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Debora Patta, Avenging Angel and Zulu Princess

An email interview with Debora Patta, the journalist who heads up’s 3rd Degree. ‘After a show on racism at a whites-only resort, I received the most vitriolic hate-mail I have ever seen, including somebody saying, “You deserve to be raped.”’

Original publication: Tiscali World Online, 2001.

Debora Patta Third Degree

WORLD ONLINE: Debora, you're famous to millions of South African viewers as the extremely tough investigative journalist who turns up the heat on's 3rd Degree. But, back at the ranch, do you have any less well-known claims to fame? Are you, for instance, a fool for Mills Boon who yodels with joy at the sight of a basket of puppies, or in fact a specialist in unarmed combat (death-match level)? Do you have twelve bawling kids in the wings, or does a secret life as a ninja leave little time for that? Tell all.

DEBORA PATTA: My husband is really the famous one – he's a New York-trained film director who's also a Zulu prince. So actually it's Princess to you! Unarmed combat is not me, but maybe my brief stint as an aerobics teacher counts for something. Yup – that's right, I used to teach aerobics when I was at university and needed extra money. I was told I had a promising career! Actually my real claim to fame is that I am really a property magnate disguised as a journalist. My sister and I inherited the family business in Italy – we own a hotel in Rome and holiday apartments in the south of Italy, which we run by remote control. And, yes, I am very much an Italian and proud of my roots.

WORLD ONLINE: The Patta face – the persona – that viewers see is typically a very serious one indeed: resolved, determined, set in empathetic concern for the downtrodden or, alternatively, a kind of neutral anger when moving in for the journalistic kill. Does this persona carry over into areas outside your professional life, or are there many mansions to the Patta house?

DEBORA PATTA: Neutral anger – mmm, I think my husband would disagree there. Neutral anger certainly tends to explode into passionate rage at times. It's the old Italian temper. And, no, in my personal life I hope I am a little more three-dimensional. I'm not serious at all. I spend a lot of time laughing with my daughter whom I absolutely adore and I am so proud of. I love romantic movies. We entertain in good old-fashioned Italian style – good wine, good food, loud conversation. My husband and I can both put in modest claims to being good cooks.

WORLD ONLINE: What were you doing before you rose to prominence on 3rd Degree? Let's hear a bit about your background.

DEBORA PATTA: I arrived in South Africa in 1976 – an interesting year for the country, that's for sure. My origins are Italian and Italy is really my second home but South Africa is where my heart is. After graduating from university I worked as a political activist until 1990. I began my career as a journalist with Radio 702. Eventually becoming Head of News. It is here where I really cut my journalistic teeth. I was extremely lucky to cover Nelson Mandela's election campaign and also travel a lot for 702, including covering the Gulf War in Baghdad, Princess Di's funeral, many African stories and the Hong Kong Hand-over. I have written two books – one on Baby Micaela (who was kidnapped at birth) and the other with Nelson Mandela's bodyguard, which gives an anecdotal insight into this great man.

WORLD ONLINE: What would you say is the ‘formula’ for 3rd Degree? What makes it different to other television programming of its kind?

DEBORA PATTA: Unrelenting journalism! I think where we are different is that we take investigative journalism one step further. We attempt to hold people in authority accountable. Not only will we do an investigative insert but we will then interview the relevant person live in the studio. I like to think 3rd Degree is not afraid to ask the difficult questions, the questions that everyone wants asked but few have the guts to ask. There are very few, if any, current affairs shows who interview in this style. By and large, South Africans are just too nervous and intimidated by those in authority. The media is its own worst enemy now that press censorship no longer exists.

WORLD ONLINE: Here's the old ‘highlights and lowlife’ gambit: What have been the moments on 3rd Degree that have given you the greatest pride, and which experiences, for you personally, have been the most distressing?

DEBORA PATTA: Moment of greatest pride was broadcasting our story on Makhosi Mkhize who was raped, brutally tortured and mutilated and then forced to suffer a double injustice when police failed to investigate her case. Eight months after the attack, 3rd Degree found the crime scene untouched, and even though one of the perpetrators was known to the police, no arrests had followed. We were told that they couldn't make an arrest because they didn't have his address. Yeah, and all criminals regularly pop into police stations and leave their contact details! We exposed this story and police are now working properly on it. And at the beginning of this year 3rd Degree was honoured with the CNN African Journalist of the Year Award for Sam Rogers who produced that particular show.

The most distressing was doing a show on racism in which my husband and I attempted to enter a whites-only resort (my husband's black). We captured the whole process of us getting kicked out on hidden camera. It was good television. But amazingly afterwards I received the most vitriolic, racist hate-mail I have ever seen, including somebody saying, ‘You deserve to be raped.’ It was very sad to see that despite six years of democracy some people are still stuck in the dark ages.

WORLD ONLINE: Which of your interviews on the show have been the most pleasurable to do, and which interviewees have been the toughest nuts to crack? In answering this, perhaps you'd like to comment on what interviewing style works best for you.

DEBORA PATTA: The most pleasurable was Cyril Ramaphosa and the toughest nut to crack was definitely President Thabo Mbeki. Interviewing style – that's hard to say because different people need different methods. If a person is being honest (even if you don't like the answers), you need to work with that – there's no point in being confrontational. But if a person is being evasive – then confrontation can work really well. Tough, direct and unrelenting questions.

I interview well when I have excellent research and all the relevant facts at my fingertips. In fact, we often try and anticipate as a team what an answer will be so that we can start preparing follow-up questions. It's not good to be caught by surprise so I try never to ask a question I don't know the answer to already or at least have some idea of where the interviewee will go. I am talking specifically here of the kind of interview that's done live, in the studio – where the person is being grilled. When we are in the field and it's not being recorded and you are dealing with somebody who's lost a loved one or talking about something really difficult – then my approach is totally different. That might require several visits, just sitting and talking before we actually record and then I give the person as much time as they need to tell the story because we can always edit afterwards.

WORLD ONLINE: Both in the studio and outside, in the field segments, you've found yourself in some tough, confrontational moments yet always kept the nerve, the power of self-belief, of a champion alligator wrestler. What's been the most dangerous or volatile situation you've encountered in the field while working on 3rd Degree – and what has been the funniest?

DEBORA PATTA: The most dangerous wasn't working for 3rd Degree. It was when I was still a reporter at Radio 702 covering the township violence. I was reporting at the funeral after the Boipatong Massacre in the early nineties. The mood of the crowd suddenly turned and some of the mourners starting attacking white journalists. I watched in horror as a good colleague of mine from the BBC was struck on the head repeatedly with a rock. We had to literally flee the scene. Up till then I had covered much of the township violence but it was usually the police one feared not the residents.

My funniest moment as a journalist was after covering Nelson Mandela's election campaign when he phoned me at home one evening. It was late at night and a bit ill and I thought it was a colleague – Jeremy Mansfield – pretending to be Mandela (he does a brilliant impersonation) – so I told him to go to hell and it turned out to be the real thing. There was a brief silence and Mandela then just continued talking calmly. That probably should go down as my most embarrassing, come to think of it, rather than funniest.

WORLD ONLINE: I've worked, briefly, in television documentary, and thought it was hell on earth – chaotic and unremitting, yet driven by an adrenalising momentum of its own. You've seen it coming, Debora, and here it is: What's your typical day on 3rd Degree – all helter-skelter, or more like being tranked-out on a Jamaican hammock?

DEBORA PATTA: It's adrenaline all the way. In addition to presenting the show I am also the Executive Producer – so this is very much a full-time job for me. We start the week off on a slight note of self-delusion – thinking we have many days to go before our next show and then as Thursday approaches, the tension starts rising. Being a current affairs show – we need to stay current and on top of the things. Most of the shows – with a few exceptions – are done live, i.e. the interview segment. Our deadline is literally moments before going live on air at 8:30 on a Thursday evening.

An average day would begin pretty early – often going out on a field shoot.

Sometimes the crucial information we need for a story only arrives hours before broadcast. I remember one time working on the Mariette Bosch story (the South African executed in Botswana for murder) that we literally finished the story while the first half was on air because things were changing so much. That is not the norm, though.

The pressure is constant – fighting against deadlines. We are a small and close-knit team, so sometimes as the adrenaline rises, so do the tempers. But we always manage to calm down after the show has been aired. And our Friday editorial meetings are usually great fun – with each team member taking a turn to bring breakfast.

At that meeting we criticise the show from the night before (and believe me we are our harshest critics) and then plan ahead for future shows. Usually more than one show is in production at any given time. Then I also fly down to Cape Town on a weekly basis to do the show live at our studios there (it's cheaper to fly to Cape Town then do it in Jo’burg because we own the studios there). This is quite hectic especially with a family. The thing is the deadlines just never end ... but I'm not complaining – I am a serious adrenaline junkie. I was reporting literally until hours before my baby daughter was born.

But the most important thing about our show is that we are a team. There are eight of us working full-time on 3rd Degree. It is this group that conceived and produces 3rd Degree. And I am proud to be working with some of the best journalists in Africa.

WORLD ONLINE: What kind of stuff do you enjoy reading? Who are your favourite writers, and what are you busy with at the moment?

DEBORA PATTA: I am an avid reader. I love reading pretty much anything that's well-written or entertaining but for relaxation I am a sucker for legal thrillers. I recently finished Barbara Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible which was so brilliant I couldn't touch anything for days after that. And right now I am just about through White Teeth by the 26-year-old writing sensation Zadie Smith. It's kind of sickening that somebody so young can right so well – and it's her first book. Secretly I'd love to write an amazing novel but I'm not sure I have the discipline. I really admire people who write well. I go through phases of having huge crushes on various authors – at the moment I'm flirting with Jo-Anne Harris (of Chocolat fame); David Guttenburg (of Snow Falling on Cedars fame); Amy Tan; Anita Shreve and David Baldacci.

WORLD ONLINE: A last question: Bearing in mind that this is family website, what the hell does a gal like Debora Patta do to unwind?

DEBORA PATTA: That's easy – a glass of fine wine, good friends and some fabulous Italian food. Movies, we see lots of movies. In between that I run – I have made a point of running in every place I've visited around the world – the most interesting being running covered from head to toe in Baghdad. And then there's that holiday home in the south of Italy …


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