The ‘death’ that almost got me fired at Punch

Olumide Iyanda

Buzz by Olumide Iyanda

Email: Twitter: @mightyng

Very few things are as devastating as a reporter discovering that what he thought was a scoop is actually a hoax with calamitous consequences on his career and the reputation of his employers. For Olakunle Taiwo, recently dismissed by African Newspapers of Nigeria Ltd, publishers of the Tribune titles, for conducting an interview with a Prof Itse Sagay impostor, that could not have occurred at a worst time.

According to the young reporter, he conducted an interview on the telephone on December 17 with someone he had interacted with as the eminent constitutional lawyer since last year. He got married two days later. The interview was published on December 20, the day after his wedding.

The reporter must have felt like he just struck oil. He finally has a wife in his arm and an exclusive with the one and only ‘Sagay’ on the cover of Sunday Tribune. All in less than 48 hours. Both traditional and new media also lapped in on the story, either reproducing the interview verbatim or quoting copiously from it. What could possibly go wrong?

But there was a red flag immediately after the interview was published. Here was ‘Sagay’, head of an advisory committee set up by President Muhammadu Buhari on anti-corruption, purportedly attacking the government for not being sincere in its fight against graft. In the interview, Buhari was accused of everything from influencing the judiciary, manipulating the Kogi governorship election and using the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) to selectively witch-hunt opposition politicians. There was also reference to Buhari’s regime as military ruler when a northern governor allegedly caught with N50million cash got a slap on the wrist while politicians from other parts of the country with minor infractions were thrown in jail. Not to be forgotten was the “53 suitcases” over which legend has it that former Vice President Atiku Abubakar was sacked from the Customs.

Perhaps, with a bit more circumspection, an editor should have known that those words could not have come from the real Sagay even if the reporter had “him” on tape. The lawyer immediately denied granting such damning interview. He told an online platform that he stopped granting interview to Tribune in August after accusing the organisation of twisting his words to suit “the devious agenda of its editors”.

Long story short: Someone posing as the lawyer had been relating with Mr Taiwo as Sagay. The reporter, about to proceed on honeymoon, was queried and eventually sacked. The editor of Sunday Tribune, Sina Oladeinde, was also placed on indefinite suspension. Tribune, which claims to be “Nigeria’s Most Informative Newspaper”, has since issued a retraction and apology to Sagay, Buhari and its readers with a promise to continue “our investigations on who the person on the other line actually was and what could have gone wrong along our own line of editorial control.”

While I make no excuse for Taiwo’s recklessness or question the decision of his employers, I cannot help but empathise with him. His case is a clear manifestation of some of the things wrong with modern media practice which has become very impersonal and full of shortcuts.

For those accusing him of concocting an interview with Professor Sagay, a contrite Taiwo has said “I did not set out to do that. I did not do that. I was careless. I could be accused of naivety, taking things for granted. I could be accused of not being alert enough as I should. I plead guilty to all. What I am innocent of is criminal intent in conducting a fake interview.”

I dare not cast a stone at the man who is obviously hurting for I am not without sin. And I know how it feels to make a careless and reckless mistake. The type that questions not just your integrity, but your sanity too.

Mine happened in 2001. I was just two months into my employment as entertainment correspondent with Saturday Punch.

The story actually started while I was a reporter with Tempo magazine. I had written a story about Ruben Kruger, a South African rugby player who came to Pastor TB Joshua to seek healing for his brain tumour. The winner of the 1995 Rugby World Cup was said to have received a miracle at the Synagogue Church of All Nations and gone back to his country fit as a fiddle.

I visited the church, spoke to a few people who said they saw him in Nigeria and filed my report which was later published. Joshua loved the story and someone sent more than prayers to me at Tempo’s office on Acme Road, Ogba, Lagos as a show of appreciation.

I soon forgot about Kruger. That was until I visited a maverick entertainer friend of mine for an interview to be published in Saturday Punch. My interview subject was one of those involved in the campaign to save Tyna Onwudiwe who had been hospitalised in Johannesburg, South Africa for cancer. I met him in Gbagada, Lagos shortly after Tyna had died. He and others visited the African Oyinbo before she breathed her last.

Asked if they ever thought of bringing the deceased to Nigeria for a miracle, my friend dismissed the thought saying “make she come die like that South African rugby player wey come meet that yeye pastor”. My brain quickly shifted to high gear. I asked him if he was sure and he said he could swear by his motorbike.

I asked a female musician who was also on the Save Tyna Onwudiwe campaign train and she confirmed it too. I also visited others whom I think should know. The GSM revolution had not begun, so confirmation and interviews were done face-to-face.

All the while, I had the story written but did not publish because I wanted that “final” confirmation. Calls to Synagogue were not helpful. All I got was a woman who sounded Chinese telling me I could not reach Pastor Joshua. A visit to the church in Ijegun yielded no result either. I was sure they were trying to hide something.

Eventually, I got the man who gave me the original story while I was back at Tempo. He requested that I give him time to confirm. Sure enough, he got back and said the man was indeed dead. With that “confirmation” I passed the story of how death undid Joshua’s miracle.

All was quiet on the western front until my then editor, Azu Ishiekwene, called me to his office one afternoon and showed me a printed email. It was from a very much alive Kruger! I didn’t know when a curse word escaped from my lips.

Apparently, the people at the Synagogue had told Kruger about the story, and after a couple of email exchanges it was decided that a letter of complaint should be sent to my employers. Given Punch’s zero tolerance for sloppiness and Azu’s reputation as Mr Finicky, what I had done was not a sin; it was the sin.

I was convinced my Punch career was over before it started. The dream of continuing a legacy set by the likes of Femi Akintunde-Johnson and Azuka Jebose suddenly became a nightmare. My heart shrunk like a tomato exposed to the scorching sun. I thought of writing a resignation letter before a sack came from HR.

But my Higher Power had other plans. When my case came up for review, someone managed to convince management not to fire me. He made reference to what I had done in the little while I had been at Punch and the potential he was convinced I had.

In a show of rare undeserved favour, I was suspended for two weeks without pay. That was when I discovered Paulo Coelho. I read The Alchemist and the words that jumped at me were “when you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.”

I came back from suspension, threw myself back at work and practically broke a leg to justify the trust that manager who saved my job had in me. Funny enough, nobody told me who that manager was and I still do not know his identity as I write.

Punch was good to me. And I was good to Punch. I left in April 2004 as Saturday Punch Staff of the Year. It was a few months after my promotion as senior correspondent. My departure had its own twist. The tradition then was that the company immediately released anybody who resigned. Even if you gave a month notice, you will be discharged and paid all that was due to you. But I was made to serve out my one month. Those who resigned after me left before me.

As I read about the blunder Taiwo committed with the ‘Sagay’ interview and his sack, I feel sorry for him because something screams that it could have been me. There are different degrees of faux pas in life. Whether they are pardonable or not sometimes depends on who has the yam and the knife.

Kruger was sympathetic towards me. I got his email address from my editor and wrote a personal apology to him. He wrote back, saying he was sorry at what happened to me but advised I be more careful in the future. He chose not to take any legal action against me or my employers. Sadly, he died on January 27, 2010 after battling brain cancer for 10 years. He was two months short of his 40th birthday.

Punch would have been justified to fire me in 2001. My goof was as bad, if not worse, than the one about Sagay. Things probably would have been different if there was a social media boom back then. Perhaps, that is the difference between Taiwo and me.

News now travels faster and judgment swifter. The world is less forgiving. And in a world of mutual distrust, people will read all kinds of motive to your error.

I pray Taiwo will write a story with a happier ending than mine someday.