Fikile Mbalula vs. The New Age


Mon, Nov 12, 2012

 

 

Ruling by the Deputy Press Ombudsman

November 12, 2012

This ruling is based on the written submissions of Minister of Sport and Recreation Fikile Mbalula and The New Age newspaper.

Complaint

 Mr Fikile Mbalula complains about six stories in The New Age. They were headlined:

·         Malema’s London high life (published 1 August 2012);

·         Secrecy over Mbalula junket (August 3);

·         DA awaits details of Sport Minister trip to London (August 6);

·         Lies, lies and more lies (August 7);

·         ‘Politics’ behind probe (August 14); and

·         Mbalula’s London junket costs still secret (August 24).

Mbalula complains that The New Age repeatedly questioned if he had used state funds to pay for Mr Julius Malema’s visit to London to attend the Olympic Games – despite his public denials to the contrary. He denies that he paid for Malema from either state or personal funds.

He also complains that these reports questioned his integrity and falsely created the impression that he was a corrupt and unethical office bearer. He adds that while some of the stories mentioned his denial “the content still raised suspicion as to my honesty in this regard”.

He concludes that the stories demonstrated bias or an attempt to bring into question the facts. “I am of the contention that should any journalist or newspapers have any proof of misuse of public funds or corruption on my part, the onus is on them to prove and provide the concrete evidence.”

Analysis

Some of the stories, all written by Warren Mabona, questioned who had paid for Malema’s expenses and how much the trip had cost. They also stated that Mbalula’s spokesperson persistently gave the newspaper the runaround on this matter.

Mbalula’s complaint mainly boils down to the allegation that the newspaper brought into question the “facts” that he had given them.

In response to the complaint, The New Age refers to Section 16 of the Bill of Rights that guarantees the freedom of the press to impart information or ideas. The newspaper also points to the famous Bogoshi case (Robert McBride vs. National Media Ltd), which stated: “…it is the right, and indeed a vital function, of the press to make available to the community information and criticism about every aspect of public, political, social and economic activity and thus to contribute to the formation of public opinion…”

The newspaper argues that it was entitled to publish these stories as public funds may have been misused and as Mbalula served in high public office. 

In particular, The New Age says that the first story said that Malema was flown to London by a group of business people (not by Mbalula) and then went on to quote a source who stated that it seemed that the state was paying for the expensive hotel that he was staying in.

The newspaper says that it did not report this allegation as fact – “it has merely reported the fact that these allegations have been made…”

The newspaper points to another (this time UK) court case where the Court of Appeal accepted that there are circumstances where the public is entitled to be informed that certain allegations have been made – even if the newspaper cannot verify those allegations. It submits that this principle is applicable in this case.

It also:

·         says that the stories consistently reported Mbalula’s denial of having paid for Malema’s expenses;

·         denies any bias on its part; and

·         states that Mabona continued his enquiries as to the size and cost of Mbalula’s London trip – but “had received no further information”.

Firstly, both parties quite elaborately go into small detail regarding the stories. But more is at stake here. The basic question is whether the newspaper had the right to publish allegations without verification, and if it adhered to the requirements of the Press Code in doing so.

The New Age’s argument above is convincing. Of course verification is important, but it cannot be expected of publications to keep quiet about allegations just because they were not verified – as long as these allegations are presented as such and not as fact, and they are in the public interest.

I have scrutinized all the stories and I am satisfied that:

·         none of the allegations were stated as fact (as required by the Code); and

·         Mbalula’s denials were published when and where necessary.

I do not agree with Mbalula’s complaint that the newspaper published the allegations despite the “facts” that he had given them – newspapers cannot be expected to believe everything people (and especially politicians) tell them.

The newspaper indeed merely fulfilled its duty to inform the public of these allegations.

Please note that this is not a judgment regarding the question whether Mbalula indeed paid for Malema (or not). It is merely a decision that the newspaper was justified in reporting the allegations at the time of publication.

There is one exception, though – the story headlined Lies, lies and more lies did not meet the requirements of the Press Code.

This story said that Mbalula’s spokesperson continued to evade questions – and yet it also stated that “a web of lies continued to flow from the department’s spin doctor when pressed on the matter”.

Firstly, it is difficult to understand how a journalist can come to the conclusion that there was “a web of lies” when the response from the department was not forthcoming. How does one not tell the truth when one does not say anything?

Secondly, the story did refer to one “lie” (singular) only. Whence the plural (“a web of lies”)?

I do not know if this “lie” that the story referred to (a statement by the department to the effect that a document was posted on a website, which was allegedly not there) was really a lie or not. Be that as it may, it is particularly the use of the plural both in the story and in the headline that concerns me. Especially the headline went overboard. Lies (plural), lies (plural) and more lies (plural). This also goes for the sub-headline (Web of deceit…). This, while the story itself only mentions one “lie”.

Even though the intro used the phrase “web of lies” the story did not substantiate the use of the plural. Also, neither the headline nor the sub-heading reflected the content of the story and therefore did not meet the requirements of the Press Code.

But more needs to be said. Both the headline and the intro implied that Mbalula’s denial was also a lie – and this, while the newspaper itself admits that it could not verify the allegations... How then did the reporter know that Mbalula’s denial was false (without verification)?

 

This boils down to a judgment that was baseless, unfair and exaggerated. Even if it later turns out to be true, the newspaper still had no justification for the use of the plural at the time of publication.

This story certainly deviated from the others, which were justified and without bias.

Finding

The complaint regarding all the stories except the one headlined Lies, lies and more lies are dismissed.

The use of the word “lies” (plural) in both the story and the headline is inaccurate and an exaggeration. This is in breach of:

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

·         Art. 1.2: “News shall be presented in context and in a balanced manner, without any intentional or negligent departure from the facts whether by … exaggeration…”

The headline is in breach of Art. 10.1: “Headlines…shall give a reasonable reflection of the contents of the report…in question.”

Sanction

The New Age is directed to:

·         apologise to Mbalula for the breaches of the Code as mentioned above; and

·         publish the text below.

Beginning of text

The New Age apologises to Sports Minister Fikile Mbalula for reporting that “a web of lies continued to flow from the (his) department’s spin doctor…”; we also apologise for the headline that read: Lies, lies and more lies – Web of deceipt after Mbalula’s London trip (published on August 7).

This comes after Mbalula lodged a complaint with the office of the Press Ombudsman about this story and five other articles.

The story reported that Mbalula’s spokesperson continued to evade questions – and yet it also stated that “a web of lies continued to flow from the department’s spin doctor when pressed on the matter”.

Deputy Press Ombudsman Johan Retief said that it was difficult to understand how a journalist came to the conclusion that there was “a web of lies” when the response from the department was not forthcoming. “How does one not tell the truth when one does not say anything?”

He also noted that the:

·         did refer to one lie (singular) and not to more than one, and questioned the use of the plural in both the text and the headline; and

·         headline implied that Mbalula’s denial was also a lie – and this, while we ourselves admitted that we could not verify the allegations.

“This boils down to a judgment that is baseless, unfair and exaggerated. Even if it later turns out to be true, the newspaper still had no justification for the use of the plural at the time of publication,” Retief said.

Mbalula also complained that we repeatedly questioned if he had used state funds to pay for Mr Julius Malema’s visit to London to attend the Olympic Games – despite his public denials to the contrary. He said that these reports questioned his integrity and falsely created the impression that he was a corrupt and unethical office bearer.

He concluded that the stories demonstrated bias or an attempt to bring into question the facts. He said: “I am of the contention that should any journalist or newspapers have any proof of misuse of public funds or corruption on my part, the onus is on them to prove and provide the concrete evidence.”

We pointed the Ombudsman to a verdict by the Supreme Court of Appeal in the National Media Ltd vs. Bogoshi case, which stated: “…it is the right, and indeed a vital function, of the press to make available to the community information and criticism about every aspect of public, political, social and economic activity and thus to contribute to the formation of public opinion…”

Retief accepted this argument and dismissed Mbalula’s argument that we should have had proof before publishing the allegations. “Of course verification is important, but it cannot be expected of publications to keep quiet about allegations just because they were not verified – as long as these allegations are presented as such and not as fact, and they are in the public interest,” he argued.

He rejected Mbalula’s argument that the newspaper published the allegations despite the “facts” that he had given them, saying that “…newspapers cannot be expected to believe everything people (and especially politicians) tell them”.

Regarding the other five stories he said that we merely did our duty to report allegations that were in the public’s interest.

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