OPINION: What's Nick Mallett got to do with it?


The South African Press Code emphasises that the media shall "take care to report news truthfully, accurately and fairly". George Claassen asks if it was unfair to name Mallett at all in a case of alleged misconduct that clearly has no relevance to him?

Most international media codes of ethics emphasise that minimising harm in the way journalists report about news events is or should be an important pillar of sound and ethical reporting. Yet, are the media always fair in their coverage of news when they name well-known people in reports about possible criminal suspects or devious public behaviour, if those famous relatives or relations do not have any relevance to the reader's understanding of the facts?

In the past week these issues and questions came to mind when reports in various media, also on News24, mentioned that Fiona Viotti, the teacher who resigned amid allegations of a sexual relationship with a pupil at Bishops Diocesan College in Rondebosch, is the niece of former Springbok player, coach and now Supersport rugby analyst Nick Mallett. Is this fair to Mallett?

The South African Press Code emphasises that the media shall "take care to report news truthfully, accurately and fairly". Was it unethical and unfair to name Mallett at all in a case of alleged misconduct that clearly has no relevance to him?  

Let's look at the intent of the Press Code and weigh the media's reporting on the Viotti case on its scale of striving towards fairness. The code clearly states in its preamble that "the media exist to serve society. Their freedom provides for independent scrutiny of the forces that shape society, and is essential to realising the promise of democracy. It enables citizens to make informed judgments on the issues of the day, a role whose centrality is recognised in the South African Constitution" (emphasis added).  

The preamble to the Press Code goes further, stating that the "media's work is guided at all times by the public interest, understood to describe information of legitimate interest or importance to citizens.

"As journalists we commit ourselves to the highest standards, to maintain credibility and keep the trust of the public. This means always striving for truth," and "avoiding unnecessary harm" (emphasis added).

In Section 3, the Press Code deals with matters of privacy, dignity and reputation of the people the media report on and that the media shall "exercise care and consideration in matters involving the private lives of individuals. The right to privacy may be overridden by public interest (section 3.1, emphasis added). It then expands on this in Section 3.3, emphasising that the media shall "exercise care and consideration in matters involving dignity and reputation, which may be overridden only if it is in the public interest".  

In Section 5, the Press Code deals with discrimination and hate speech but, with regard to the media's reporting on the Viotti case, hate speech is not relevant here, only whether the media were indeed avoiding "discriminatory or denigratory references to people's… status, and not refer to such status in a prejudicial or pejorative context – and shall refer to the above only where it is strictly relevant to the matter reported, and if it is in the public interest" (emphasis added).

'Highly questionable, grossly unfair'

Media24's own ethical code, that also includes a wide range of best practices, specific guidelines are given under Section 2 with the headline "Minimise harm and limit damage to the minimum".

It is specifically Section 2.1, "Test the fairness of your reporting by subjecting it to the following questions", that is relevant to journalists trying to determine the fairness of their reporting:

"Did you in any way unnecessarily involve in a news report a family member(s) of an accused/convicted party by, for example, referring to the accused/convicted party's family relationship to a well known person? Is it really necessary to mention the name of the well known family member in relation to the accused/guilty party? The test will be: Does the well known family member have anything to do with the case of the accused/guilty party? Does mentioning his/her name, place any perspective on the fact of the case of the accused/guilty party, or can the story stand on its own legs without mentioning the well known family member?" (emphasis added).

Weighing all these different sections of the South African Press Code, as well as that of Media24's own code for its newspapers, one can ask in what way did mentioning Mallett's name become at all relevant to the reports on the alleged Viotti transgression? I believe, in interpreting the Press Code, that the reader would not have had a lesser understanding of the facts about the Viotti case if Mallett's name was not mentioned. His relevance to the story is highly questionable. And in my view, grossly unfair to Mallett as it contravened that part of Section 5 of the Press Code referring to his status while it was not strictly relevant to the matter reported.

There are times when journalists act in a perfect ethical way when they do link a lesser known alleged perpetrator to his or her more famous family member. The Brian Shivambu and Floyd Shivambu relationship in the VBS scandal comes to mind as a prime example where it is highly relevant to mention the EFF's deputy leader's name because it is in the public interest. The same applies with regard to former president Jacob Zuma and his son, Duduzane. In the Viotti case, mentioning Nick Mallett's name is not at all in the public interest.

Questions media should ask themselves

There are various questions the media should always ask themselves when it comes to potential privacy invasion:

-       Does the public have the right to know? A need to know? Or merely a desire to know?

-       Is an individual involved in a "news event by chance or by happenstance and what level of protection does such an individual mentioned in the story deserve?" How much harm might they receive?

-       And then the crucial question that we as journalists unfortunately often ignore: How would I feel if I were being subjected to the same scrutiny?

The media ethicists Jay Black, Bob Steele and Ralph Barney elaborate on these questions above in their definitive book, Doing Ethics in Journalism. A Handbook with Case Studies (Boston: Allen & Bacon, 1999):

"Harm from privacy invasion is almost certain, but it is more difficult for a journalist to fully identify benefits from an intrusion … the primary ethical obligation of journalism is to inform the public by seeking truth and reporting it as fully as possible. That obligation must then be balanced against the obligation to respect individuals and their privacy. The challenge for journalists is to be courageous in seeking and reporting information, while being compassionate to those who are being covered."

I do not think the media in the Viotti reporting applied their obligation to respect Mallett as an individual with privacy rights, even if he is a public personality. It was clearly not in the public interest to name him. Mentioning his name was irrelevant to our understanding of the story and could rather have caused harm.

- George Claassen is News24's public editor and a board member of the international Organization of Newsombudsmen and Standards Editors. 

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