Ethical dilemmas

2014-08-20 00:00

I’M not generally in the habit of commenting on stories in other newspapers, but the Sunday Times lead story of this week had me scratching my head for a couple of days.

For those who may have missed it, the paper’s lead story was carried under the arresting headline of “F*** the poor” and reported on the comments of Tami Sokutu, the former risk officer and a board member of African Bank, which was bailed out by the Reserve Bank two weeks ago.

A Sunday Times reporter was invited to Sokutu’s house after asking to interview him about the bank’s crisis. Sokutu has made a tidy R85 million through his involvement with the bank and is, to put it mildly, a colourful character.

Sokutu was fired from his position as chair of the South African Biodiversity Institute after arriving fall-down drunk at the Chelsea Flower Show last year. And this is where the Sunday Times report gets interesting.

The paper’s journalist reported rather enigmatically that Sokutu stumbled and fell to the ground when he greeted him at his home for the interview. Without saying it, the ordinary reader is left with the impression that Sokutu was severely inebriated or otherwise not in control of his faculties at the time of the interview.

My fascination with the piece was more from the position of an editor, as I could see the interesting ethical issues which would have had to have been considered prior to publication, and I wondered how I would handle such a scenario.

How ethically justifiable would it be to use the comments of someone in as sorry a state that Sokutu appeared to be?

I’m glad I’m not the editor who had to make the call on the Sunday Times story, but saying that, I do think the Sunday Times had strong public-interest arguments in publishing.

The apparent crassness in attitude from a senior executive who made millions before the bank failed on the back of over-extended, mostly poor debtors, is a strong argument in favour of publishing.

But, as an exercise, I worked through how I would handle a “drunk source” scenario if one were presented to me by a news editor or one of The Witness’s reporters.

I turned first to the Press Code for guidance, but it does not offer any specific advice on such an issue, except for some general guidelines which could be applied in the gathering of news. “News”, says the Press Code, “should be gathered legally, honestly and fairly”.

But the Press Code also provides an out — “unless the public interest dictates otherwise”.

The code also exhorts us to present news in context and that we should exercise “care and consideration in matters involving the private lives and concerns of individuals”. But once again a legitimate public interest can override this.

With the Press Code not offering much specific direction, I bounced the dilemma off key Witness editorial leaders.

Deputy editor Kuben Chetty said: “I think it depends on whether or not the inebriated person has agreed to an interview. If the drunk knows in advance that he or she is being interviewed, then, in my opinion, it is justified. If the drunk person is unaware that I am a journalist or if I overhear a conversation, then I cannot justify it.”

Deputy editor Zoubair Ayoob, news editor Stephanie Saville and Durban news editor Jo-Ann Floris had a more cautious view, arguing that the ethical thing to do would be to return to the interview subject when he or she was sober.

“A categorical no,” said Saville.

“The reporter must go back and interview the person when sober. However, if it’s a public figure on duty at the time, it’s fair game and I would quote him or her.”

“It cannot be justified; it is no better than if you drugged the person yourself and then questioned him or her,” said Ayoob.

So where do I stand on this?

Like so many issues which raise ethical considerations, I think the answer will always start with “It depends ...”, but as a general rule, I think the more cautious approach advanced by the majority of my colleagues is the way to go, bearing in mind the general principle in media ethics to “minimise harm” where possible.

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