If the primary aim of journalism is to give a realistic and reliable account of what is happening in our world, then the saga of the Pretoria decuplets has been a colossal failure at every level.
The focus of blame is on editor Piet Rampedi, and he has indeed shown himself to be the weakest link in a chain of bad journalism.
First, he ran a major story without doing basic checks. He fell for an obvious ruse, showing no scepticism and little judgement. Second, he threw himself behind the story and even asked the public to donate when the only verified fact in the story was the bank account number for contributions.
Even when the story fell apart, he mocked his critics and suggested those who demanded some evidence of the babies' existence were disrespecting the children, the family and African culture.
Clearly, there was also a collapse of the system of checks and balances at the . One has to ask why there was no-one there - not another editor, sub-editor or senior journalist, those entrusted with double-checking - who was willing or able to say, "Hold on, this doesn't sound right".
A culture of subservience
This tells you about the culture in that newsroom and in that media group: it is one of enforced subservience, where top-down decision-making has replaced the robust debate and vigorous questioning of a healthy news operation.
Rampedi's conduct is no surprise, as he has been previously exposed in the SARS rogue unit story as a person with a remarkable capacity to ignore the facts when they conflicted with his prejudices and political beliefs and to dig in as it emerged that they had got the story horribly, horribly wrong.
In my recent book, I showed how he allowed himself to be the media mouthpiece for some of the worst characters of the Zuma era, showing no skepticism, concern for verification or capacity for self-correction.
One would have thought that his journalism career would have ended there, but it was resuscitated by Dr Iqbal Surve of Sekunjalo Independent Newspapers. The prime qualification for being one of Surve's editors is a willingness to use the newspaper to promote his dubious personal, political and business interests - and Rampedi accepted this Faustian pact.
This has led to a series of the most ludicrous "investigations" that have been thinly disguised attacks on Surve's rivals and critics. The only thing that stands out about this one is that it was not about Surve's enemies, though it did provide him with a fresh opportunity to put himself on the front pages.
As a result of all of this, Sekunjalo Independent's newspapers are shadows of their former selves, journalistically and financially. Readerships have plummeted. The which, at its peak sold over 30 000, recorded only 2 000 average daily sales in the latest audited figures.
No doubt, the collapse of their sales contributed to Rampedi's push for a sensational scoop that would boost the group's faltering fortunes. Instead, it puts them on a tragic downward spiral: desperate for sales, they cut journalistic corners, undermining their credibility and accelerating their decline.
So the problem goes beyond Rampedi and the One of our largest media groups has gone rogue, throwing journalism principles out of the window, appointing key people without professional judgement or integrity and is now heading for the trash heap.
Along the way, Surve has not only opted out of the professional bodies that have worked to uphold and tighten journalistic standards - like the Press Council, Press Ombudsman and national editors' forum - but worked systematically to undermine them.
A deeper problem
How is he able to continue? For one, some advertisers continue to support him, his group and this kind of behaviour. Surely these advertisers will start now to wonder if they want to be seen as part of an attempt to undermine our media and our democracy.
The Public Investment Corporation, which backed his purchase of the newspaper group with public moneys, has been slow to act, although he has reneged on his debts.
The saga points to a deeper problem: the problems of a media system that allows essential institutions of transparency, accountability and democracy to fall into the hands of rogues and charlatans. Journalists will grapple now with the likes of Rampedi and Surve, but in the long run, we will have to find a better way to run our industry and profession.
Meanwhile, we have to remind ourselves that Surve and Rampedi are outliers. There are those in our industry who do excellent and vital work and who have played a key role in exposing state capture and poor governance. These are journalists who see what they do as public service, who follow a strict ethical code, and as a result do world-class work. It is these journalists we must support and enable.
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