Shaka Sisulu vs. Sunday Sun


Mon, Sep 11, 2017

Ruling by the Press Ombud

11 September 2017

This ruling is based on the written submissions of Mr Shaka Sisulu and those of Johan Vos, deputy editor of the Sunday Sun newspaper.

Sisulu is complaining about a story in Sunday Sun of 30 July 2017. The front-page headline read, Shaka Sisulu axed! The story was carried on page 5, headlined Shaka is bitter about Twitter! – Presenter makes sudden exit from his TV-show.

He also complains about a follow-up article, published on August 6 (after consultation with the editor) on page 6 and headlined Shaka’s last hashtag: I was not fired!

Complaint                                            

Sisulu complains the:

·         first story falsely stated that he had:

o   been fired as a presenter on a SABC 3 TV show called “Trending SA” (both in the front-page headline and in the text of the story);

o   been shocked by the news (that he was going to leave) on his last show; and

o   fought with one of the producers (which led to his dismissal);

·         follow-up article was:

o   watered-down and insufficient;

o   not published with the same prominence as the offending story (in the newspaper); and

o   not linked to the original (online) one.

He also complains that Sunday Sun did not give him a proper right of reply with regards to the first story, and says that the reportage has unnecessarily tarnished his reputation.

The text

The first article, written by Snazo Notho, said that Sisulu was “shown the exit door” at Trending SA, after he allegedly fought with a producer two weeks earlier. Sources reportedly claimed this altercation took place in front of several members of staff.

The reporter quoted one source as saying that management felt it was time for Sisulu to go, and that he had been informed about that decision a mere week before his last show.

Before publishing Trending SA’s media release, which was done extensively, the follow-up story stated, “Shaka Sisulu has come out guns blazing in defence of his honour and his oh-so-manly pride. This as the ‘witty’ ex-host of SABC3’s daily night-time talk show, Trending SA, has refuted claims that he has been fired from the production.” 

The arguments

Sisulu says Trending SA sent out a media release on July 28, two days before publication, stating the reasons for Sisulu leaving the show – he himself had decided to quit, and Trending SA expressed its “sadness” by his desire “to move one” and quite elaborately praised him for the work he had done. The release, he states, made no mention of any axing, fights which led to his dismissal, or shock on his last show (after he had allegedly been “told” that he had to leave).

It was also untrue, he adds, that the producers were “mum”, as Trending SA sent out a media release to Sunday Sun as well.

Sisulu says the journalist did phone him for comment prior to publication, but she did not ask him about the allegations which were reported in the story.

Vos replies that the editor, Prince Chauke, and Sisulu discussed the matter telephonically. He says the editor gave Sisulu two options – either the newspaper publishes a follow-up story “to set the record straight”, or he (Sisulu) lodges a complaint with this office.

The deputy editor says, “Sunday Sun stuck to this agreement and therefore [we] don’t believe that we are in breach of the Press Code.”

Sisulu says after the agreement he sent his version to the editor and requested the same prominence for his text than the offending article. However, Sunday Sun did not publish this text – instead, it carried a “watered-down” version of the media release, without any apology.

He adds that the online story was not referenced accordingly.

Analysis

The basic question is whether Sunday Sun indeed has “stuck” to the agreement – if it did, Sisulu would have no leg to stand on; if it did not, the same goes for the newspaper.

The mere fact that it published a follow-up article cannot, by itself, guarantee that it had done so satisfactorily (which would have been the end of this matter) – it depends on what the text said and how this was done.

The first story

First, I need to comment on why a follow-up story was necessary in the first place.

The text did not make any mention of a media release by Trending SA, which Sisulu claims was sent out to Sunday Sun two days prior to publication – a claim which Vos does not refute.

The neglect to report the gist of this information is rather puzzling. While I do not blame the newspaper for publishing what its sources had to say, despite the content of the media release, surely fairness should have dictated that the release (the content of which was diametrically opposed to that of the sources’ testimony) be published as well.

Was this a case of a story too good to be ruined by facts (if only seen from a different side)?

I can well understand:

·         Sisulu’s disdain in this regard; as well as

·         the editor’s willingness to “set the record straight”.

Let me be clear on what I expect of the newspaper, and what not. I do not expect Sunday Sun to apologise for the fact that it reported what its sources had to say, or to retract the latter. If that is what the sources said, that is what they said.

However, neglecting to report the media release was unfair, as that would have provided the necessary balance to the story – without which there was a real possibility that the reportage could cause unnecessary harm to Sisulu’s reputation.

While no retraction was necessary, and no apology for reporting the information garnered from its sources either, an apology for neglecting to reflect the other side was therefore indeed appropriate.

In short: At this stage, I expect the follow-up article to reflect the media release, together with an apology that this was not done in the first place.

The focus now shifts to the text published on August 6.

The follow-up article

Sunday Sun published the media release in its next edition – for which I am grateful.

However, another question now becomes pertinent: Would the mere publishing of the media release have been enough to address all the burning issues?

This turns out not to be the case, as the issues mentioned in the offending article involved more than what the media release covered.

The content

A notable aspect of this text is what it did not say.

Not only did Sunday Sun not apologise for omitting to state the other side of the story, it even neglected to report that it had published the allegations in question in the first place. The text merely stated that Sisulu refuted “claims” that he had been fired (etc.) – without mentioning that the newspaper itself had published these claims.

This inappropriately exonerated Sunday Sun from the responsibility it should have taken, explicitly so, for publishing those allegations without the counter-statements made by Trending SA and Sisulu.

The fact that there was no reference to the first article also meant that the follow-up story was not placed in the proper context, as it should have been. This is the point: The public was not given a fair opportunity to understand that the content of the media release in fact went against claims made in the earlier article (the allegations that Sisulu was fired, that he was shocked by the news, and that a fight with one of the producers had led to his dismissal).

On top of this, the article only mentioned Sisulu’s denial that he was fired – it did not mention the allegation that he had been shocked by the news (that he was going to leave) on his last show, and that a fight with one of the producers had led to his dismissal.

In short, the newspaper did not:

·         apologise (as it should have, as the reportage carried the very real possibility of causing Sisulu’s reputation unnecessary harm);

·         take responsibility for its reportage;

·         convey the proper context; and

·         address all of Sisulu’s concerns.

I also find the statement that Sisulu came out guns blazing “in defence of his honour and his oh-so-manly pride” not only unnecessarily scathing (how was this about manhood in the first place?), but perhaps also misleading. The issue was not pride, but the facts – if only as seen from SABC3’s and Sisulu’s side.

The placement

Online: The follow-up article on the website was not linked to the offending one, as it should have been. Without such a link, the necessary context was lacking. Again.

Hard copy: While the offending article was published prominently (the headline, with a picture of Sisulu, took up most of the front page, and the inside story was published at the top of page 5, with a rather prominent headline), the follow-up story was published at the very bottom of an inside page (page 6), with nothing on the front page either.

Such placements give credence to regular criticism against the media that offending articles are often published prominently, while their corrections are being “hidden”.

Such a practice should not be allowed under the auspices of this office.

In conclusion

I do not blame Sunday Sun for not publishing the text presented by Sisulu as the follow-up article – it was much too long, to start with. I also disagree with the latter that the follow-up article contained a watered-down version of the media release (it did not – the release was covered adequately).

This does not change my assessment of the content and placement of the follow-up story, though – which, together with the first story, contained the real possibility of causing unnecessary harm to Sisulu’s reputation.

Finding

If the follow-up article adequately “set the record straight”, I would have dismissed the complaint about both texts.

Unfortunately, that was not the case.

The first article

Having neglected to publish Trending SA’s media release, the story was in breach of the following sections of the Press Code:

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

·         1.8: “The media shall seek the views of the subject of critical reportage in advance of publication …”; and

·         3.3: “The media shall exercise care and consideration in matters involving … reputation.”

The follow-up story

Content: Lacking an appropriate apology, the necessary context, and failing to address all of the allegations made against Sisulu, this article was in breach of the following sections of the Press Code:

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

·         3.3: “The media shall exercise care and consideration in matters involving … reputation.”

Placement of the hard text: The poor placement of this text was in breach of Section 1.10 of the Press Code which states, “The media shall make amends for presenting information or comment that is found to be inaccurate by communicating, promptly and with appropriate prominence so as to readily attract attention, a retraction, correction or explanation” (emphasis added).

Placement online: The fact that the text was not linked to the offending article was in breach of Section 1.11 of the Code which reads, “An online article that has been amended for factual accuracy should indicate as such. In the event of an apology or retraction, the original article may remain, but the publisher must indicate in a prominent manner that it has led to an apology or retraction – and should link to both the apology/retraction and the original article.”

Seriousness of breaches                                              

Under the headline Hierarchy of sanctions, Section 8 of the Complaints Procedures distinguishes between minor breaches (Tier 1 – minor errors which do not change the thrust of the story), serious breaches (Tier 2), and serious misconduct (Tier 3).                                                                                     

The breaches of the Press Code as indicated above are all Tier 2 offences.

Sanction

Sunday Sun is directed to apologise to Sisulu for not:

·         reporting the gist of Trending SA’s media release in its first story, thereby rendering this reportage unfair;

·         providing the necessary context to the follow-up article (referring to the finding that the newspaper did not take responsibility for its reportage, and that the follow-up text did not enable readers to understand that Sisulu – and Trending SA – in fact disagreed with the sources’ information);

·         addressing in the follow-up story all the allegations made against him in the offending article (read: that Sisulu was fired, that he was shocked by the news, and that a fight with one of the producers had led to his dismissal);

·         publishing that text with appropriate prominence in its hard copy; and

·         linking the offending article to the follow-up story online.

The newspaper is requested to publish:

·         the apology, as outlined directly above:

o   at the top of page 5, with a headline containing the words “apology” or “apologises”, and “Sisulu”; and

o   online (at the top of that page), and to link the two articles

·         a kicker on its front page, containing the words “apology” or “apologises” and Sisulu”, and referring to the text on page 5.

The text should:

·         be published at the earliest opportunity after the time for an application for leave to appeal has lapsed;

  • refer to the complaint that was lodged with this office;
  • end with the sentence, “Visit www.presscouncil.org.za for the full finding”; and
  • be prepared by the newspaper and be approved by me.

Appeal

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

Johan Retief

Press Ombud