/ 28 March 2013

No smoking gun in SAA story

Too many questions about the Airbus A350 deal with SAA remain unanswered.
Too many questions about the Airbus A350 deal with SAA remain unanswered.

Reporting that an enormous R10-billion order of new aircraft was key to the resignation of the board and the departure of key executives.

This was the core claim of the story, punted on the front page, in the headline and elsewhere – but the story was frustrating in that it provided very little substance.

Conflict over a huge order seemed to provide useful new background and I read the story with a few fairly simple questions in mind: How did the deal lead to this spectacular collapse at the airline? What was the conflict about? And, a little later, what is the status of this procurement order now?

The report said that the old board accepted a recommendation to buy Airbus A350s rather than Boeings, which caught the minister by surprise. One is left to presume that he opposed the decision, but the story then moves into a discussion of why that particular choice was the right one.

Taken as narrative, the story's central development is simply missing. Did the minister, in the account made available to the paper, demand a change of decision? Perhaps this detail was not known but, if so, there needed to be a reference, at least, to the gap.

The other obvious question is why the ministry opposed the purchase. Buried deep in the story is a clue in the comments by the minister's spokesperson: apparently there was concern that there was no strategic framework for it. I spotted this on about the third reading of the story – I doubt many other readers will have been as dedicated.

As for the current status of the order, this remains unclear: the minister's office mentions a revision of "the programme", which probably confirms that the procurement is being revisited. It could be much clearer, though.

Supposition and background
These are key elements to the story that needed to be foregrounded. It's as though the writers and editors involved got lost in detail, supposition and background, forgetting to deal clearly with the basic facts. If the story seeks to highlight an instance of ministerial meddling, then let's have a little more on what actually happened.

The story then turns to the Guptas, essentially recounting a Sunday Times story about a meeting in which Vuyisile Kona, SAA's acting chief executive, was offered a gift of R500 000. There is no explanation in the M&G story for why such a generous offer was made by "Tony" Gupta, described as "the most unctuous of the Gupta brothers". I wasn't sure why this description was necessary; it seemed gratuitous.

No link between this unexplained offer and the SAA upheaval, or the procurement of aircraft, was made. Early in the story, we are told that "questions have been raised" about this connection and, at the very end of the lengthy report, it emerges that the family was asked whether they had had any contact with either of the aircraft manufacturers – a very vague and general question that got no direct response. The two developments are simply juxtaposed.

Of course, in newspaper stories as in life, sometimes there are more questions than answers. But here the effect is simply vague and tantalising, leaving this reader, at least, frustrated. It reads a bit like a fishing expedition.

This story is not the only example of a kind of investigative approach, increasingly common, that presents a series of vague and complex ­connections that may suggest something improper – or they may not. The difficulty with this kind of story is that it is too easy for the writer's conviction that something is wrong to drive the supposition and inference in particular directions.

Also, such stories can be very hard to read, with a wealth of complex detail that is difficult to follow. I have seen diagrams added that use a veritable thicket of arrows in an attempt to explain obscure and indirect connections between various companies and individuals.

It is much easier to follow a story such as the one headed "E-tolls: 'No remorse, no business'", also in last week's paper. It quoted email correspondence to show that the office of Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe is insisting that the car-hire firm Avis distance itself from the campaign against e-tolling before doing business with it. It is a clear claim, with clear evidence.

The view behind the SAA story seems to be that there's no smoke without fire. I prefer a smoking gun any day.

The Mail & Guardian's ombud provides an independent view of the paper's journalism. If you have any complaints you would like addressed, contact me at [email protected] or phone the paper on 0112507300 and leave a message