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I was rather fascinated by Fiona Forde’s article in The Sunday Independent (October 7) published under the rubric “Biographer seeks devil behind every bush”.
My fascination stems from the admission by Forde about her being duped by a source.
In 2009, she wrote a story about a 24-year-old woman alleging that she was carrying the child of then-president Kgalema Motlanthe.
Forde reported on this sensational claim with little regard for the golden rule of journalism: confirm your story with no fewer than three independent sources.
Perhaps even more worrying is that when the 24-year-old recanted the story, Forde consulted the Sanef chairman, Mondli Makhanya, on whether she should reveal her source to prove that she “wasn’t the vehicle for a political campaign”.
What worries me is that this discussion centred on revealing her source, rather than her breaking a fundamental rule of journalism.
It is very important that we use the SA Press Code as a reference point. Granted, the events Forde describes may pre-date the agreement on the press code, just a year ago. However, the values of the press code ought to have been internalised by an experienced journalist such as Forde long before the code had been adopted.
Clause six of the code states: “The press has an obligation to protect confidential sources of information.”
But, it is important to read this clause relative to another inclusion contained in the sub-clauses to one.
Clause 1.9 states: “News obtained by dishonest or unfair means, or the publication of which would involve a breach of confidence, should not be published unless a legitimate public interest dictates otherwise.”
Clause 1.10 states: “In both news and comment the press shall exercise exceptional care and consideration in matters involving the private lives and concern of individuals, bearing in mind that any right to privacy may be overridden only by a legitimate public interest.”
None of what Forde says she did adhered to this – from using a single source to failing to determine the “legitimate public interest”, and failing to exercise “the exceptional care and consideration in matters involving private lives”.
I then have to ask why, notwithstanding the fact that Forde obviously trusted her single source, her editor allowed her to run it as a lead story.
In raising this, I should point out that I have had no quarrel with Forde. I am raising this because the principle of moving beyond single-source journalism is one we must address.
Some years ago I had a run-in with then-journalist William Mervyn Gumede. He wrote that I had told a secret parliamentary committee something to the effect that government should not waste money giving medication to Aids-sick people who are going to die anyway.
Gumede was so confident of his story that he repeated these perverse allegations in a book that he published under his own name.
The tragedy is compounded by the fact that other lazy authors quote him as an impeccable source. I have tried to get Gumede to change his original charge against me. My arguments are based on the following:
n I could not possibly have said something that I so fervently disagree with. Such behaviour would be completely alien to me.
n There are no “secret” committee meetings in Parliament. If there is a request for a hearing to be closed – it would have to be recorded by the Speaker of Parliament. No such record exists!
n All parliamentary activities must, by the Rules of Parliament, have representatives of all political parties. Who were the people who attended this secret meeting?
And isn’t it strange that none of the opposition parties ran to the press with such an outrageous comment made by a national minister.
When confronted at various points by my attorney and I, Gumede’s stock-in-trade response has been that he was a journalist and had to protect his source.
I put it to him then, and repeat my assertion now, that there was probably never any source, or that the so-called source was just a person with gratuitous intent.
Gumede, as a journalist at the time, failed at the first hurdle which would require him “to exercise exceptional care and consideration.”
How does society balance these interests so that it knows that the comments in the media are fair and verified? Why do journalists believe that acknowledging a lapse in judgement and an apology can make things right? They are able to rebuild their reputation, as Forde has been able to do following this faux pas. But for the rest of us, the damage is done. Where does the onus rest?
n Manuel is Minister in the Presidency