FROM THE SINISTER complexity of its cover, to its end pages, Anton Harber’s 2020 publication So, for the Record is a vital essay on the current state of journalism in South Africa. And it’s not a pretty picture. This publication should be present on the bookshelves of anyone with an interest – vested or otherwise – in the fourth estate.
But over and above its usefulness as a guide to the pros and cons of fast- and slow journalism, it’s a racy, candid read, which begs comparison with works of the ilk of Marianne Thamm’s 2014 publication To Catch a Cop and Influence, the film by Diana Neillie and Richard Poplak which gets under the skin of Bell Pottinger and Jonathan Ancer’s important reflections on spies in this country.
And yet, Harber’s book is more than just a foray into how the truth can be bent and polished out of shape in a newsroom. It is more than an account of so-called ‘death squads’ in Cato Manor or improper relationships in the interstices of South Africa’s Receiver of Revenue. Rather, or at least for the first two parts of this book, it reads like a user’s guide to the complicated field of responsible journalism.
The Sunday Times, with its then premises in the Johannesburg suburb of Rosebank, comes uncomfortably under Harber’s steely gaze and pen, as he describes journalistic sins committed by the publication in the name of sensationalism, ‘sexy’ headlines and a tendency to turn something which may have, to all intents and purposes, been an unstory or an untruth, into something that would dominate headlines, shocking readers into buying the newspaper. And buying into it.
It is about the unsung courage of the whistleblower who often carries the consequences of their decision to stick their neck out – into a context of real danger. And it is about the ‘we got it wrong’ headline and its bravery but also its flimsy transience in the wake of a headline so smarmy that all tongues got wagging, regardless of its grounds.
But read the whole book. This is not an attack on one particular paper. Armed with a very long context in the discipline of investigative writing, Harber offers a broad and rich insight into how morals work in the sphere of writing. He doesn’t pussyfoot around digressions committed and is unafraid to bring himself into the narrative. Much of the book is written in the first person, and forces the presence of Harber into the tales he tells, giving him autobiographical context, with all the pitfalls of self-aggrandisement that this medium may represent to a writer.
This is the kind of book that you may read very rapidly: it is crafted with immense skill; the writing leaps off the page with devastating candour. It will leave you breathless with an understanding of how the truth can be mauled and presented to an innocent reader with alluring apparent flawlessness. And breathless in the realisation of how South African stories have been mutilated by press agents that have allowed themselves to fit into the pockets of leaders with evil intent. By the same token, this book is a rich foray into what makes brilliant investigative writing and ultimately, it offers immense hope to this country and the telling of its stories.
- So, for the Record: Behind the headlines in an era of state capture by Anton Harber is published by Jonathan Ball, Johannesburg, Cape Town and London (2020).