arms purchases are always controversial and generally corrupt. The notion of a poor country with huge existing social demands - to say nothing of the looming crisis of AIDS - spending billions of rands on buying an over-sophisticated arsenal is inherently questionable, never mind the allegations of corruption and conflict of interest that began to leak out. Add to that the colourful individual players - the inimitable Brothers Shaik, the Defence Minister, Joe Modise, whose closest friends seemed to be apartheid era sanctions busters - and you’ve got all the ingredients of a media feast.
In my own case, my interest in the arms deal developed out of my investigation of the awarding of the third cell licence to Cell C. It seemed to me that there had been insupportable executive interference in the functioning of one of our key independent institutions, the SA Telecommunications Regulatory Authority, which had the effect of undermining that institution and casting a pall on the country’s reputation as a bona fide contractor. It foreshadowed what has become part of the classic duality of South African politics - a formal system of multiple and independent centres of power overlaid by a realpolitik where the majority party attempts informally to bypass these structures and exercise control. It also was rather an object lesson in the practical reality of the new "black empowerment" paradigm, which under Mbeki had already ousted the Reconstruction & Development Programme as the dominant motif of transformation. When some preliminary research showed the same key individuals and groups stood to benefit from the arms deal, then my interest was piqued.
Initially, the de Lille document and the few articles that appeared caused little more than a ripple in government or in the mainstream media, but that was all changed by the involvement of the two institutions with significantly greater investigative power than the media - Scopa and the Auditor-General’s office. The life-blood of the media is information, but its capacity to gain access to closely guarded official information is in fact pretty limited. Scopa, on the other hand, was able to summon officials to give evidence and divulge details about the deal. The Auditor-General was able to initiate a preliminary investigation that raised significant questions about the probity of the deal. Both institutions also created a public platform for critics of the deal or those, such as unsuccessful contractors, who felt they had been cheated.
Two of those in particular proved to have unusual media savvy Terry Crawford-Browne, of the organisation Economists Allied for Arms Reduction, and Richard Young, managing director of CCII, a company that had lost out on a subcontract to the French company Thales, whose local representative was Schabir Shaik, brother of Chippy Shaik, who had driven the acquisition process on behalf of the Department of Defence.
Crawford-Browne, a one-time advisor to Archbishop Desmond Tutu, was convincingly able to present himself as on the side of the angels. He was a fearless commentator - seemingly impervious to being sued - and produced numerous and detailed statements, reports, submissions to parliament, etc. - all of which pushed the story forward.
Both Crawford-Browne and Young have also had the resources to launch extended court battles around the deal that have kept the story alive and - in Young’s case particularly - kept up a flow up new information.
Like Crawford-Browne, Richard Young realised the value of keeping the story alive in the press. His media strategy should be studied by any serious lobbyist or public relations heavyweight. Young networked with the media extremely well and became a clearing-house for information around the deal. Today, his company website is the premier archive of stories around the arms deal. He worked with various journalists, generally establishing a relationship of trust, and achieving a successful balance between the sharing of common information and the protection of exclusive angles established from time to time by individual publications. Crucially for a media source he does not thus far appear to have compromised his credibility by lying or fudging.
Government, on the other hand, compromised its credibility fairly early on. Nothing spurs the media on like the scent of a cover-up - and government’s aggressive treatment of Scopa (via the emasculation of Andrew Feinstein and Gavin Woods) and its transparent rail-roading of the decision not to include the Special Investigation Unit led by Judge Heath in the joint investigation of the deal smelled very strongly indeed.
Later, the attempt to ‘spin’ the interpretation of the arms deal report by the joint investigation team to suggest that government was not guilty of any wrong-doing ran contrary to the view any reasonable reader of report itself was bound to reach. That in turn undermined the credibility of the agencies that signed it off - the Public Protector, the Auditor-General and the National Director for Public Prosecutions. . Government’s problem with deal has been three-fold.
Firstly, due to the very large cost of the deal and the high political level at which it was negotiated, the stakes involved in any serious exposure of corruption are very high. The political and contractual consequences are enormous. Hence government has been prepared to sacrifice the credibility of key institutions to preserve the integrity of the main contracts.
Secondly, the deal is very long term, with the repayments and offset contracts stretching out more than a decade, meaning the media may repeatedly return to the issue as each new whistle-blower comes out of the woodwork and as each new cost escalation or dubious offset project becomes public.
Thirdly, as we discussed before, question marks around the deal were from the start used by factions within the ANC to score political points. Now that the Scorpions investigation has reached the Deputy President and continues to probe the role played by the late Joe Modise, the deal has emerged as the catalyst for exposing the serious political battles within the party. And the media too has become tainted in the process.
So, to return to the second question I posed in the beginning how has the media fared. While it is arguable that the war against poverty and AIDS are more important and compelling stories for our media than the ‘phoney-war’ of the Arms Deal, they are also harder to tell, due to practical, ideological and commercial pressures. Nevertheless, the political and institutional weaknesses exposed by media probing of the arms deal are arguably the same political and institutional weaknesses that have prevented us as a nation from fully engaging with that bigger war. It is, as others have pointed out, a litmus test for our democracy.
To that extent, I do not believe the arms deal story has been sensationalised. What the story has done recently has been to expose the weaknesses of the media itself. It is significant that the conduct of the country’s two biggest and most powerful Sunday papers - the Sunday Times and City Press - has been placed in question.
Further the nature of the relationship between the media and the country’s most powerful law enforcement official, National Director of Public Prosecutions Bulelani Ngcuka, has also been placed under the spotlight by his alleged off-record remarks to a group of editors - and by the leaking of the contents of that confidential discussion by at least one of them.
In the case of the Sunday Times, the story led to a serious split in the newsroom. On the one hand, it has been alleged that the Scorpions have been guilty of running a campaign of character assassination through the media, by means of a deliberate series of leaks to the paper’s investigative unit. On the other, it appears as if political reporter Ranjeni Munusamy became the creature of her sources in the Deputy President’s camp but was allowed to continue in this vein because of the exclusive access this gave the paper.
In the case of City Press, the paper colluded in obtaining and publishing a story largely researched by someone still employed by another title - Munusamy - and then defended itself by running details of the off-the-record briefing by Ngcuka.
If there is a common path into these ethical minefields, I would argue that it can be defined as a failure to maintain a proper critical distance.
Reporters need to beware becoming hostage to their sources and being abused by them. Editorial managers need to help reporters maintain that distance, sometimes even at the cost of getting that ‘exclusive’. Both need to be constantly alive to the possibility that there is an undisclosed agenda that may necessitate a re-look at the nature of the story. If reporters are so outraged by an editorial decision - such as the Sunday Times decision not to publish the Ngcuka spy story - then they have a duty to dispute that decision openly or to resign. Likewise, editors should not generally be running off to off the record briefings with senior government officials or ministers. Generally, they should send the reporters who are dealing with the story, or decline the invitation. The access to exclusive information is seductive, but it can rob editors of the necessary critical distance for a judgement call on the story. If such briefings do stray into areas of a dubious ethical nature, then editors need to intervene and call time-out to say, either put it on the record, or we will have to leave.
Editors are essentially referees. They should not also be players.
Acknowledgements to Sam Sole, 2003 Vodacom Journalist of the Year.