/ 21 June 2012

Use of an allegation should have been made more clear

The difficulty is that the facts of the disturbing story have not been fully established.
The difficulty is that the facts of the disturbing story have not been fully established.

In any week there are readers who are unhappy with some aspect of the Mail & Guardian. Some of the resulting correspondence is dealt with by the editorial staff, some emerges as comments on the website and some is published on the letters page.

Some, of course, ends up with me. Recently, I received two angry responses to the article “Suffer the sense of belonging” (May 25 to 31), which set out some psychological background to the abuse that sometimes happens in the course of school initiations.

It discussed how “paying a price” by suffering for admission to a group, such as a sports team, could make ­membership seem more valuable.

The article also pointed out the connection between sex and power and that perpetrators of this kind of abuse are likely to enjoy it.

It was a thoughtful piece about a disturbing phenomenon, written by an outside expert. The immediate spark for the article was a recent incident in which a pupil was allegedly given too much to drink and then raped with a broomstick while on a rugby camp.

Initiation practices
A picture showed a man in silhouette and the caption identified him as the father of the boy “who was sodomised at a rugby camp” and named the school involved.

The difficulty is that the facts of the disturbing story have not been fully established. The school itself has insisted no crime was committed and referred to a “prank”.

An education department probe criticised the school for the initiation practices, but found no evidence of sexual assault.

Prosecutors initially declined to take up the case, but were later reported to be reviewing the file.

The references to the incident – particularly in the caption and in an introductory paragraph in the online ­version – drew strong reaction from some readers. One wrote: “You have done a good school a huge disservice by publishing a defamatory lie!”

More cautious
Everybody associated with the article, from the writer to the editors, immediately saw the point.

The story should have been more cautious in its reference to the incident, treating it as allegation rather than fact all the way through and not just initially.

The caption, which was derived from a picture agency’s information, should not have made the bald claim and named the school. A correction and apology were published in the next week’s edition and online.

It is a pity that, for some readers at least, the error undermined the article’s point, which looked at the background to forms of abusive initiation. This could have been done just as effectively by making it clear that the specific incident remained an allegation.

In another case I recently dealt with the Pan Africanist Congress objected to a reference to Thami ka Plaatjie as being a “former secretary general of the PAC”.

Manner of speaking
The organisation pointed out that, although it was true that he had played this role in the PAC, Plaatjie had moved from the PAC to a new organisation, the Pan Africanist Movement, whose president he became before switching again, this time to the ANC.

In other words, his involvement with the PAC was now quite some time ago – two parties ago, in a manner of speaking.

Describing him only with reference to the PAC suggested a closer and more recent link than was justified, the organisation felt. It is clear that the present PAC is ­anxious to avoid association with this ­former leader.

I thought the complaint went a little too far: it is not inaccurate to describe Plaatjie as a former secretary general of the PAC and it makes sense to remind readers of an organisation they are more likely to have heard of than a relatively obscure one.

For the sake of additional clarity, I suggested to the paper that the matter be explained further by adding a note to the online version of the story. As always, it is the online version that lives on and where mistakes and corrections are more likely to be spotted.

In general, news organisations should err on the side of generosity in terms of complaints: more ­clarity is always a good thing. And the online newspaper has the possibility of almost limitless space, so the editors can easily add information.

The PAC expressed its thanks for the decision.

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