Verashni Pillay vs Wits Journalism School


Tue, Mar 17, 2020

Finding Complaint 4420

Verashni Pillay vs Wits Journalism School.

Publication: State of the Newsroom, 2018

Date: June, 2019

Headline: “Newsroom in Review: 2018

Author/Editor: Alan Finlay, Franz Kruger

Online: Yes

Particulars

This finding is based on a written complaint from Ms Verashni Pillay, a written response from Associate Professor Franz Kruger, and further engagements by the Ombudsman with both Ms Pillay and Prof Kruger.

Complaint

The complaint concerns a picture of Ms Pillay used in the Wits Journalism School annual publication, State of the Newsroom. The publication reviews the media industry in a series of articles by various media experts.

The picture was used as one of several illustrations in a review article by Alan Finlay entitled, “Newsroom in Review: 2018.”

Ms Pillay complains that the use of this picture in the context of the article transgresses several clauses in the Press Code being the following:

1.1 take care to report news truthfully, accurately and fairly;

1.2 present news in context and in a balanced manner, without any intentional or negligent departure from the facts whether by distortion, exaggeration or misrepresentation, material omissions, or summarization;

1.3 present only what may reasonably be true as fact; opinions, allegations, rumours or suppositions shall be presented clearly as such;

1.10 make amends for presenting inaccurate information or comment by publishing promptly and with appropriate prominence a retraction, correction, explanation or an apology;

1.11 prominently indicate when an online article has been amended or an apology or retraction published and link such to that text, while the original article may remain;

2.1 not allow commercial, political, personal or other non-professional considerations to influence reporting, and avoid conflicts of interest as well as practices that could lead readers to doubt the media’s independence and professionalism;

3.3 exercise care and consideration in matters involving dignity and reputation, which may be overridden only if it is in the public interest

10.1 Headlines, captions to pictures, and posters shall not mislead the public and shall give a reasonable reflection of the contents of the report or picture in question; and

10.2 Pictures and video / audio content shall not misrepresent or mislead nor be manipulated to do so.

  1. Text

1.1 The “State of the Newsroom” is an annual publication produced by the Wits Journalism Department.

1.2 It reviews the main trends in the media industry and newsrooms around the country. This edition carried articles on indicators of newspaper and broadcast audiences, retrenchments of journalists, the SABC, the crisis journalists face in newsrooms, investigative reporting, the media and state capture, and a report on the Press Council.

1.3 The article in question in this complaint is the opening one by Alan Finlay, titled Newsroom in Review.

1.4 Under various sub-heads, it covers the following topics:

  • Job cuts, restructuring and closures;
  • The new black-owned news channel;
  • Changes at the SABC;
  • Corruption in the broadcast sector;
  • Front Page Lies” which deals with the Sunday Times stories about the so-called “Rogue Unit at SARS and the “death squad” stories, later found to be false;
  • Stratcom”
  • Troubles at the Independent Group;
  • A Competition Tribunal probe into the media;
  • A digital terrestrial television update; and
  • Changes at the Press Council.

1.5 The complaint concerns the text under the sub-heading “Stratcom” (page 9), and a picture of Ms Pillay on the facing page (page 8).  

1.6 In this section, the article recounts the story of the 2017 documentary, “Winnie”, which deals with the life of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela. The documentary “premiered for the first time on public television in South Africa in April 2018.”

1.7 It recounts the controversy that it sparked through mentioning “the secret role of journalists in supporting the apartheid regime through ‘Stratcom’ – the name of the apartheid state’s covert disinformation campaign” It cites former head of Stratcom, Viv McPherson’s allegation that “40 journalists were either directly or indirectly working for the apartheid government.” These journalists were involved in a “smear campaign” against Mrs Madikizela-Mandela. This repeated a charge he had made at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 1997, where he said articles intended to discredit Mrs Madikizela-Mandela had been placed in a number of prominent British newspapers, as well in Vanity Fair in the United States.

1.8 The article then reports: “The controversy was partly the result of poor editorial decision-making at Huffpost SA, which on 4 April, two days after the death of Madikizela-Mandela, posted an extract from the documentary with McPherson’s comments, together with an excerpt from its own interview with Madikizela-Mandela that it had conducted when the documentary was first screened in 2017.”

1.9 In the documentary’s interview with Mrs Madikizela-Mandela, she specifically mentioned the then Weekly Mail (which had covered much of the controversy around the Mandela Football Club) “as being so critical of the ANC and of her that it ‘actually did the job for Stratcom’”. This, notes the article, was despite the fact that the Weekly Mail had been instrumental in exposing numerous covert apartheid dirty tricks and programmes, including Stratcom.

1.10 “She singled out the then co-editor of the Weekly Mail Anton Harber, and then journalist at the newspaper Thandeka Gqubule in her comments.” This had led to, among other things, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) threatening to reveal the names of the 40 journalists and “accusing Harber and Gqubule of being Stratcom spies.”

1.11 The article reports that HuffpostSA soon took down the video from its website    “with commentators calling for a clear-headed discussion on any allegations of the role of journalists in propping up the apartheid state.”

1.12 It reports that Mr Harber and Ms Gqubule were taking the EFF to court in a bid to get the party to retract its allegations against the two. Both had also filed applications in terms of the Promotion of Access to Information Act (PAIA) at the police and defence departments to clear their names. “The documents revealed that Stratcom had in fact been spying on Gqubule.”

1.12 On a page opposite this text is a picture of Ms Pillay taken apparently at a UNESCO conference in France, with a desk label carrying her name and the name of Huffington Post, South Africa. The caption says: “Verashni Pillay, editor of the short-lived and controversial Huffington Post, speaks at a journalism conference.”

  1. The arguments

Ms Verashni Pillay

2.1 Ms Pillay says the “State of the Newsroom” was launched at a “high profile event in June 2019” and widely circulated on various digital platforms including social media.”

2.2 Under the heading “Stratcom” it refers to the decision taken by the Huffington Post “nearly a year after I left” to publish the excerpt of the video of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela accusing specific journalists of being part of the apartheid “Stratcom” strategy (the details are in the summary of the text above).

2.3 One of those accused (falsely as a court found) was Anton Harber who was part of the editorial committee of “State of the Newsroom”. “He had a clear personal interest in the story and he and I had discussed it when it happened. He was well aware as were the others that I was not the editor in charge when it happened.”

2.4 The text referring to the “Stratcom” incident referred to “poor editorial decision making” at the Huffington Post. It did not name any of the editors who were responsible for the decision and were in charge of the newsroom at the time. Ms Pillay names them as:

  • Editor-in-Chief: Pieter du Toit
  • Editor-at-large: Ferial Haffajee
  • Multimedia editor: Noxolo Mafu

2.5 However, the only mention of an editor of the Huffington Post in this section of the article was a “prominent shot” of Ms Pillay “in close proximity to the description of what happened at HuffPost with the caption describing me as ‘editor of the short-lived and controversial Huffington Post.” (The picture was on the facing page).

2.6 Ms Pillay says she complained to those responsible. Their response was to put out an apology “that I did not agree with as it did not name the actual editor at the time…Their apology was put online without my go-ahead…”

2.7 She also complains that the apology was “hidden” and unless someone followed her posts on Twitter they would not have seen it. It was not as prominent as the original mistake: one has to ‘click through three links from the front page of the publication’s website to get to the ‘unreserved apology’”.  There is no link to the apology from the report and it’s headline is simply, “Statement from Wits Journalism regarding State of the Newsroom report.” A similar wording was used in the apology posted on Twitter.

2.8 The publication was also amended online, and Ms Pillay’s picture was removed and replaced by one of Communications minister, Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams “instead of the actual editor at the time, Pieter du Toit.” She says “nowhere in the apology or in the corrected copy are the names of those responsible for the error mentioned, as mine was.”

2.9 She says those responsible for the publication had told her that her picture was used to illustrate an earlier section in the article with the sub-head, JOB CUT, RESTRUCTURING, CLOSURES (on page 5 of the report), which noted the closure of the HuffPost, which although it had 1.63 million unique users, did not attract sufficient advertising, according to its owner, Media24.

2.10 However, Ms Pillay says “I don’t believe this to be true as it is featured several pages after this discussion. In addition, even if this were the case, again I was long gone as editor when the publication was closed and using my image in association to what had happened was similarly manipulative and deceptive.”

2.11 She argues that the authors of the report “have acted to protect the interests of a white man while using my image to illustrate failures and mistakes even when there were not mine. I object to this in the extreme.” She adds that even the correction “still protected those who actually made the mistake.”

2.12 She asks for:

  • A “corrected apology”, which includes the names of those responsible for the “Stratcom” decision. “If the authors of the report felt free to name me, I do not understand their reluctance to name others.”
  • For the apology to be posted with the “same prominence” as the original on the website and on social media, including on the “front page of their site for the period of a week and pinning it to top of their social media profiles for the period of two days.”
  • To pin the corrected apology on the same personal social media platforms where the authors posted the original report
  • A prominent note within the report itself of the correction and a link to the corrected apology.”

Professor Franz Kruger for Wits Journalism

2.13 Prof Kruger says he was “surprised” that the unconditional apology and retraction offered by Wits Journalism “was not enough” for Ms Pillay. They had wanted to act quickly.

2.14 On Ms Pillay’s complaint that the apology is “hidden”, Prof Kruger said: “We placed it on our website and tweeted it” and engaged on Twitter with her and others on the matter. “Her suggestions for what we should have done additionally go too far. The Press Code provides for corrections to be placed with equivalent prominence to the original item. In this case, what is at stake is the placement of a photograph inside the report. It is not reasonable to expect us to give the correction the same prominence as the entire report.”

2.15 He argues that there was “no explicit claim “ about her involvement with the Stratcom story posted on the Huffington Post website. “It was merely the placement [of the picture] that led to this inference being drawn.” He says the correction issued “is sufficient as it stands.” (see Analysis section for more on the correction)

However, he accepts there should be a link to the apology from within the report itself, as “corrections should be made clearly and transparently.” He says the publication is happy to tweet the correction again “and [is] also open to other reasonable suggestions for making the matter clearer.”

 2.16 On Ms Pillay’s argument that those responsible for the Stratcom controversy at the time should be named, he says “this seems to be the heart of her complaint.”

“We do not feel this is justified. The State of the Newsroom report is intended as an overview of the state of the journalistic media, designed to stimulate discussion and debate. It is not intended to “name and shame” individuals, and there are many examples where editors and journalists involved in various events remain unnamed.” He cites the closure of Ndalo Media and the retraction of stories published by the Sunday Times as examples where the individual owners and journalists are not named.

2.17 “She has accused us of deliberately choosing the picture to place blame at her door and shield those actually responsible, and suggests this was motivated by racism and sexism. We reject this claim. In fact, it was an unfortunate mistake. In any event, those she lists as responsible – and who we are accused of protecting - include not just a white man, Peter du Toit, but also two black women.”

2.18 He argues the picture was chosen as a “general illustration as the Huffington Post was mentioned in the text”. During the design process “it moved to a position where it could be read as linking Ms Pillay to a controversy she had nothing to do with.” He says this was a “mistake”, which was rectified as soon as it was brought to the publication’s attention. “We cannot be required now to add in the names of other people. In the light of the discussion around our use of her picture, this would be seen to be a deliberate attempt to point fingers.”

2.19 He says the State of the Newsroom report “has shown its concern with issues of race and gender in the South African media over several editions. We are greatly saddened that this issue has arisen. “

2.20 He apologises to Ms Pillay again but asks her “to accept that it was simply a failure to realise that the placement of a photograph created an incorrect connection. We reiterate that we are happy to improve the treatment of the correction along the lines suggested above.” (see point 2.15)

Further arguments

2.21 In her response to Prof Kruger, Ms Pillay said she had not been satisfied with the mediation process and wanted the matter to be sent to the Ombud for adjudication. This was because, in its response, the publication “skirted around the double standard at play: they pictured me for whatever reason (they claim it was a layout mistake but the intention was still to use my image to illustrate the publication HuffPost). However they refuse to replace my picture with that of the correct editor in chief at the time, Pieter du Toit, and instead used a generic image.”

2.22 The remedy the publication offered was “lacking in many respects: there was no public correction made on the report, and I had to ask for it.” Moreover, the link to the corrected version wasn't clear on the website, nor was the error publicly noted. Instead, she charges, “the authors of the report did their level best to hide their mistake, and made the correction without at first noting it or making it public. “

2.23 However, she says, “the remedy in terms of the replacement of my photo is my biggest complaint: why was the correct editor not used instead?”

2.24 She says Prof Kruger, in his response, fails to explain why her photograph was used at all in a report about HuffPost SA in 2017/18 “considering I was no longer editor” (emphasis in original). “There is no rhyme nor reason for using my image at all particularly with the caption that was used given the text it was originally meant to be illustrating - i.e. the closure of the publication which did not happen under my watch. Why link me to it? And why link me at all to every controversy that happened at the publication by way of the image and its caption?”

She accuses Prof Kruger of being “disingenuous”: “He knows full well the impression they were trying to create and who they were trying to protect. “

Moreover, the contention that the publication does not “name names doesn’t hold water considering I was so gleefully named AND pictured.”

2.25 She says it is also “disingenuous” to say “two black women” [meaning Ms Haffajee and Ms Mafu) “were involved in the mistake. He knows the editor-in-chief takes ultimate responsibility.”

She says it is a “clear-cut case” of her vs Pieter du Toit “and it’s clear where Franz and the journalism department’s prejudice lies.”

She says the issue speaks to “clear double standards with a race and gendered slant.”

  1. Analysis

3.1 The fact that this case came before me for Adjudication and could not be settled beforehand, particularly after an apology had been issued, is an indication of how strong the feelings were, particularly on the part of Ms Pillay.

3.2 Ms Pillay’s distress at being singled out, by means of a photograph, placed on a page in a section that carried news of the closure of the Huffington Post and of a controversy about that publication carrying (unfounded as it turned out) allegations against fellow journalists is understandable.

3.3 However, Mr Kruger has insisted it was an error. In response to my question on this he wrote: “Ms Pillay continues to insist that we have given no explanation for the use of her picture. … we [have] said that the picture was chosen as a general illustration of the Huffington Post, as it was mentioned in the text, much as we chose other illustrations. In the production process, it was overlooked that the choice of her image created an association with a controversy of which she was not part. Our explanation, in other words, is that it was an error.  As soon as this became clear, we corrected it and apologised. There is no evidence to support her contention that we are trying to protect Mr Du Toit. We have no reluctance to associate white men with failure, and there is no evidence to the contrary. In fact, the previous edition of the report also mentioned a controversy around the Huffington Post, and in that case we did name him.” 

3.3 The relative speed at which the Wits Journalism Department offered and published an apology, is an indication that the placement of the photograph was not intended to belittle or criticise her. The publication was launched on the 19 June, 2019; as soon as Ms Pillay raised her objections, the apology was issued, on 20 June, 2019.

3.4 Professor Kruger’s argument, and the apology, seems to belie any malicious intent in the placement of the photo. He argued it was an “unfortunate mistake” that occurred during the design process.

3.5 Anyone familiar with designing and laying out large publications on deadline may know the tendency for these kind of mistakes to happen. It may have appeared insensitive to Ms Pillay and perhaps even reflected insufficient editorial oversight about the message the placement of this picture sent.

3.6 But if there was any deliberate attempt at malice or racism or sexism, it would be expected that the editors of the publication would defend this image, not apologise as quickly as they did.

3.7 That said, Ms Pillay’s feeling that there was an undercurrent of racism and sexism in choosing her photograph to illustrate two significant failures of the publication – the “Stratcom” incident which refers to “poor editorial decision-making” and the publication’s closure – is understandable. 

3.8 The other pictures on that double page were of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela from the documentary and a picture of the journalist Thandeka Gqubule, who, with Anton Harber, took the EFF to court to get it to retract the allegations that they had been associated with “Stratcom”. The latter two pictures pertained directly to the controversy recounted in this section of the article.

3.9 However, as soon as Ms Pillay alerted the editors responsible for the publication to the anomaly of her picture being there, and her distress at this, they removed it in the online version of the publication and issued an apology. This indicates to me that this was perhaps a clumsy and insensitive layout decision -  a “mistake” – but one not driven by malice.

3.10 The apology issued by Wits Journalism on its website reads thus: “It has been drawn to our attention that a photograph in our recently released State of the Newsroom report suggests a link between former editor Verashni Pillay and controversy around Huffington Post’s treatment of claims levelled against some journalists as being part of  ‘Stratcom’.  Our intention was not to make such a connection, but we accept that this implication can be drawn from the context. We are aware that these events took place some time after Ms Pillay left the publication, and apologize unreservedly to her for any embarrassment caused. The online version of the report will be changed.”

The apology was published under the headline “Statement from Wits Journalism regarding State of the Newsroom Report” and is dated 20 June, 2019.

3.11 The fact that the apology was issued so soon after the launch of the report (also June, 2019) indicates the seriousness with which the Journalism department wished to make amends.

3.12 However, Ms Pillay is not happy that it is relatively “hidden” on the Wits Journalism website. Although Prof Kruger says it was tweeted and sent me a link to the apology[1] Ms Pillay said it took her “three clicks” to find it. I had to do a search under her name to find it: so it was also not at obvious to me. It does not appear to be linked to the (revised) online Report.

3.12 On the replacement picture: Ms Pillay says she is also unhappy that the replacement picture was a “generic” one. It was of Communications Minister, Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams.

3.12 She wants the picture to be replaced with one of Pieter du Toit, who was editor of the Huffington Post at the time of the controversy. She charges that the failure to run his picture is an indication of an underlying motive to protect Mr Du Toit on the basis of his being a white man.

I will deal with these points below:

3.13 Mr Kruger argues that Ms Pillay did not raise this point in initial arguments. He asks if this is a complaint on behalf of the Minister and if so he queries her standing to make such a complaint. “Or is it meant to show that taken as a whole, the State of the Newsroom displays racist and sexist tendencies? We would be extremely concerned if that were the claim. But we would argue that it would take analysis of the publication as a whole to sustain such an accusation, not a specific reading of the use of one or two pictures.”

3.14 My view is that the picture of Ms Ndabeni-Abrahams is appropriate in an editorial context. It falls within the sections on the SABC and text under the heading “Corruption in the Broadcasting Sector”. It is therefore not a “generic” picture, but an apposite one.

 3.15 On whether Mr Du Toit’s picture should have been used instead, Professor Kruger has argued that the style of the report is not to “name and shame”. None of the pictures of the journalists involved in the Sunday Times “Rogue Unit” stories were used, for instance, nor were the owners of Ndalo media (which closed down and whose CEO was Khanyi Dhlomo) pictured. The picture, says Prof Kruger, “was chosen as a general illustration of the Huffington Post, as it was mentioned in the text, much as we chose other illustrations. In the production process, it was overlooked that the choice of her image created an association with a controversy of which she was not part. Our explanation, in other words, is that it was an error. As soon as this became clear, we corrected it and apologised. There is no evidence to support her contention that we are trying to protect Mr Du Toit. We have no reluctance to associate white men with failure, and there is no evidence to the contrary.  In fact, the previous edition of the report also mentioned a controversy around the Huffington Post, and in that case we did name him.” 

3.16 But there is another key issue: the Ombudsman is empowered to prescribe corrections and apologies, but cannot dictate to publications what content to use in place of an article or picture that offends and is subsequently retracted or apologised for. In this case, the picture was retracted and replaced by the publication’s editors with what they saw fit. It is not for the Ombud to prescribe what should go in its place. This would create a precedent that would undermine editorial independence and not necessarily strengthen editorial ethics.

Finding

The publication did not, in its caption, link Ms Pillay to the ‘Stratcom’ controversy. Thus is it has not transgressed clauses 1.1., 1.2 or 1.3 of the Press Code.

However, in terms of clause 3.3, invoking the media to “exercise care and consideration in matters involving dignity and reputation”, Ms Pillay was understandably distressed at the inference (suggested by the layout) that she was responsible for the “Stratcom” debacle, the “poor editorial decision-making” described in the article, and even perhaps the closure of Huffington Post. It is common cause she was not editor at the time either of these events took place. It was insensitive to use her picture under the circumstances.

Although the publication issued an apology, this was inadequately placed (even if it was tweeted), it did not include the word, Apology, in its headline, and did not link to the original report.  So in terms of clauses 1.10 and 1.11 of the Press Code, which deals with apologies, the publication has failed to reflect this with “appropriate prominence”.

The publication has also erred in terms of clause 10.1: “Headlines and captions to pictures shall give a reasonable reflection of the contents of the picture or report in question.” The caption describes her as “editor of the short-lived and controversial Huffington Post”. This was misleading. She was not editor at the time of either its closure or the ‘Stratcom’ controversy.

I find the State of the Newsroom has transgressed clauses 1.10, 1.11, 3.3, and 10.1 of the Press Code.

It’s current apology on the website is adequately worded but not adequately placed. The publication should link the apology, with the words “Apology to Verashni Pillay” in the headline to the online edition of the report.

In addition, it should publish this on an inside page near the front of the next edition of the publication.

The apology must carry the Press Council logo, a link to this ruling,  and be approved by the Ombudsman.

The rest of the complaint is dismissed.

Appeal

The Complaints Procedures lay down that within seven (7) 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.

Pippa Green

Press Ombudsman

March 16, 2020