COPE vs. Northern Cape Times


Fri, Nov 23, 2012

 

 

Ruling by the Deputy Press Ombudsman

November 23, 2012

This ruling is based on the written submissions of Mr Pakes Dikgetsi, for COPE, and the Northern Cape Times newspaper.

COMPLAINT

Cope complains about a story in the 13 - 19 August 2012 edition of the Northern Cape Times (NC Times) and headlined Fred and Sarah an item? on the front page. The story continued on page 2, headlined Are Fred Wyngaardt and Sarah Evans of the DFA an item?

COPE complains that the:

·         story untruthfully and inaccurately alleged that there was an extra-marital affair between its Northern Cape chairman Fred Wyngaardt and DFA journalist Sarah Evans – and that this has led to the newspaper taking a soft stand towards COPE; and

·         pictures did not substantiate the misleading and insulting allegation of the (unsubstantiated) “affair”.

ANALYSIS

The story was written by Neville Motlhabakwe. In the opening paragraph the article raised two questions: Was Wyngaardt having an extra-marital relationship with Evans; and could that relationship have been responsible for the DFA’s soft stand on COPE? Both people reportedly denied the allegations.

The front page and page 2 had pictures of the two together in a pub.

Untruthful, inaccurate allegations

The front page asked the question if Wyngaardt and Evans had a romantic relationship. The story on page 2 started with the question if the two could have had a relationship that influenced the newspaper’s (“soft”) stand towards COPE.

COPE says that:

·         the story was neither truthful nor accurate as the allegation of an “affair” was based entirely on unsubstantiated rumours;

·         the article did not identify anybody else at the meeting where Wyngaardt and Evans were present (it says there were at least three other people in the company of the couple mentioned, including a COPE support staff member, a DA provincial employee, and a member of the provincial legislature);

·         the DFA has not been “soft” towards COPE;

·         it was entirely baseless to assume that one journalist had the capacity to determine a newspaper’s editorial policy to such an extent that it took a “soft stand” towards a political party; and

·         the story did not provide any evidence whatsoever of an affair – no sources were quoted, no documentation were provided (emails, pay-slips, etc.), no intimate pictures were available.

Dikgetsi concludes that “…it is therefore not reasonably true to assume or to allege that there is an extra-marital affair between the parties”. He adds that this allegation was harmful to their dignity, their reputations and their families.

The newspaper denies that its story was unfair and unbalanced. It says that the subjects were contacted for comment and that their comments were published.

The editor adds that the:

·         newspaper took “due care not to unduly slant or scandalise the subjects, but merely posed a question in the public domain about both the nature of their relationship as well as the likely impact that relationship might have upon what is ultimately published by the journalist and by extension the DFA”; and

·         assumptions made in the article were in the public interest.

Firstly, the allegation of infidelity was a serious reflection on both Wyngaardt and Evans. It portrayed them as cheats in the eyes of the public and must have had severe implications for their families. I should therefore give this matter the serious attention that it deserves.

I note that Wyngaardt and Evans were in the company of colleagues/friends – a fact that the story neglected to say, but which the newspaper does not deny. The story did quote Wyngaardt as saying that “there were other people around”, but that was not sufficient as “other people around” can also mean “strangers”.

The story also indeed did not refer to any proof or source (as COPE rightly argues) – it merely said that the newspaper had pictures of the two together in a pub. This was its only “basis” for their story.

This is the point: A rumour must be checked, investigated and the information obtained needs to be carefully assessed to determine what weight to give to it. In this case, the story did not refer to any source, nor did it provide any shred of evidence.

As far as the newspaper is concerned, the allegations and the response by the subjects were sufficient information for the publication of a news story. But that is wrong – there can be no place in journalism for basing a story on a rumour and then publishing it without corroboration or any shred of evidence.

Of course, this may be done if there is a public interest in the story. If there is any evidence that there may be some truth to a rumour or an allegation, there will be a public interest in the matter. In this case, however, the only “evidence” that the newspaper could muster were innocent pictures (I’ll come back to this). As such, the reporting of these allegations or questions cannot be construed as being in the public interest and this defense therefore falls away.

If this kind of journalism is tolerated, it will open the door for any irresponsible journalist to report an unsubstantiated “rumour” and thereby unnecessarily placing doubt in the public’s mind with regard to someone’s integrity, reputation and dignity – without any kind of justification. This can only lead to the causing of serious, unnecessary harm, as has happened in this case.

Please don’t get me wrong: Newspapers are entitled to listen to rumours. But they must do more than merely take these rumours to the subjects of their articles and ask for comment. Newspapers are obliged to seek independent verification of the rumours. In the event that such independent verification does not support the allegation or rumour or no further proof is obtained, there should be no story (if there is no public interest).

As this story certainly lowered the public esteem that Wyngaardt and Evans were held in, it must be construed as defamatory of them.

The second question was if the relationship between Wyngaardt and Evans had softened the stance of the DFA towards COPE.

I find this a rather disturbing question, as it emanated from a completely unsubstantiated rumour that could only have been based on pictures that were clearly innocent (I’ll return to the issue of the pictures shortly). In other words, the (damning) question came from thin air and merely served to perpetuate and deepen the doubt that it was trying to create. This was malicious journalism (read: the intention to harm) at its best.

It is common for newspapers to show support for a political party, a campaign or a candidate in an election. It may be that the DFA indeed supports COPE. But, in order to succeed in its defence, the NC Times must at least have provided information in the story that demonstrated the link between the alleged relationship and the “soft” stance of the DFA towards COPE. It has not done so.

I also find it extraordinary that someone can believe that a single journalist (who was not the editor) has the power to determine the political stance of a publication. Moreover, the question raised by Motlhabakwe was rather a slap in the face of the DFA’s editor.

I note that the story said the following: “The pictures by themselves do not say a lot but (they) do pose awkward questions about the journalist’s independence and suggests a relationship of sorts with a politician and by extension his party.”

This is mischievous. Does the reporter really suggest that, when a journalist socialises with a politician, this in itself poses “awkward questions” about his or her independence? It is a journalist’s job to build up contacts and in many instances they do this by socialising. Motlhabakwe himself is a journalist – he should know this. It would be rather unusual if he has never socialised with politicians before.

In conclusion, the questions regarding an “affair” and the detrimental effect that it may have had on the newspaper’s stance towards a political party were unfounded, malicious and amounted to defamation – causing Wyngaardt and Evans, together with their families, some serious, unnecessary harm.

Pictures

COPE complains that the pictures did not substantiate the  insinuation of the “affair”. It says that the pictures were misleading and insulting as Wyngaardt and Evans were not on their own in the pub – yet the cropping of the pictures created that impression.

I have already dealt with the issue of the other three friends/colleagues that the newspaper did not identify in the story. My focus now turns to the pictures themselves.

            Front page picture

In this picture only the two people in question were visible. It looked as if they were unaccompanied – without friends/colleagues or strangers.

This is a false impression, as they were accompanied by a COPE support staff member, a DA provincial employee, and a member of the provincial legislature. If all of these people could not have been published due to space problems, the caption should at least have said that they had company.

I light of what I have argued above, I cannot but say that this was carefully cropped in a vain attempt to give credence to the allegation that they had an affair – and that this was also done intentionally with the (malicious) intent to harm them.

This is the worst possible form of journalism thinkable.

            Page 2 pictures

There were three pictures on the second page, taken on the same occasion.

The first one showed both Wyngaardt and Evans. A third person was obscured behind a beer tap. It looks as if this person and Wyngaardt might have been in discussion, although this was not necessarily the case.

 

The second picture was a repeat of one on the front page.

In the third picture Wyngaard and Evans were in conversation, and the third person was again obscured by the same beer tap.

Neither of these pictures carried a caption.

Again, the pictures presented an image that Wyngaardt and Evans were on their own. The first picture may have suggested that Wyngaardt had company, but there is nothing to suggest that the third person was either a friend/colleague or a stranger.

The pictures did not add any weight to the rumour of a romantic relationship – except for the misleading insinuation, portrayed especially in the front page picture, that they were on their own.  

I cannot but conclude that these pictures were cropped with the deliberate intention of substantiating the unsubstantiated rumour that Wyngaardt and Evans had an affair.

 

 

General comment

 

Please note that this finding is not a verdict that Wyngaardt and Evens did not have an affair. I have no way of establishing that, and neither is it my job to do so. As far as I am concerned, it is possible that the story may later be vindicated (or it may never happen).

My only responsibility is to evaluate the quality of journalism. In this case, the newspaper was not justified to publish a story with no journalistic basis at all, and also not to present the pictures as if there was such a basis.

This is a classic example of the ugly, reckless side of “journalism”.

I find it rather disturbing that the newspaper even tried to defend this reportage.

FINDING

            The story and the headlines

The failure to provide substantial information to link the Wyngaardt and Evans romantically was in breach of the following articles of the Press Code:

·         Art. 1.1: “The press shall be obliged to report news truthfully, accurately and fairly”;

·         Art. 1.2: “News shall be presented…in a balanced manner…”;

·         Art. 1.4: “…Where it has not been practical to verify the accuracy of a report, this shall be mentioned in such report”; and

·         Art. 5: “The press shall exercise exceptional care and consideration in matters involving dignity and reputation, bearing in mind that any right to privacy may be overridden only by a legitimate public interest”.

The pictures

The use of the pictures was misleading and therefore in breach of Art. 11.3 of the Press Code that states: “Pictures shall not misrepresent or mislead nor be manipulated to do so.”

SANCTION

The NC Times is directed to:

·         apologise profusely to Wyngaardt and Evans for unfairly planting the seed of an “affair” in the public’s mind without any journalistic substance to do this, and for cropping the pictures such that it created the impression that there might have been such a basis;

·         use the exact same front page layout as the one that COPE complained about (also on the front page);

·         use the following headline on the front page: WE APOLOGISE TO THEM;

·         publish the text below, starting on page 1 and leading on to page 2; and

·         again use the word “apology” or “apologise” in the headline on page 2.

Beginning of text

The NC Times apologises profusely to Northern Cape COPE chairman Fred Wyngaardt and DFA journalist Sarah Evans for unfairly planting the seed of an “affair” in the public’s mind without any journalistic substance to this, and for cropping the pictures such that it created the impression that there might have been such a basis.

This comes after COPE has lodged a complaint with the Press Ombudsman about a story in our 13 - 19 August 2012 edition and headlined Fred and Sarah an item? on the front page. The story continued on page 2, headlined Are Fred Wyngaardt and Sarah Evans of the DFA an item?

The story was written by Neville Motlhabakwe. In the opening paragraph the article raised two questions: Was Wyngaardt having an extra-marital affair with Evans?; and could that relationship have been responsible for the DFA’s “soft stand” on COPE? Both the front page and page 2 had pictures of the two together in a pub.

COPE complained that the question if there was an extra-marital affair between Wyngaardt and Sarah Evans was entirely without basis – and therefore also denied that that led to the DFA taking a “soft stand” towards COPE. It added that the pictures did not substantiate the misleading and insulting allegation of the “affair”.

Deputy Press Ombudsman Johan Retief said that we:

·         neglected to mention that Wyngaardt and Evans were accompanied in the pub by some friends or colleagues, thereby creating the false impression that they were on their own;

·         did not produce any shred of evidence that may have substantiated the issue at hand; and

·         misused “innocent” pictures to try and substantiate our story.

He said: “A rumour must be checked, investigated and the information obtained needs to be carefully assessed to determine what weight to give to it.”

He added that if there was any evidence that there might have been some truth to the allegations, there would have been a public interest in the matter. In this case, however, the only “evidence” that we could muster were “innocent” pictures – which is why the public interest argument fell away.

He stated: “If this kind of journalism is tolerated, it will open the door for any irresponsible journalist to report an unsubstantiated ‘rumour’ and thereby unnecessarily placing doubt in the public’s mind with regard to someone’s integrity, reputation and dignity – without any kind of justification. This can only lead to the causing of serious, unnecessary harm, as has happened in this case.”

Retief also said that he found it extraordinary that someone can believe that a single journalist (who was not the editor) has the power to determine the political stance of a publication. “Moreover, the question raised by Motlhabakwe was rather a slap in the face of the DFA’s editor.”

With regard to the pictures, Retief said that they did not add any weight to the rumour of a romantic relationship – except for the misleading insinuation that Wyngaardt and Evans were on their own.  He said, “I cannot but conclude that these pictures were cropped with the deliberate intention of substantiating the unsubstantiated rumour that Wyngaardt and Evans had an affair.”

He also said that his finding was not a verdict that Wyngaardt and Evens did not have an affair – his only responsibility was to evaluate the quality of our journalism.  He concluded: “In this case, the newspaper was not justified to publish a story with no journalistic basis at all. This is a classic example of the ugly, reckless side of ‘journalism’.”

Retief also emphasised that the story has caused Wyngaardt, Evans and their families some serious, unnecessary harm and concluded that the reporting was unfounded, unfair, malicious and defamatory of them.

We once again apologise for this damaging report.

Visit www.presscouncil.org.za for the full finding.

End of text

APPEAL

Please note that our Complaints Procedures lay down that within seven days of receipt of this decision, either party may apply for leave to appeal to the Chairperson of the SA Press Appeals Panel, Judge Ralph Zulman, fully setting out the grounds of appeal. He can be contacted at Khanyim@ombudsman.org.za.

Johan Retief

Deputy Press Ombudsman