SABC vs. Sundy Independent
Wed, Feb 29, 2012
Ruling by the Deputy Press Ombudsman
August 12, 2010
This ruling is based on the written submissions of legal advisor to the SABC, Thabo Maleka, and the Sunday Independent newspaper.
The SABC complains about two stories in Sunday Independent, published on February 21 and 28 (2010) respectively, headlined SABC ‘hatchetman’ chops top newsreader off air – Mahendra Raghunath latest ‘victim’ of TV news head Amrit Manga and SABC suspends its former acting CEO.
The gist of the complaint is that the February 21 story falsely insinuates that Mr Amrit Manga, TV news head, gave instructions for Raghunath to be suspended.
The rest of the complaint is:
- The portrayal of Mr de Vasconcellos as Manga’s “hatchetman” is offensive (21 February);
- The headline of the February 21 story is misleading;
- The quotes “sourced” from Mr Themba Gasa are misleading (21 February);
- The SABC was not given a right of reply with regards to the February 28 story; and
- The statements that Manga contributed to the silencing of news reporters and that he rejected their stories because it was too radical are false (28 February).
The intro of the first story summarises the whole story: “Popular SABC personality Mahendra Raghunath has been suspended following suspicion by television news head Amrit Manga that the long-serving newsreader had spoken to the media about problems at the news department.”
The second story is about the suspension (for alleged misconduct) of the former acting CEO for commercial enterprises, Gab Mampone.
Both stories were written by Edwin Naidu.
We shall now consider the merits of the complaint:
Instructions for suspencion
The first story quotes Gasa, the SABC head of the Media Workers Association of SA (Mwasa), quite extensively to the effect that Raghunath “was asked to pack up and leave”. It also says that Manga instructed executive producer de Vasconcellos to order Raghunath to hand in his access card and keys and to clear out his desk.
The complaint is that the story falsely insinuates that Manga gave instructions for Raghunath to be suspended.
The following is not in dispute:
- that Ragunath was suspended; and
- that, at the time of his suspension, Manga was head of TV news.
These facts suggest that it is reasonable to believe that Manga was mainly responsible for the suspension.
The story says: “De Vasconcellos has been described by staffers within the SABC as being Manga’s ‘hatchet man’, eager to comply with his…orders over who they wanted to read the news.”
Maleka says that is offensive.
That may be true, but note that the statement in dispute is not presented as an undisputed fact or as the opinion of the newspaper, but rather as the view of “staffers”. If it is true that some SABC members believed de Vasconcellos to be Manga’s hatchet man, there is nothing wrong in reporting it. There is also no reason to believe that the newspaper sucked this sentence out of its thumb.
The following headline is said to be misleading: SABC ‘hatchetman’ chops top newsreader off air – Mahendra Raghunath latest ‘victim’ of TV news head Amrit Manga.
The Press Code says headlines shall give a reasonable reflection of the contents of the report in question (Art. 5.1).
I have already argued that it is reasonable to believe that Manga was probably mainly responsible for Raghunath’s suspension; also that the reference to him as a hatchetman was ascribed to the opinion of some staffers. These two factors combined make it reasonable to conclude that the headline in dispute is not misleading.
The SABC says the quotes “sourced” from Gasa were misleading in that the reporter later in a letter admitted that he never spoke to Gasa at all.
In a letter dated March 1, 2010 Naidu indeed admits that he and Gasa never communicated. Naidu writes that he in fact spoke with a top Mwasa official (this time he does not mention a name), but says he assumed that all his comments had to be attributed to Gasa. However, this official “is willing to stand by all that was said and attributed to Mr Gasa in the article,” Naidu says.
To talk to one person and yet to ascribe it to another is unheard-of – to say the least.
What makes matters worse, is that Naidu did not use the opportunity in his next story (February 28) to rectify this mistake. There is also no evidence that he put matters straight at a later stage.
A right of reply
Maleka says the newspaper did not approach the SABC for comment with regards to the February 28 story.
Sunday Independent says it did – it stated in the February 28 story that Manga refused to answer questions, saying that it was an internal matter.
I am not all too sure if that is correct. The SABC specifically denies it and the story in dispute may have drawn on the previous one, where SABC media officer Mmoni Saepolelo is quoted as saying: “This is an internal matter and it should be dealt with as such. The SABC does not conduct its business with the Sunday Independent.”
Be that as it may, the question here is whether or not the newspaper was under an obligation to ask the SABC for comment again – knowing full well that the broadcaster (only a few days prior to publication of the second story) did not want to speak to the newspaper on the grounds that it was an “internal matter”.
Normally, a newspaper is indeed under obligation to ask the subject of its reportage for comment (Art. 1.5 of the Press Code). And usually, the newspaper should approach the subject even if it believes that it would get no comment.
However, if it is about the same issue, and if it is so soon after the first request for comment, it is reasonable for a newspaper not to approach the subject again. Applied to this case: Sunday Independent asked the SABC for comment with regards to the first story. Comment was not forthcoming for the reason that the broadcaster said it was an internal matter. There was no reason for the newspaper to think that this situation would have been different a mere week later.
It must be stated that this ruling is the exception rather than the rule.
Manga: Silencing, rejecting stories
Manga says the statements to the effect that he contributed to the silencing of news reporters and that he rejected their stories because it was too radical are false.
However, the story quotes sacked Mr Rian Geldenhuys (who was responsible for driving the SABC’s digitalization process) as making statements to that effect. The story does not state it as a fact, nor does it present it as its own opinion.
Instructions for suspencion
As Manga was head of TV news at the time of Raghunath’s suspension, it is reasonable to accept that he (Manga) was mainly responsible for the suspension. This part of the complaint is therefore dismissed.
The reference to Manga being a hatchetman is ascribed to a source and not presented as a fact or as the newspaper’s opinion. This part of the complaint is therefore dismissed.
The headline gives a reasonable reflection of the contents of the report in question. This part of the complaint is therefore dismissed.
The fact that Gasa was quoted instead of the real source is misleading to the extreme (irrespective of the question whether or not the other source spoke the truth). What makes matters worse is that Naidu never put matters straight. This is in breach of the following articles of the Press Code:
- Art. 1.1: “The press shall be obliged to report news truthfully (and) accurately…”
- 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 distortion…or misrepresentation…”
A right of reply
Based on the SABC’s first response to a request for comment, which it declined on the basis that it was an “internal matter”, the newspaper was under no obligation to ask the SABC the same question a week later. This part of the complaint is therefore dismissed.
Manga: Silencing, rejecting stories
The reference to Manga silencing news reporters and rejecting their stories because it was too radical is ascribed to a (named) source and not presented as a fact or as the newspaper’s opinion. This part of the complaint is therefore dismissed.
The newspaper is directed to publish a correction of the quotes that were erroneously ascribed to Gasa. Our office should be furnished with the text prior to publication. The following sentence should be added to the text: “Visit www.presscouncil.org.za (rulings, 2010) for the full finding.”
Please note that our Complaints Procedures lay down that within seven days of receipt of this decision, anyone of the parties 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 reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Deputy Press Ombudsman