Keen eyes will find even the most casual throwaway line

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.

Proper approval
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 [email protected] or phone 0112507300 and leave a message

Subscribe to the M&G

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years, and we’ve survived right from day one thanks to the support of readers who value fiercely independent journalism that is beholden to no-one. To help us continue for another 35 future years with the same proud values, please consider taking out a subscription.

Related stories

Inside Facebook’s big bet on Africa

New undersea cables will massively increase bandwidth to the continent

Faster, cheaper data is here – but not for long

There are factors such as exchange rates, electricity costs, security free and fuel prices that are contributors, but additional spectrum will certainly bring about significant change in the local industry

South Africa’s digital divide detrimental to the youth

Without the means to leverage lockdown as a time to grow, Covid-19 reinforces how access to data remains a barrier to young people’s progress

Zero-rate mobile services for health, education and development now

Operators must work together — if each network picks which sites to zero-rate, access to information will be determined by the colour of a person’s sim card

MTN drives inclusivity of deaf community

The company produced DefBars, a bespoke music track using SASL for the hard-of-hearing and/or deaf community.

MTN gears up to deliver improved customer service

On 28 January, the first batch of MTN contract customers will be migrated onto the new customer service platform.
Advertising

Western Cape warned not to be complacent about flat-lining Covid-19...

The Western Cape, which once had the highest number of Covid-19 cases in South Africa, is seeing a steady decline in active cases

Sisulu axes another water board

Umgeni Water’s board in KwaZulu-Natal was appointed irregularly by her predecessor, the water and sanitation minister claims
Advertising

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…

The best local and international journalism

handpicked and in your inbox every weekday