Department of Correctional Services vs. The Times


Fri, Feb 8, 2013

 

 

Ruling by the Press Ombudsman

February 8, 2013

This ruling is based on the written submissions of Mr Logan Maistry, for the Department of Correctional Services (Office of the Minister), and The Times newspaper.

Complaint

The Department of Correctional Services (DCS) complains about a story in The Times on 8 August 2012 and headlined MPs: medical parole a sham.

The DCS complains that the story:

·         was not truthful and accurate;

·         was not presented in context and that it omitted material information (read: unfair reporting); and

·         did not present opinions, allegations rumour or supposition in such a manner as to indicate this clearly.

Analysis

The story, written by Thabo Mokone, was about reactions to former head of Police Jacki Selebi’s imminent medical parole. The main view reportedly was that his release tainted the credibility of the medical parole system. Mokone also quoted the national commissioner of Correctional Services, who defended the decision to release Selebi.

 

 

Untruthful, inaccurate

Maistry does not point out exactly what he believes to be untruthful, etc. in the story. However, he did provide me with articles on the same topic by five other publications about which he voiced his satisfaction.

I therefore needed to compare those stories with the one in dispute.

After intense scrutiny, I was not able to trace any statement in Mokone’s story that clashed with any of the other articles – there was nothing that pointed to untruthful, inaccurate and unfair reporting in his story.

However, it was more a case of what was not reported than what was published that is relevant here.

Omitting material information

The DCS complains that Mokone’s story was not presented in context and in a balanced manner, and that it omitted material information.

Maistry explains that the story was based on a meeting of the Correctional Services Portfolio Committee in Parliament where Selebi’s release had been discussed. He says that detailed presentations regarding Selebi’s medical condition were made. “However, these facts were conveniently omitted…” from the story, he said.

He adds that he personally contacted Mokone to further engage on the content, but notes that the journalist never called him back, despite promises to this effect. He also mentions other occasions where Selebi’s medical parole was announced. “Further…DCS hosted a detailed one-on-one-interview with The Times where the Selebi medical parole matter was again fully explained.”

Looking at the other stories that Maisty supplied me with, it became clear that the complaint is about the omission of some details regarding Selebi’s medical state. According to some of these stories, he namely had:

·         suffered a stroke;

·         a pulmonary embolism; and

·         two infections that prevented him from getting dialysis.

The story in The Times only mentioned the last issue – treatment for kidney failure.

It occurs to me that the first two bullets reflected a rather serious medical condition. In order to determine if the omission of these matters constituted a lack of balance and context, I needed to take the whole story into account.

There is little doubt that the gist of the story was about the lack of credibility regarding the medical parole system. More than half of the story was devoted to this criticism. It was also contained in the first part of the story, as well as in the headline.

It was Mokone’s right and duty to report criticism against the parole system, but then he should have balanced it with all the (important) reasons for Selebi’s release as communicated by government officials – so that the public could decide for itself if his release was credible or not. The worse Selebi’s medical state, the more reason the authorities had to release him on medical parole and the more credible that system would be. Conversely, if he “only” had kidney problems, of course the popular opinion would be less in favour of the credibility of the parole system.

These omissions were therefore material, and consequently not fair to the relevant authorities. Mokone should have mentioned these reasons, and left it to the public to decide for itself whether those reasons were substantial enough to account for Selebi’s release.

I have asked the newspaper if maybe there was another story in the same edition that covered the Selebi issue, as that may have made a difference – it the full reasons for his release were contained in such a story, it would not have been necessary for Mokone to have mentioned all of it again. The editor assured me that there was no such an accompanying story.

Note that I am not passing judgment as to the validity of Selebi’s parole. My only concern is about journalism, and I believe that the medical reason that the story presented for his release was inadequate.

Presenting opinions as fact

Maistry complains that, despite detailed briefings, The Times continued to report on this issue “based on opinions, allegation, rumour or supposition”.

The whole story (with the exception of three paragraphs that set the context) was a reaction from MPs regarding Selebi’s parole. In that sense the story consisted of opinions, yes – but the newspaper was justified in getting people’s opinion and moreover, Mokone consistently made it clear that his reporting reflected these people’s views. He never stated these opinions as fact.

Finding

Untruthful, inaccurate

This part of the complaint is dismissed.

Omitting material information

The journalist’s neglect to mention that Selebi suffered a stroke and that he had a pulmonary embolism, which was part of the reason why he was going to be released on medical parole, contributed to the impression that the system was not credible.

This is in breach of:

·         Art. 1.2 of the Press Code that states: “News shall be presented in context and in a balanced manner, without any intentional or negligent departure from the facts whether by…material omissions, or summarization”; and

·         Art. 1.1: “The press shall be obliged to report news…fairly.”

Presenting opinions as fact

This part of the complaint is dismissed.

Sanction

The Times is:

·         reprimanded for not mentioning all the reasons why the authorities decided to release Selebi on medical parole; and

·         directed to publish the text below.

Beginning of text

The Press Ombudsman reprimanded us for not mentioning all the reasons why the authorities decided to release former head of Police Jacki Selebi on medical parole, which resulted in unfair reporting towards the Department of Correctional Services (DCS).

This comes after the DCS lodged a complaint about a story on 8 August 2012 and headlined MPs: medical parole a sham.

The story, written by Thabo Mokone, was about reactions to Selebi’s imminent medical parole. The main view reportedly was that his release tainted the credibility of the medical parole system.

We only reported on his kidney problems, but neglected to state (as we had been officially informed) that Selebi had also suffered a stroke and that he had had a pulmonary embolism.

Ombudsman Johan Retief said that it was our right and duty to publish the views of people who were critical of Selebi’s release, but added that we should have balanced the story with all the reasons for Selebi’s release as communicated to us by government officials – so that the public could decide for itself if his release was credible or not.

He said, “…the worse Selebi’s medical state, the more reason the authorities had to release him on medical parole. Conversely, if the public believed that he ‘only’ had kidney problems, of course the popular opinion would be less in favour of the credibility of the parole system.”

Retief added that he was not passing judgment as to the validity of Selebi’s parole. “My only concern is about journalism, and I believe that the medical reason that the story presented for his release was not sufficient.”

He dismissed two other parts of the complaint, namely that the reporting was untruthful and inaccurate, and that the story presented opinions as fact.

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

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

Press Ombudsman