China Comes to Cape Town International Airport
“you can quote me on that”
- Credible news sources are a lifeblood for journalists and an indispensable factor in news gathering and moreso in investigative reporting
- Sources come in various shapes, and as uSpiked’s Hassan Ali narrates, they sometimes fail to provide this lifeblood at great cost
- Disillusioned with the outcome of a meeting with a source, he noticed a rather odd issue on board a new airside bus at Cape Town International Airport
- Airport Company South Africa has contracted BidAir Services, which is lagging in a seemingly small but important task of ‘domesticating’ the buses that appear to have been purchased from China
Fair and respectful handling of sources is one thing my editor does not take lightly. In fact, deviating from any of uSpiked’s written in-house codes is a dismissible offence. The following reminder appears at the top of the section on sources: “A source is only as good as his or her previously reliable information. Past reliability is not a guarantee for present …” My editor worships this rule, and puts it in a nutshell, ‘yesterday was yesterday, today is today’. Hence it required little motivation to secure his approval for a flight I needed to meet a new source across the country.
The meeting did not go smoothly. The source put forward certain conditions before he could divulge any information. Among the demands was an undertaking that we would let him approve the final report before publication. Now, our written code is explicit on this - a source has no responsibility on the resulting report. When I rejected numerous conditions, he left in a huff. So, there I was with two hot mugs of cappuccino and my mind racing, trying to contemplate how I could justify this ‘wastage’ of editorial budget.
When I contacted my editor in Cape Town to announce the outcome of the meeting, he calmly asked me to try and change my return flight, which I managed to do, but at some extra cost. My editor is never calm under such circumstances, and his calmness elevated my anxiety.
During the two-hour return flight to mother-city, I thought about the story I had just missed, or should I say the story that never was. If the lead the source had earlier provided over the telephone and my initial research was anything to go by, the report would have been great for the public and my career. I mused over the cliché of ‘getting the story at all cost’; should I have given the source false undertaking that I couldn't possibly honour?
What if we (journalists at uSpiked) didn’t have any written codes, would the outcome of this meeting have been different? Sources are our bread and butter, but some can be quite impossible. I have encountered sources that reasonably demanded anonymity but soon after told their friends and colleagues about our deals.
There are the easy and difficult sources. The first category has no vested interest in sharing information that is clearly of public importance. As for the latter, they come in all forms and shapes. Some of them lie or simply fail to declare their interests and motives, and become indignant when we finally connect the dots.
In the latter category still are the types who provide us with (often selective) documents and records. Experience has taught me that with the advances in technology, documents and records can easily be generated. Thanks to uSpiked’s super-intelligent data and information processing software, we can easily jump over this hoop.
What irritates most journalists is when a supposed source sends us on a wild-goose-chase, whether deliberately or innocently. There is no civil way of conveying the disappointment and luckily for us, our editor gave us carte blanche to ruthlessly deal with time-wasters.
“I think every journalist understands when they are the beneficiary of hot information that, yes, they have a scoop, but they're also being used. Part of your responsibility as a journalist is to tell the story of why that information is coming to you, consistent with the ground rules of your sourcing.” John Hockenberry
Our guide is detailed when it comes to sources requesting anonymity. Great emphasis is placed on gauging how important the provided information is to the public and availability of independent verification. We are guided to avoid individuals that are provided by the source for verification – that would not be independent. However important the information may seem, if we can’t obtain independent verification, the lead is suspended indefinitely.
Part of the footnotes to the codes pertaining to sources reads; ‘You are strictly forbidden from paying for information or entertaining any financial compensation for information however great.’ This includes instances where a source would claim to have spent funds in acquiring information he or she claims to have.
Have the codes made my work any easier or just more difficult? The announcement from the cockpit of the impending landing at Cape Town International Airport interrupted my thoughts on an answer to this question.
We disembarked from the plane and boarded the airport's airside buses that was to take us to the domestic arrivals terminal. The bus, like most things at Cape Town International Airport, appeared new and clean. The airport is the third busiest in Africa, after OR Tambo and Cairo International. After the upgrades done pre-2010 FIFA World Cup, it has been ranked the ‘Best Airport in Africa’ several times by UK-based consultancy, Skytrax.
Perhaps the airport would fit a teenager’s definition of ‘cool’. For me, the ‘coolness’ evaporated when an announcement came over the bus' sound system … “the bus is moving, would you please hold handle for safety …” Really, where exactly were we? Beijing or Cape Town, I had wondered. I must have encountered the Asian accents in my previous flights, but this particular late afternoon, I happened to be super attentive for details.
My work audio recorder was still on ‘voice activated recording mode’, so it recorded the clip above. The voice on the intercom spoke in English but with an Asian accent.
It was the factory-built onboard computer programmed voice that had issued the command. I later learnt that the system uses the bus engine status mode and the dashboard cameras to issue the various commands and instructions to travellers.
While there is nothing wrong with having an Asian-accented announcement, I wondered how much it would have cost, BidAir Services (Pty) Ltd, - the company contracted by the Airport Company South Africa (ACSA) to render the services - to ‘localise’ the voices on its buses, after all, I have been able to do just that with my GPS Navigation gadget.
Since that hilarious afternoon on board the BidAir bus, I have spent my free time trying to find the details of the tender that had landed the contract to the company, with little success. I have since ruled it as a possible BRICS effect on the country.
To fellow budget traveller, next time you board those Airside buses and hear the accented announcements, don’t expect the next stop to be at the Palace Museum across from Tiananmen Square, but at the door of a Kulula or Mango planes.
If only for patriotism sake, BidAir Services – a wholly owned subsidiary of JSE-listed BIDVest Group - should consider investing a few coins in customising the voices that interact with travellers.