Ehlanzeni District Municipality vs. City Press


Thu, Feb 21, 2013

 

Ehlanzeni District Municipality vs. City Press

Ruling by the Press Ombudsman

February 21, 2012

This ruling is based on the written submissions of Mr Lucky Ngomane, spokesperson for the Ehlanzeni District Municipality, and the City Press newspaper.

COMPLAINT

The Ehlanzeni District Municipality (EDM) complains about a story in City Press on 30 September 2012 (published on page 10 in its Mpumalanga and Limpopo editions) and headlined Mayor’s costly detour – Delegation alleged to have partied it up at musical festival in Hyde Park, London.

The EDM complains that the story incorrectly stated that its delegation’s trip:

·         was kept secret and that council did not approve the trip or budgeted for it;

·         cost R1.5 million; and

·         took a detour (resulting in a seven day trip instead of three days), during which time they attended a rock festival in London (paid for with taxpayers’ money).

The municipality also takes issue with City Press for ignoring its replies to the journalist’s questions.

ANALYSIS

The story, written by Sizwe Sama Yende, stated that EDM mayor Letta Shongwe and her officials had undertaken a trip to the United Kingdom and Ireland – but without obtaining council approval for it. The purpose of the trip was to receive an award for its contribution to economic development. While in the UK, the delegation reportedly went to a musical festival in Hyde Park, at the expense of the taxpayer.

General comment: Sources

As much of my adjudication of the issues in dispute centre around the credibility and independence of the newspaper’s sources, I enquired about this matter. City Press divulged its sources (four of them) to me on condition of anonymity.

 

Note that the newspaper was entitled to protect its sources, and that the disclosure of their identities to me did not breach its duty to keep them confidential in any way.

The first source is not credible, as I am convinced that his/her information was largely based on hearsay; the other three are indeed both credible and independent.

Secret trip; no approval; no budget

The intro read: “An overseas trip undertaken by an Mpumalanga mayor and a coterie of her political allies and officials has been kept under a veil of secrecy, even from the council.” (emphasis added) The next sentence stated: “But two months later, Shongwe has still not reported back to her council…”

 

This statement strongly implies that the council neither approved of nor budgeted for the trip.

The EDM says that reports have been submitted to the council before and after the trip was undertaken – and states that it even provided the information to Yende prior to publication.

The municipality faxed the following document to Yende:

“1. That Council note the content of the report;

“2. That Council approves that Ehlanzeni District Municipality be represented During the City Council’s Summit of Leaders, which is scheduled to take place from 11-13 July 2012;

“3. That Council decides on the delegation to accompany the Executive Mayor.”

City Press argues that this document did not appear to be official.

I asked Yende why he thought that he was justified to doubt the authenticity of the document. He responded as follows:

·         The document contained no municipal logo or letterheads, and he assumed that Ngomane could instead have sent him a copy of the original document;

·         The document was sent to him in a Microsoft programme, and anyone could have tampered with it. “To me, they looked like they were quickly typed for the purposes of responding to me. I had received minutes before and these ones looked suspicious to me”; and

·         He could not have found a copy of the original documents on his own – they were also not published on the EDM’s website.

The newspaper adds that, when it asked Ngomane to verify the authenticity of the document, he did neither confirm nor deny that it was questionable or possibly faked, “saying only that he had received them from his superiors.”

However, the newspaper admits that it should have reflected the existence of this document (as well as its doubts as to their authenticity). It undertakes to publish a matter of fact statement describing the document, its query into their authenticity, the EDM’s response and what the documents purport to be.

The story also quoted:

·         DA councillor Graveth Herbst as saying: “There was no council approval for this trip, and they only reported it to council on their return so that it could be condoned”; and

·         a senior ANC councillor to the effect that the trip was not budgeted for and that the delegation went there on a blank cheque.

(The EDM says that Herbst denied having made that remark to Yende. It also states that it told the journalist that the trip was budgeted for and gave him a document to prove it. City Press says that it stands by its statements as two sources corroborated this information. The publication denies that Herbst was misquoted, and states that the latter gave its journalist this information telephonically.)

Yende may or may not have a point. I also take into account that the response did come from an official spokesperson – which necessitated the publication thereof (as admitted by City Press above).

I also note that both the sentences that I quoted above state the “secrecy” of the trip as fact and not as an allegation. The story did (much) later quote a source as saying that there was no council approval for the trip (suggesting secrecy) – but this did not diminish the fact that the first two sentences stated it as the truth.

The problem with the reportage on this part of the complaint is twofold:

·         City Press neglected to include EDM’s response in its story, even though it doubted its authenticity (it was free to report its doubts); and

·         The newspaper reported the allegation of secrecy as fact and not, as it should have, as the opinion of its sources.

R1.5 million

The story said that the trip allegedly cost R1.5 m.

The EDM complains that it told Yende that the trip would cost approximately R358 700 – yet the journalist still reported the allegation about R1.5 million.

City Press says that it obtained this information from its sources and argues that it did publish the information gained from Ngomane (that the actual cost was R358 700).

The newspaper was justified in publishing both the alleged amount of R1.5 million, based on the credibility and independence of its sources – as long as it also reported the amount that Ngomane provided ), which it did.

Detour; seven days; Hyde Park

These are the separate but related issues:

·         The (general) allegation that the delegation took a detour (implying that the tour lasted longer than it should have and that it had included some kind of activity/activities that was/were not in the delegation’s travelling plan);

·         The specific assertion that the trip took seven days instead of the planned three; and

·         The delegation’s alleged attendance of a musical festival at Hyde Park.

Detour: The sentence in dispute read: “The delegation also allegedly took a detour at ratepayers’ expense…” The headline stated: Mayor’s costly detour.

The story mentioned the detour as an allegation which it was justified to do, based on its sources – especially as it linked this allegation to the Hype Park issue (and the story did report the EDM’s denial and explanation of this issue).

However, the headline stated it as fact – which it should not have done.

Seven days: One strapline read: 7 – The days that were spent on the trip, instead of three. The story reported: “The European Business Assembly’s award ceremony was held in Dublin, Ireland, during a three-day programme. The Ehlanzeni delegation, however, stayed in the UK for seven days.” (emphasis added)

The municipality denies that the trip took seven days.

However, the story did not carry this denial (as contained in its complaint) – probably because the reporter did not ask the municipality about this particular issue. I asked City Press why Yende about this omission. He explained: “The copies of the…tickets and other documents would indicate the duration of the trip if Ngomane yielded to our request for them.”

This time, both the story and the strapline presented the newspaper’s information as fact as not as opinion, as it should have.

Hyde Park: The story said that the delegation allegedly took a detour “to the Hard Rock Calling festival in Hyde Park, London, where singer-songwriter Paul Simon and a host of South African musicians performed to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Simon’s hit album Graceland”.

The EDM denies that its delegation attended the London musical festival. It says that it told Yende the following: “No festival was attended by the delegation. We just happened to meet South African musicians who were on their expedition at the residence of the South African High Commissioner in Ireland Mr Ndou.”

City Press responds that the newspaper had “multiple sources” for this allegation. The newspaper adds that two (unnamed) officials saw “photos of the members enjoying themselves in Hyde Park”. (The reporter did not see these pictures himself.)

I note that the story included the EDM’s denial that the delegation attended the London festival and its explanation to this effect – and that it also reported the group’s attendance not as fact but as an allegation.

The sub-headline (Delegation alleged to have partied it up at music rock festival in Hyde Park, London) followed suit – note the use of the word “alleged”.

Based on the credibility and independence of its sources, the newspaper was justified in publishing these allegations as allegations, especially as it also reported the EDM’s denials to this effect.

Material information omitted

The EDM sent Yende a list of eight questions – and complains that he generally ignored its replies in spite of “precisely furnished” answers.

City Press says that the story was balanced and fair, and that it gave the EDM the right to reply – which was used in the story.

This is the situation: Yende reported five of the EDM’s eight responses. Of the three that he ignored, two were not material to the story. These were the fact that there was no money attached to the EDM’s prize, and that the municipality did not use lottery money for the trip.

The one response that the reporter did not use was the EDM’s denial of the secrecy of the trip.

This amounted to a material omission, with which I have already dealt with above.

Conclusion

In conclusion, the main problem with the story was that the opinion of its sources was twice presented as fact. Another matter, of course, was the neglect to publish the EDM’s denial regarding the “secrecy” of the trip.

Where I found for City Press I did not decide that the newspaper’s reportage was necessarily correct – I merely found that it had been justified in its reportage based on its sources and its coverage of the EDM’s responses.

FINDING

Secret trip; no approval; no budget

City Press neglected to report the EDM’s response to its question in this regard. This is in breach of Art. 1.2 of the Press Code that says: “News shall be presented in context and in a balanced manner, without any intentional or negligent departure from the facts whether by …material omissions…”

The newspaper reported the allegation of secrecy as fact, without communicating that its information was based on the opinion of its sources. This is in breach of Art. 1.3 of the Code: “…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.”

R1.5 million

This part of the complaint is dismissed.

Detour; seven days; Hyde Park

Detour: This part of the complaint is dismissed as far as the story is concerned.

The headline stated this opinion as fact, which is in breach of Art. 11.1 of the Press Code that states: “Headlines…shall give a reasonable reflection of the contents of the report…in question.”

Seven days: Both the story and a strapline presented the opinion of sources as fact. This is in breach of Art. 1.3 of the Press Code.

Hyde Park: This part of the complaint is dismissed.

Material information omitted

Of the EDM’s eight responses, Yende only omitted one that was material to the story. I have already dealt with this issue (above).

SANCTION

City Press is directed to apologise to the Ehlanzeni Municipality for:

·         not reporting its denial that its delegation’s overseas trip was kept secret, and for reporting this allegation as fact and not as the opinion of its sources;

·         the story’s headline that presented the “detour” as fact; and

·         presenting as fact (both in the story and in a strapline) the opinion of sources that the trip lasted for seven days.

The newspaper is directed to publish the following text on page 10 in its Mpumalanga and Limpopo editions:

City Press apologises to the Ehlanzeni Municipality (EDM) for not reporting its denial that its delegation’s trip to the United Kingdom and Ireland was kept secret and for reporting this allegation as fact, for stating an opinion in the headline that the delegation took a detour, and for presenting the views of sources that the trip lasted for seven days as fact.

The EDM lodged a complaint with the Press Ombudsman about a story headlined Mayor’s costly detour – Delegation alleged to have partied it up at musical festival in Hyde Park, London (published on 30 September 2012 on page 10 in the Mpumalanga and Limpopo regions).

The story, written by Sizwe Sama Yende, stated that the EDM mayor Letta Shongwe and her officials had undertaken a trip to the United Kingdom – but without obtaining council approval for it. The purpose of the trip was to receive an award for its contribution to economic development. While in the UK, the delegation reportedly went to a musical festival in Hyde Park, at the expense of the taxpayer.

Press Ombudsman Johan Retief said that the main problem with the story was that the opinion of its sources was twice presented as fact. Another matter, of course, was the neglect to publish the EDM’s denial regarding the “secrecy” of the trip.

He dismissed complaints regarding the allegations that the:

·         trip cost R1.5 million;

·         delegation undertook a detour (in the story); and

·         delegation attended a musical festival at Hyde Park.

He emphasised that he was satisfied that we had reliable, independent sources, and that we balanced this reporting with the EDM’s denials of these accusations.

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

Press Ombudsman