In-depth analysis of extensive records shows how haphazardly Tafelberg, a once leading Media24 book publishing division and Media24 dealt with the book “The Lost Boys of Bird Island” and its co-authors, from its earliest beginnings up to some twenty months after its launching, when they shamefully had to withdraw it from the market.
This embarrassment meted out to Media24’s book-publishing division, culminating in withdrawing a book which at first excited them, most certainly was a very significant and ground-breaking event in the South African book-publishing history, holding lessons for Media24’s future exploits, as well as for other independent media houses.
For the mammoth NASPERS stable, through their Media24 conglomerate of numerous media entities, this escapade was a humiliating first in their hundred-plus years of existence. Their high standing was badly dented, which ought to have compelled both directors and executives involved in book publishing, into serious introspection about their policies and practices.
In the process, a fundamental flaw was identified in the book-publishing industry, compared to newspaper and magazine publishing. It disclosed a discrepancy that often seems to lead to tension between these two divisions, particularly if they find themselves within the same group of companies. Newspapers and magazines from the distant past, today still have the successor of its erstwhile Press Council where complaints can be lodged, while book publishing to date appears to have been entrusted with the responsibility of the equivalent of self-regulation, which without oversight, not only tarnishes their own reputation, but also that of the newspapers and magazines, much to their displeasure. This approach clearly now has become both ineffectual and outdated, rendering book publishing in desperate need of being regulated by a powerful independent Ombud-like entity established and empowered by law, where complaints can be lodged.
Submissions to Parliament to this end are overdue and should receive its urgent attention and action.
Misadventures such as publishing an offensive book such as “The Lost Boys of Bird Island” appear to originate from either or both of the following shortcomings. Moreover, this book openly was printed and launched with impunity arising from no identifiable efforts by the relevant Media24 Boards and executives to apply oversight, which may even suggest their conscious complicity in the process, and the absence of the risk of sanction by an independent, Official Regulatory body:
The reputational damage inflicted on Tafelberg and National Books by publishing the disgraced book “The Lost Boys of Bird Island”, deservedly, was substantial, giving rise to the following pertinent and potentially inter-connected consequential issues:
Analysis of the origins and overview of this book, with its false and fabricated contents and generously spiced with repugnant language and repulsive untrue events unfamiliar to Tafelberg’s traditions and culture, perplexes both casual and dedicated observers. How and why did it come to be published at all and surprisingly, by such an otherwise highly respected publishing house with impeccable standards?
Media24 eventually found itself in a highly embarrassing situation when their book, originally enthusiastically accepted for publishing and classified as Non-Fiction, through lack of oversight, was allowed to evolve into publishing a document brimming with lies and fabrications. This transition came about by the authors’ submission of successive manuscripts, each more “enhanced” and embellished with false, fabricated events and dialogues than its predecessor, clearly violating sound publishing practice as well as international guidelines and standards for contents classification.
Regardless, Tafelberg and its two co-authors, persisted with their Non-Fiction classification, even after Mark Minnie’s belated confession that there was no evidence whatsoever for the book’s paedophilia allegations - a stance which Media24 maintained up to the very day of the book’s withdrawal from the marketplace.
Looking critically at the entire process of producing this book, this type of unacceptable behaviour reveals lessons, which Media24 as well the rest of the publishing industry in future may benefit from avoiding:
LESSON 1: Lack of proper due diligence into the purported veracity of the contents of the book as well as the suspicious mobile contents of its multiple, clearly manipulated and fraudulently decorated draft manuscripts, successively submitted to Tafelberg’s Non-Fiction Editor, Maryna Lamprecht.
LESSON 2: Lack of due diligence and oversight by Media24 book-publishing executives and directors, in ensuring that the book’s contents were factual, rendering its classification as Non-Fiction correct and able to survive international scrutiny and peer review.
LESSON 3: Lack of due diligence into the dubious and suspicious backgrounds and track records of the two co-authors. A single early interview conducted by an experienced media or legally qualified person at the outset, already then would have exposed them as liars.
LESSON 4: This cavalier attitude towards appropriate due diligence prevailed not only among editorial staff, but also among directors and executives before the book’s publication and astonishingly, for almost twenty months thereafter. Wide-ranging and authoritative public criticism of the book commenced immediately after its launching, exposing it as a collection of untrue statements, innuendo’s and fabricated events, but which, inexplicably, left directors and executives completely oblivious. They seem to have been blinded by their intention to cause massive sensation and huge public interest towards promoting book sales, revenue and profits. As a consequence, Tafelberg’s Non-Fiction Editor Maryna Lamprecht, with the backing of her superiors, undoubtedly reinforced the growing perception that almost to the point of irrationality, they had become utterly committed to being politically correct at all costs. Hence, they had no problem, unconscionably and with malicious intent, compiling a false, fraudulent book, designed to inflict enormous and irreparable slander to a living former National Party minister and his two deceased former colleagues. The price they paid and still do, for this error of judgement, is public knowledge.
LESSON 5: Lack of fiduciary discipline and oversight. All Board members of companies, in particular those of media companies, should regularly receive tuition and briefings on the latest fiduciary dictates for company directors, as clearly spelled out in both the Companies Act and the King IV principles. By way of appropriate internal managerial and executive overview, they regularly should be called to account in this respect. Obviously, had Media24 Directors diligently applied their fiduciary duties, they certainly would have averted the disaster of them at first having enthusiastically approved publication of a book, only later shamefully to be compelled to withdraw it from the market. An expensive lesson.
LESSON 6: Proper, reliable legal advice is absolutely crucial, especially for media companies. Potential litigation against Tafelberg on account of the defamatory contents of the Bird Island book, according to a legal report considered prior to publication, was disregarded by their legal advisor Willem de Klerk. He merely cautioned that the publisher at first should not directly reveal Du Plessis’ real name in the book, but to use a pseudonym. He clearly had no problem with Du Plessis’ unmistakable description – and identification - in the book, which linked him to paedophilia, as long as Du Plessis’ real name was not made known by Tafelberg or Media24. He intimated that very soon after its launching, someone else in the media industry would expose Du Plessis’ real name. He was wrong, because he seemingly also did not carry out proper due diligence into the book’s authors and contents.
LESSON 7: Lack of competence. Media24 made a huge mistake in having entrusted editorial responsibility to deal with a book as controversial and risky as what Steyn and Minnie from the beginning had confronted her with, to such an inexperienced person as their then Editor: Non-Fiction, Maryna Lamprecht. She was no match at all for two operators as devious at their trade, as the two co-authors Minnie and Steyn. With their fraudulent book, they easily played a massive, very expensive and humiliating hoax on her, as well as on her superiors, Board of Directors and Media24.
LESSON 8: Acknowledgement of mistakes. Media24, shortly after launching the book, should openly have acknowledged their error of judgement regarding management’s oversight over the way their Editor: Non-Fiction discharged, or rather, mismanaged, her huge responsibilities. She, herself, also ought to personally and publicly have apologised, since after all, her ineptitude grossly misled her direct managers, Board of Directors and tens of thousands of buyers all over the world into believing that the fraudulent book was indeed Non-Fiction. She in fact defrauded the public and book buyers.
LESSON 9: Misplaced protection of failed authors. Why has Media24 never said a single word to the public about their massive mistake in blindly accepting the two writers’ non-existent integrity and whom to this day they still protect? In good faith, the public trusted Media24 when they published the book. They loyally continued trusting them even when Media24 subsequently stood by and defended literally up to its withdrawal, the then already exposed fraudulent book. Is an explicit apology by Media24 not indicated for having misled the public and having used some of the money consumers had paid for the book, towards paying royalties to Steyn and Minnie for the right to print their lies and fraudulent fabrications? Shockingly, Media24 sold the film rights to a private person even before the book was launched!
LESSON 10: Compensation: Why not recover all that money from the two liars and refund the conned buyers of the fraudulent book, as suggested more fully in LESSON 15 below? Media24’s silence on this matter is rather distressing, implying that the surviving co-author Chris Steyn and late Mark Minnie’s estate are both still enjoying the protection and support of Media24 and Naspers. Disgraceful!
LESSON 11: Establishing and exposing the truth: The Media24 Board rejected public calls for a transparent investigation into the publishing of their fraudulent book and the immoral and unconscionable actions of all its functionaries involved in its production and publishing. This refusal to institute a proper and publicly transparent investigation, under independent chairmanship of a senior judicial officer, reeks of arrogance and is in line with the high-handed manner in which Media24 over more than eighteen months – unsuccessfully – tried to defend the book and escape their complicity and culpability for having consciously published a defamatory book consisting of fabrications and lies.
LESSON 12: Public Opinion: This obstinate reaction of Media24 to an investigation flew in the face of hugely negative and consistently repeated public responses inter alia from leading academics, a celebrated investigative journalist and author such as Jacques Pauw and in brave, exemplary fashion, even highly respected newspaper editors from Media24’s own ranks. This is yet another major error of judgement by Media24 to simply ignore justified criticism over the entire life-span of the book!
LESSON 13: Political subservience: The Media24 Board clearly turned a blind eye to the excessive political prejudice and bias among Media24 officials and journalists against three former members of the former National Party Government, as amply exposed elsewhere on this website and substantiated by their weeks-on-end vicious (read: baseless) condemnatory and emotionally charged reporting. A question that in this context presents itself is whether Media24’s current editorial policies are not perhaps indicating subservience to compensating for and obliterating Naspers’ previous intimate relationship over almost a century, with the National Party and its successive Governments.
LESSON 14: Violation of a constitutionally protected basic human right: Media24 intentionally and unconscionably denied Du Plessis the fundamental right to reply, in terms of the fundamental “audi alteram partem” rule, before printing the book. According to the advice of their legal advisor Willem de Klerk, they did so while knowing full-well that on account of lack of evidence, Du Plessis most likely would have been able to get a Court Order to stop them from printing the book. This unmistakably demonstrates malicious intent. Ironically, they later recalled the book of their own volition anyway, but only after irresponsibly having inflicted everlasting reputational damage to Du Plessis and his two deceased colleagues. Can anything earthly ever adequately compensate the three victims of the book for this horrible and wilfully inflicted injustice on them by Media24, and that on the basis of legal advice?
LESSON 15: Lack of dealing with downstream dire consequences: A question that still lives on, is, whose responsibility, other than exclusively that of Media24, can it be to also recall the tens of thousands of printed (and electronic?) copies of that defamatory book still available in libraries, including school libraries, book clubs and private book shelves and computers all over South Africa and in dozens of other countries. Is the only practical solution not, as noted in LESSON 10 above, for Media24 to do the honourable thing and publicly offer to buy back all books from their then trusting, but meanwhile proven brazenly swindled book-buying clientele?
LESSON 16: Defamation continues unabatedly: Clearly, the process of slandering and defamation of Du Plessis, Malan and Wiley will continue never-ending and buying back all copies sold, will go some way towards mitigating the ongoing damage.
LESSON 17: New perspective and precedent on defamatory journalism: The withdrawal of the book and Media24 awarding a somewhat higher,
albeit still completely inadequate compensation in line with what customarily is ruled in South African Courts, have now at least put
a notable new measure of perspective on defamatory journalism.
An important precedent has now been created for the adverse consequences of the reckless manner in which the two co-authors of “The Lost Boys of Bird Island” and their publisher had used their malicious imaginations to slander a living and two deceased persons.
Sadly, this significant example of the blatant perversion of journalism-with-integrity took place with the consent and support of both Media24’s book-publishing editing staff as well as its Board of Directors and book publishing executives.
Nevertheless, the amount of R3 million publicly offered by Media24 as part of their third apology, inadequate as it in reality is, may be an indication to Media24 and other publishers as to what in all likelihood they may expect from future “Bird Island” type publishing and subsequent litigation against them.
It is significant that the amount paid in settlement is but a tiny fraction compared to what Media24 had raked in locally and internationally from sales of their fraudulent book.
It would have been reassuring if this cancellation by Tafelberg, of a biography of a person who lied under oath in court and failed to unveil his financial misdemeanours to them, could have been deemed an indication of a change of heart at Tafelberg/Media24 in accepting only the verifiable truth for the contents of books they approve for printing and publishing.
Sadly, that is not the case: Tafelberg again, only just, has published as factual, a book of pure fiction and ridiculous fabrications with no properly researched historical basis at all, under the title “The Lie of 1652” by Patric Tariq Mellet.
And as per instructions from the top, Media24 again has given its unqualified support through all its media, to a non-factual book published by its sister company Tafelberg, dressed up as genuine history. This is nothing but yet another example of NASPERS’ subservience to both the concept of so-called “political correctness” and the narratives propagated by both self-appointed and Government-sponsored re-writers of South African history.
Tafelberg now clearly deems making money with controversial and sensational fictional and politically correct material, dressed up as factual, its new calling and business strategy.