/ 25 August 2009

The value of an open notebook

The humble notebook has been thrust on to centre stage by the furore about the recent Mail & Guardian report of remarks made by Western Cape Judge President John Hlophe.

Most controversial of these was probably the quoted statement that ‘I am not going to shake a white man’s hand” in reference to Chief Justice Pius Langa.

In other statements attributed to him he indicated that he regarded the Constitutional Court as a protector of ‘white justice”.

Hlophe has written to Langa to deny having made this and other statements. He argues that he has in fact shaken the chief justice’s hand and ‘I could never have spoken in such disparaging terms about you”.

Hlophe is also reported to have laid a complaint with the Press Ombudsman, with supporting affidavits from others who attended the dinner in Cape Town where the remarks were made.

The newspaper has indicated strongly that it stands by the story. As the issue will now be dealt with in that forum, I won’t consider the core question of whether the judge was misquoted or not.

Ultimately, it will be a matter of journalist Sello S Alcock’s word against that of the judge and his friends. But there are a few points that are worth making. Whatever the outcome, the reporter and the paper have learned a hard lesson about the basic need to take notes.

Alcock said last week in his account of the incident that he had decided not to take notes to make the judge feel more comfortable. He wrote that he transcribed the interview immediately after it took place.

Alcock said that he regretted not having taken notes during the discussion and a similar point is made in an editorial. For obvious reasons, notes written after a conversation are a less reliable record than those written as somebody is speaking. (Of course, it is perfectly possible to remember accurately — it’s just harder.)

Journalists write notes so that they can be sure afterwards that they have the facts right. And if a dispute arises, contemporaneous notes — or, even more powerfully, a recording — can be used as evidence.

But the open notebook on the table has a further function: it reminds the person on the other side that this conversation is not a casual chat, but a professional, on-the-record interview. It is a matter of basic fairness and professionalism to make sure interviewees can weigh the words that will be published.

An off-the-record discussion, on the other hand, also has clear rules. Once a journalist has accepted those terms, they must be observed. Comments made in such a conversation can’t be quoted.

An interview can sometimes contain on-the-record and off-the-record elements, and other nuances are possible, such as when sources are happy for information to be used as long as it is not attributed to them. In the case of the Hlophe report, there is some uncertainty about what was agreed.

Alcock insists it was clearly a formal interview and told me he referred more than once to his intention to write something for that week’s newspaper.

Hlophe denies having given the newspaper an exclusive interview and has cast doubt on the way in which Alcock joined the dinner party.

It is not yet clear how he has dealt with the issue in his complaint to the Press Ombudsman, but it will undoubtedly be considered there.

The dispute highlights the importance of journalists making sure the terms of an interview are absolutely clear. It’s mainly their responsibility, because it’s their professional turf, as it were.

In a case like this, where the interviewee has controversial, newsworthy views, it’s even more important to be clear and to push for as formal an arrangement as possible.

It may sometimes feel as though it is better and easier to allow the issue to remain fudged, but it’s rarely useful in the long run.

Sources will often speak more easily off the record. If that is the case, journalists can afterwards ask permission for particular information to be placed on the record.

I recommend that the M&G give some thought to these issues, with a view to developing a set of guidelines. These should establish the basic rule that interviews should be recorded, particularly where the subject being discussed is likely to be controversial.

Exceptions should be clearly defined. Guidelines should also establish that journalists should make sure that they and their interviewees have the same understanding of the terms.

It should not be assumed that statements are on the record unless this is very clear. Again, exceptions may be possible, but should be carefully circumscribed.

In all cases editors should be fully informed if unorthodox methods have been used, to be able to decide whether their use is justified. Journalists should not be easily separated from their notebooks.

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