Tuesday, July 13, 2010

South Africa’s biggest journalism scandal ever to have rocked the media fraternity in the Ashley Smithgate Scandal

Finally, someone has confessed to South Africa’s biggest journalism scandal in sixteen years, the Ashley Smithgate Scandal.
And interestingly, no such labels as disgraced has been placed on Ashely Smith, the former Cape Argus political reporter who this week admitted that he was among senior journalists and editors who received payola – kickbacks through government contract to manipulate the news.

As I read the article about a someone I studied journalism with, though he was junior and worked with at the Independent Newspapers (I was working for The Star and he was working for The Saturday Star), I grew irritated on how some young journalists were propelled so much quickly in their careers, while others stagnated despite having more experience than them.

These revelations of brown envelope journalism were made by one Vukile Pokwana also former fellow journalism student who was also a director at Hip-Hop Media, in a two hour interview with the then Cape Town premier, Lynn Brown last year, had sent shockwaves thought the media fraternity.

His confession, nearly a year after Mail & Guardian broke the story, and despite denials by Chris Whitfield, editor-in-chief of Independent Newspapers in the Cape, who complained to the newspapers’ press ombudsman Franz Kruger about the coverage that Smith and political editor, Joseph Aranes (also a former journalism student at Peninsula Technikon) received brown envelopes for writing stories in favour of the then Western Cape premier Ibrahim Rasool, while waging a dirty campaign against his rival Mcebisi Skwhatsha.
These claims resurfaced when another senior ANC leader Max Ozinsky wrote that Rasool had systematically manipulated the media.

As I read what I already knew as the Mail & Guardian had broken the story, but waited for prove or evidence, I was reminded of Jason Blair, a young and perhaps talented journalist from the New York Times who shamed the journalism fraternity by plagiarizing stories.
Blair was forced to resign after he admitted in committing one of journalism cardinal sin – plagiarism. He later wrote a memoir, titled: “Burning Down My Master’s House”. He was labeled disgraced.

However, our own Blair in the Ashely Smith is now been labeled a former Cape Argus journalist as if he didn’t resign over a cloud of heavy dark smoke. Smith and his cohort Joseph Aranes have caused a serious damage to journalism. Their actions have soiled the reputation of this noble profession which relies on trust to thrive. As senior reporters, they were conscious of the fact that journalism entails a high degree of public trust and it will take serious efforts to build that trust and credibility.

As for Whitefield, as the captain of the ship, he is also guilty for not taking necessary action when this information came to the fore. Instead he pontificated and established a clumsy hearing in which Smith received a slap in the wrist, while Aranes continued with his work.

Being accused of such a journalistic crime does harm to the media at large than one publication and Whitefield should have known that unlike pointing fingers at the Mail & Guardian reporter, Glynnis Underhill who broke the story and came with more follow ups, something that didn’t sit well with Whitefield and his editorial team.

Realizing that Underhill was pursuing the story vigorously; Whitefield diverted attention on the messenger and complained that she was malicious and that the Mail & Guardian as a rival publication was pursuing a vendetta against his publication. These were just flimsy accusation as I said before and still remain so. By trying to sweep the matter under the carpet and attempted shoot the messenger with an empty revolver, Whitefield failed to deal with the allegations and therefore should be charged for dereliction of duty.

It also boggles my mind why should Smith be asking for indemnity while he was conscious that their actions were unethical and criminal. Anyway, journalism is known of hiding scoundrels who have plagiarized, known for receiving, accepting and demanding bribes and freebies. I take my hat to those journalists, who despite being paid pittance, have held the torch and mirrors our society.

Those journalists regard themselves as liberators, watchdogs and are independent. They are not imbedded and write or broadcast without fear or favour. They will never compromise journalistic ethics.

Perhaps, like his US buddy Blair, Smith should write a memoir: Destroying My Master’s Mansion.

Themba Sepotokele is a Gauteng-based government communicator and a media trainer. He writes in his own capacity.


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