News reports have two very different audiences: most readers read with the interest of an outside observer - sometimes more, sometimes less.
But a handful read with the intense, personal interest of people directly involved. They may be a tiny minority, but they make up for it by having direct knowledge of the events and bringing to bear a much more personal stake in the way the report is written. One can be sure that they will be extremely sensitive to errors of fact or emphasis.
A recent complaint underlined how there is always somebody for whom even the smallest detail matters a great deal.
A story in the Mail & Guardian of October 12 dealt with a dispute between MTN and the parastatal Swaziland Posts and Telecommunications Corporation, which has escalated to the point that it resulted in a parliamentary vote of no confidence in the Cabinet. As always in Swaziland, the king and trade unions also played a role.
A sidebar provided background to and explanations of the intricacies. Buried in the sixth paragraph was a reference to the corporation's managing director, Nathi Dlamini, who, the report said, "was later fired and now faces corruption charges" in connection with some tenders.
Dlamini sent me a detailed note, saying it was not true that he was fired: his contract ended in September 2009 and he left after a three-month extension at the start of the following year. Although the non-renewal of a contract is sometimes a kind of termination, I accepted there was not enough evidence to say he was fired and have asked for a correction to be published.
He also objected to the statement that he was facing corruption charges and this was a little more difficult to resolve. In fact, he wrote, the charges against him involved a technical dispute about the registration of a shelf company. Breaching government regulations by failing to obtain the necessary Cabinet authority was "not, by any stretch of the imagination, a corruption charge and to imply otherwise is painfully iniquitous", he wrote. Dlamini also made the point that he was being charged as the responsible official of the corporation, not in his private capacity.
Reports in the Swazi media bear out his argument that the charge is based on an alleged failure to obtain proper approval to register a new subsidiary. Other allegations of tender corruption have been made by a union to the country's anti-corruption commission, but these do not yet seem to have resulted in formal charges in court. It is understandable that the reference to corruption is hurtful, even though the laying of charges does not establish guilt.
So, in the circumstances, was it reasonable to refer to corruption charges? Dlamini is due to appear in court soon to face charges under the Prevention of Corruption Act of 2006 and the name of the law does seem to justify the use of the term.
Although I do not think the term was wrongly used, additional information could have put the matter in context. It would simply be a matter of pointing out that the charges revolve around an alleged failure to obtain government approval for the registration of a company.
The matter has highlighted how an apparently minor addition to a report can cause difficulties. The focus was really on a parliamentary vote of no confidence in the Cabinet, whereas a sidebar report explained the background. The charges against Dlamini were not central even here: they were a quick addition of information, based on reports in previous editions of the M&G and elsewhere.
Few readers would have paid a lot of attention to the brief, throwaway line. Editors, too, tend to spend most time on new allegations, the main point of a story, making sure that the demands of fairness, accuracy and others are met. It is easy for a subsidiary fact in a background story to slip past without a great deal of examination. But Dlamini, in this case, was reading with a keener eye.
It is important to make sure that all facts – including secondary ones – pass muster with the sharpest editor. But it is even more critical to ensure they cannot be challenged by the most critical readers of all, the people involved. That they are often uncomfortable with the story makes it even more important to make sure the facts are unassailable.
- The M&G's ombud provides an independent view of the paper's journalism. For any complaints, email firstname.lastname@example.org or phone 0112507300 and leave a message