Has Sunday Times breached the Press Codes on its ‘Dis-Grace’ story?

As previously preached elsewhere, I really do enjoy and like writing about media and politics and of course other stuff and cannot help but wonder at the uncalled-for reporting by many South African newspapers. And Sunday Times newspaper headline report (or was it an opinion?) was no different at all.

I would then like to believe the report was not a mistake at all. This is because the story managed to make it past the editor, Ray Hartley, and even made it as the “it” front-page story for the weekly publication. Could it be the case of Sunday Times writing crap on a “low news day” or just one of these: “Fuck, let’s do SAPA day”?

Frankly, I am not sure which of the two it could be and it does not seem like one would ever know but what I do know for sure – and I trust even many of you would agree with me – is that there is nothing as incomprehensibly incompetent and inferior in the media than having a story solely and ONLY relying on “sources” unless of course one can prove beyond reasonable doubts that indeed the officials have declined to give their side of the story. And make no mistake, when such officials have rejected that offer as a journalist to stating their side of the story you must put that in the same article and their names too so that next time you have your back covered and therefore won’t be accused by anyone of misrepresentation, or the likes.

Headlined: “Disgraced – Mugabe’s wife has affair with his best friend”, journalist John Swain (first time I hear or even read of his reports, I must confess, and maybe it’s no wonder I am so worked up about the report) wrote a front page article for the Sunday Times alleging that Grace Mugabe, wife to Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe, had had and is still having an affair with the latter’s “confidant” and the most “powerful” head of the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe, Gideon Gono. Doing what many journalists are known to doing – Swain went on to quote as many “sources” as he possibly could (forgetting that for news, you need more than just a source or even ten of them. You need an official comment!), who he claimed were close to Mugabe and or his wife, saying Robert allegedly first came to know of the “rumours” of his wife’s affair with Gono from his late sister Sabina Mugabe while in hostpital before she died early this year.

Trying hard enough like an Intern to be the best write/journalist at a well-known publication house yet failing, Swain unimaginably (or maybe not) also went as far as quoting “Mugabe’s most trusted bodyguards who was (sic) present at the time” when Sabina “warned [Robert] before she died that he was being betrayed by two of the most important people in his personal and political life: his wife and his personal banker, a pivotal member of his regime.”

Proof anonymous sources can be seen by quoting:

  • “one intelligence official”
  • “one senior official in Gono’s office”
  • “Another in Gono’s entourage”
  • “The Gono source”
  • “one official privy”
  • Central Intelligence Organisation (CIO) officials”
  • “state intelligence officials”
  • “One who worked in Gono’s office”
  • “one worker”

Swain reminded us in the report what a player (my emphasis) Grace, 41, was and still is, having taken “Mugabe’s junior(s)” as her “lovers” before.

According to Swain, Peter Pamire who died “in a mysterious car accident” suspected to have been killed by Mugabe or his ‘people’ was also one of Grace’s lovers. This was then followed by another lover, James Makamba, one of Zimbabwe’s richest businessmen and a top-ranking Zanu-PF official, according to Swain, with whom Grace had “nice time” – as African National Congress Youth League President Julius Malema once observed of President Jacob Zuma’s unknown rape accuser – until their “affair ended in tears, too, when a furious and sexually jealous Mugabe ran him [Makamba] out of town in fear of his life”

Given this experience, according to Swain, Gono should have known better than sleeping with Mugabe’s wife. Or as he put it: “… never before has Grace been romantically involved with a politician in Mugabe’s inner circle. And never before has a man so close to the president risked allowing it to happen”.

Having understood the story very well (or so I’d like to believe I did) what bothered me as a news reader and a blogger was the lack of news information gathering on the part of the journalist, being Swain, the one part I have always dismissed as negligent, irresponsible and have always failed to comprehend to the best of my (lack of journalism and writing) abilities. Even worse, this is one negligence from journalists that should not be accepted by any editor irrespective how much pressure the journalist might have been at the time of writing the story or that which the editor might have been under from his (capitalist?) bosses who would be more concerned about circulation figures than facts their newspaper carry or fail to carry.

And this is that part I never got and will never get:

  • Swain had failed to state Grace’s, Mugabe’s and Gono’s side of the story.

This, I have concluded given the evidence in the report because Swain had never bothered to show or did not see the importance of having approached all parties to the story in the first place and neither did his news editor, sub-editor or chief editor. And to a reasonable reader like myself I would have expected to find a sentence to this effect at end of the report that: “Neither Mugabe, Gono nor Grace had responded to questions from the journalist at the time of going to press”.

Or if there had been any communication between the journalist and parties to the report at least one of them should have been quoted even if s/he had just said “it’s none of your business” or that “no comment”. Or better still, that: “Although both Grace and Gono declined to comment on the allegation saying it is was private matter (as of course they are not facts, yet), spokesperson for Mugabe also could not be reached for comment (as he was in meeting or abroad and therefore the journalist had difficulty in getting hold of him)”. This will have given me – a reader – a satisfaction of some sort I was looking for especially when one reports on such (defaming) allegations of an affair by a senior government or even business official. I would not have been left with unanswered questions as this report did leave me. Never! It should not have happened. Or maybe that is only when one is a journalist who understands what the ‘balance’ of the story/report is?

And being disappointed as I was at the time of first reading the report – first on my mobile cellphone and later from the hard copy (thinking that maybe I had seen the wrong report) – I then mentioned on Twitter that “Sun. Times alleges Mugabe’s wife had an affair but no comment was sought from Grace & her partner. Why?”

Then followed another comment of mine to a friend raising: “My VERY SERIOUS PROBLEM WITH THE REPORT’s (sic) that no comments were sought from Grace & her alleged partner, Gono” and later a question I addressed this time to @TimesLIVE and @hartleyr (Sunday Times Twitter account and that of its editor, Ray Hartley) asking: “Why weren’t comments from parties concerned in today’s Sun. Times’ frontpage (sic) not sought as such is not stated?”.

That neither accounts bothered to respond to my question, I became worried, for a sometime at least hence this article. And when that failed I wondered if the newspaper had adopted the same methods of restrictions which have been used by other media houses in recent time (see here, here, here and here).

The other reason why I asked the editor and write this article was after Sunday Times had claimed on its web page that indeed it does: “subscribe to the South African Press Code that prescribes news that is truthful, accurate, fair and balanced” and that I come to a realisation that it was not leaving up to this code of conduct as required of it I should then inform the Press Ombudsman. Said the statement: “If we don’t live up to the code please contact the Press Ombudsman”. Honestly and from where I stand and based on the main and other reasons already alluded to before, I think Sunday Times had failed to “live up to the code”.

According to the Press Code, the “primary purpose of gathering and distributing news and opinion (Swain’s article in this case) is to serve society by informing citizens and enabling them to make informed judgments on the issues of the time and Swain has failed to do that in his report. And in as far as reporting news is concerned – the Codes states that “only what may reasonably be true, having regard to the sources of the news, may be presented as fact, and such facts shall be published fairly with due regard to context and importance. Where a report is not based on facts or is founded on opinions, allegation, rumour or supposition, it shall be presented in such manner as to indicate this clearly”.

It further states that “where there is reason to doubt the accuracy of a report and it is practicable to verify the accuracy thereof, it shall be verified. Where it has not been practicable to verify the accuracy of a report, this shall be mentioned in such report”.

Most importantly, it brilliantly states well that and I think this is the crux of my argument: “[Sunday Times] should usually seek the views of the subject of serious critical reportage in advance of publication; provided that this need not be done where the publication has reasonable grounds for believing that by doing so it would be prevented from publishing the report or where evidence might be destroyed or witnesses intimidated”.

Given the above-mentioned point as stated in the Press Codes and the fact that the article was not a “comment” but was reported as “news” for it had appeared on the front-page of the newspaper, I would then like to believe that Swain – or Sunday Times in this case as it will be party to a dispute provided concerned parties in the report approach the Press Ombudsman, or worse, decide to sue the publication – had dismally failed as a journalist to “seek the views of the subject of serious critical reportage in advance of publication”, or if he did, he did not say so.

Therefore, if that’s the case, could having to mention in the report that he had sought the parties’ comments but they have instead declined to comment have slipped his mind and that of his editor and hence their failure to state that in the report? I think not.

This is mainly because the article – or as I read it – had failed to indicate to the reasonable readers (myself specifically) that indeed he did seek comments from Mugabe, his wife and Gono or that he did not do so because there was “reasonable ground” that the report would not have seen light of day as is required of the newspaper by the Press Codes.

To paraphrase the Press Codes itself, that: [Sunday Times did not indicate in the report to have had] “reasonable grounds for believing that by doing so [not seeking Mugabe’s, his wife’s and Gono’s comments on the allegations in the report] it would be prevented from publishing the report or where evidence might be destroyed or witnesses intimidated”. Still, I think not.

Again this is because neither Swain nor the editor had provided evidence that evidence in the report that their sources would have been “destroyed” or that the journalist’s “witnesses (would have been or that they were) intimidated” by Mugabe, Grace or Gono. None of this was provided in the report.

So, did the Sunday Times breach the SA Press Code on the ‘Dis-Grace’ report?

NB: This is edited version, an original of which was written by myself and and first appeared on my then blog here on 28 October 2010.

One thought on “Has Sunday Times breached the Press Codes on its ‘Dis-Grace’ story?

  1. Pingback: My Apology to Sunday Times editor, Public editor and Press Ombudsman « Akanyang Africa

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