Do not lose sight of the issue when reporting on a dispute
A few weeks ago, the Mail & Guardian published a report that reflected union claims that Minister of Finance Pravin Gordhan had unilaterally cut staff bonuses and was generally a poor and unpopular manager.
The piece quoted two unions that were mobilising against the decision and an unidentified senior manager who had various criticisms of Gordhan’s management style. It also quoted the treasury’s chief director of communications, Jabulani Sikhakhane, responding to the claims.
But after the newspaper was published, I received a note from Sikhakhane, who complained about the report on three counts. Firstly, he argued that important parts of his rebuttal were not reflected.
Secondly, he said that claims made at the start of the story – that the unions were mobilising for strike action, and that they made a connection between the cut in bonuses and the minister’s silence on Nkandlagate – were not supported by quotes from them.
Thirdly, he queried whether the general criticism by the unnamed manager should have been published, as there was no evidence to support it.
The writer, Matuma Letsoalo, told me that there was no space to quote all of Sikhakhane’s response, which ran to just over 800 words. That is a fair point: a selection and summary needs to be presented but it does need to represent the key points being made. In this case, I felt there were a few important points that should have been included.
Probably the most crucial point was that the treasury disputed the unions’ claim that decisions on bonus payments needed to be negotiated with them. There is no such requirement, the treasury said – obviously an important element of its defence.
Underlying this issue is a broader point that needs to be made: in reporting a dispute, journalists are sometimes too easily satisfied by identifying the fact that there is a disagreement. The reports explain that one side said this and the other side said that, without paying enough attention to the subject of the argument. It’s not enough simply to make sure both sides are heard – clarity demands that the nature of their disagreement is made understandable.
In a case like this, complex technical and procedural claims need to be unpacked and clarified. It’s not just a matter of fairness but also a question of accuracy and completeness.
In response to Sikhakhane’s second point, Letsoalo assured me that the unions had told him they were considering strike action and had made the connection with Nkandla, even though the report as it appeared did not quote them directly to this effect. He also said that the unnamed official, who was quoted as making the connection with Nkandla, was linked to one of the unions, further buttressing the approach taken.
I accept that this justified the choice of focus, although it would certainly have strengthened the piece if a quote or two to this effect had made it into the piece. The M&G’s code commits it to “show readers the chain of evidence we have”. This is a requirement that sets the bar somewhat higher than other codes and places the onus on the paper to persuade its audience that its claims are justified by evidence.
The third complaint revolved around fairly unspecific criticisms directed at Gordhan’s management style, with Sikhakhane pointing out that the unnamed official was not pressed for very much evidence.
I do take the point that the media should be careful about allowing themselves to be used too easily as a platform for general grumbling by civil servants, or indeed any employee. Journalism is not stenography, Sikhakhane argued forcefully.
But it is hard to see what kind of evidence could be produced for claims such as that Gordhan treats his managers like children.
Also, it seemed to me that the political and economic importance of the treasury and the ministry increases the public interest in the atmosphere there. If these general complaints had stood alone, I would have felt there was little justification for their publication. But they were connected to the other complaint about bonuses, and this provided enough context to justify their use. There is clearly evidence of unhappiness, even if it is not clear how widespread it is.
The treasury is in the public eye and the minister is a very senior politician. Even though Gordhan has generally had a good public image, both must expect to be subjected to public scrutiny.
The Mail & Guardian’s ombud provides an independent view of the paper’s journalism. Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have any complaints you would like addressed, or phone the paper on 011 250 7300 and leave a message