/ 18 February 2016

Mea culpa: We should have done better

The Democratic Alliance
'The longer the ANC stays in power, the more our country will suffer from the rot of corruption.' — DA leader Mmusi Maimane (David Harrison/M&G)

It’s been just over four months in the job and I’ve made my first major error. Our article on January 29 about former president FW de Klerk giving “political leadership” lessons to Democratic Alliance leader Mmusi Maimane should have been stronger and would have benefited from more time (see our detailed correction below).

I could talk about newsroom pressures, looming deadlines and the need to make split-second decisions, but the fact is the mistake was mine and I apologise to our readers and the organisations and individuals involved.

The Mail & Guardian is a trusted publication and I am sorry for damaging that trust and will work hard to restore it.

We are committed to learning from this error and ensuring it does not happen again. We have engaged the services of an expert in newsroom ethics and practices who will be working with us to examine our processes and improving them.

Every organisation, and person, will make mistakes but news organisations are held to a higher standard and the M&G even more so.

Our goal is to keep mistakes to a minimum and, when one does happen, acknowledging it promptly and fixing it quickly. 

We have also committed ourselves to doing better, more compelling journalism as a publication.

We are embarking on a new editorial strategy that will see us producing more quality journalism – with better processes in place and more time to check and recheck our stories to ensure they are of the highest standard – and prevent incidents such as the FW-DA story.

The M&G has no party-political allegiances and is committed to holding power in all forms to account.

Earlier this month we showed how the Gupta family has benefited from yet another state deal in the midst of an uproar about their relationship with President Jacob Zuma, this time by teaming up with state-owned arms manufacturer Denel to profit from selling its products in the East.

At the end of last year we reported that the Economic Freedom Fighters is being accused of hypocrisy towards workers by several former employees who have had to turn to the Labour Court to get the party to honour the settlements awarded them by the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration.

Then there was our report in November last year of how a DA whistleblower, councillor Marga Haywood, faced possible disciplinary action for speaking out about allegations that councillors manipulated council processes to favour a DA donor and the forensic investigation that cost Cape Town ratepayers thousands of rands.

This is the kind of journalism we will continue bringing to you, the M&G reader.

We have made a string of appointments of journalists – new talent and experienced hands – who will keep the M&G doing what it does best: in-depth journalism and holding power to account.

De Klerk and Maimane: How the M&G fell short

There has been much concern over our January 29 edition’s lead story, “Uproar over Maimane’s ‘lessons’ with FW”, and with good cause.

The story was rushed and fell short at a number of important points. In addition, although the Democratic Alliance and its leader, Mmusi Maimane, were given an opportunity to respond to the general allegation that Maimane was receiving guidance from former president FW de Klerk, and its response was included, the Mail & Guardian should have taken further steps to verify these allegations before publishing them. 

The front-page summary and newspaper headline overstated the article’s analysis. It also may have misled readers and fell short of the Press Code. 

We did not ask the FW de Klerk Foundation (on De Klerk’s behalf) the questions we should have, given the angle of the lead story – and we also approached them too late. 

We did ask the DA’s spokesperson for a response to the allegations that were made in the article. But I accept that the question asked was not sufficient in the circumstances. 

In addition, because of a miscommunication between the journalists working on the story, a right of reply was not offered to four people listed in the “Who is in the brains trust?” article on page 4: Jonathan Moakes, James Selfe, Tony Leon and Geordin Hill-Lewis. We should also have told our readers that the main reporter on the story, Nelly Shamase, left the DA under acrimonious circumstances. 

These are all serious issues. As an editor, these failings are mine and I take full responsibility for them. I apologise unreservedly to the organisations and individuals who were affected by these failures, and particularly to our readers.

Verashni Pillay is the Mail & Guardian’s editor-in-chief. See here for a response from the De Klerk Foundation and here for a response from the DA.