The art of writing headlines is a difficult one: they need to be accurate and attractive and it is easy to fall into the trap of overselling a story.
This is what a reader accused the Mail & Guardian of doing when he complained about "misleading and sensationalist" headings on a recent story claiming improper political meddling in processes regarding water licences.
The headline Mark Allen objected to, on the paper's front page, read: "How minister 'saved' Cyril", with the subheading: "Water affairs boss allegedly intervened to stop legal action against companies linked to Ramaphosa".
The story reported on attempts by the department of water affairs to ensure that mines obtained the necessary water licences and that five companies associated with political and business heavyweight Cyril Ramaphosa were found to be operating without them. (The article refers to "more than five", begging the question, how many more? In fact, only five mines are identified.)
An anonymous source is quoted as saying that the minister, Edna Molewa, told officials to find a way to settle out of court to avoid embarrassing Ramaphosa. The claim is denied directly by two officials, whereas Molewa herself does so obliquely. Various other sources contribute other details.
Allen argues that the allegation is based entirely on that one anonymous source, contradicted by the others, and "seeks to exploit the recent high media profile of the named businessman for the sole or main purpose of driving newspaper sales and to perpetuate the view that corruption is to be found in every transaction involving government and senior ANC officials".
Director of compliance
A close look at the story highlights a significant statement by Nigel Adams, the director of compliance, monitoring and enforcement in the department. He denied instructions were issued, but said Molewa "gave her opinion". Although cast in more innocent tones, the statement confirms that something was said about the way in which the dispute should be handled. The line between an opinion and an instruction is a thin one, particularly when it comes from a minister to her officials.
I think there is more evidence for the central claim than the complaint allows for.
What I found frustrating about the report, however, was how unclear the complex legal background remained. It is not at all clear what the nature of the contemplated legal action was: there is talk about an instrument called a predirective, which is not explained; at another point, there is talk of criminal charges being laid. In this complex environment, a reference to taking companies to court is simply not enough.
Nor is it clear how other companies are being dealt with. This context might have helped to establish whether the department did, in fact, give the Ramaphosa mines preferential treatment.
There are at least two rather different readings possible, given the facts presented. The one, offered by one of the companies, is that the department was forced on to the back foot in the legal process because it was at fault for being slow. The other, based more on reading between the lines, is that the legal manoeuvres were no more than brinkmanship by both sides – a common tactic that often ends with a last-minute agreement.
So, the evidence that anything actually changed as a result of the minister's statement is not strong.
Hurdle of accuracy
In that sense, the headline on the story itself cannot be faulted: the minister was accused of meddling, even if only by the one source.
The front-page headline takes a further step, to claim she "saved" Ramaphosa. The quote marks put a little distance between the paper and the claim, and the subheading makes it clear this is a matter of allegation. Taken as a whole, the headings certainly meet the test of being interesting and narrowly clear the hurdle of accuracy.
Allen writes that, even if he has doubts about this particular incident, there are certainly stories in the way water licences for mines are being handled and I certainly agree with him on that point. It is an important issue: beyond the politics, there are significant public policy, economic and environmental issues at stake.
oBy the time this week's M&G appears, the long-awaited report of the British Leveson inquiry will have been released, which is likely to lead to a radical shake-up of the way the print media is regulated in the United Kingdom.
Driven by a public outcry about journalistic methods and abuse of media power, the commission is said to be considering a statutory regulator with greatly extended powers. Whatever the outcome, the British example will have a significant impact on media in the rest of the world.
If nothing else, it is an object lesson in how much damage journalists can cause to their own interests when they stop paying attention to generally accepted norms, as the British media did when they began industrial-scale hacking into private telephones.
In South Africa, the new year will bring in a radically re-engineered Press Council, with more authority, new procedures and a press code that has been extensively overhauled.
The test of the new South African system will also be how effectively it can guard public trust in the journalistic project and its contribution to democracy.
The Mail & Guardian's ombud provides an independent view of the paper's journalism. If you have any complaints you would like addressed, you can contact me at [email protected] You can also phone the paper on 011 250 7300 and leave a message.