Finding Complaint 4335
Date of Article: 17/3/2019
Headline: “Secretary-General Ace Magashule says: We don’t need white votes”
Author: Ngwako Modjadji
This ruling is based on a complaint filed on behalf of the African National Congress by Mr Krish Naidoo, the party’s legal advisor. It is based on the written complaint from Mr Naidoo, as well as a response from City Press, as well as further emailed questions from the Ombudsman for clarity.
Mr Krish Naidoo, the ANC’s legal advisor, complains that an article published by City Press, under the headline, “Secretary-General Ace Magashule says: We don’t need white votes”, transgressed the Press Code in two respects:
- The media shall take care to report news truthfully, accurately and fairly; and
10.1 Headlines and captions to pictures shall give a reasonable reflection of the contents of the report or picture in question.
- The text
- The article, published about seven weeks before the May 2019 general elections, appeared under the headline: “Secretary-General Ace Magashule says: We don’t need white votes.”
- The “blurb” to the article stated: “While ANC internal polls show a greater white engagement since Cyril Ramaphosa became president, the party insists it’s the black vote that counts”.
- The introduction noted that ANC secretary-general Magashule had “downplayed” suggestions that the positive mood around the new president, Cyril Ramaphosa, would “see white South Africans voting for the party in big numbers in the May 8 general election.” He said this did not “make sense” as the ANC’s support was “not based on colour”.
- He explains that there are “democratic, progressive whites” who will vote for the ANC because it is a “non-racial organisation”, but adds that the majority of “our people” are those who were “oppressed – blacks in general”.
- He goes on to say that there are whites who “have been there for many years” who “believe in democracy and non-racialism”. But it did not “make sense” to say that whites, “generally, will vote for the ANC this time around..”
- The party’s hope was “not based on colour.” Even under the Mandela presidency, white voters did not generally support the party.
- The story goes on to explain that the ANC’s internal research poll in Gauteng had revealed that the party’s support among white people had increased since Ramaphosa took over the presidency. The article quotes ANC Gauteng spokesperson Tasneem Motara: “Our research indicates that white support in Gauteng has grown.” It also quoted Gauteng DA leader, John Moodley, saying there have “always” been ”some whites” who vote for the ANC but he is confident the shift won’t happen.
- The paragraph that follows has Mr Magashule “insisting” there are no “iconic figures left in the ANC”, adding that the new crop of leaders love “money and positions” It then quotes him speaking at a meeting in Ekurhuleni saying that Mandela and Oliver Tambo “were the last icons of the party.”
- It then goes on to examine the party’s top 100 candidates for Parliament, “which contains a number of controversial names..”
- Factional battles, reports City Press, have caused a “deadlock that saw the retention of candidates with dark clouds hanging over them”
- It notes that some “discredited” ANC leaders – some of whom had been mentioned at the Zondo Commission into State Capture –are high on the list. It also recounts the position of “Ramaphosa’s foes” on the Public Protector complaint into Bosasa’s R500 000 donation to his 2017 campaign and the claim that Mineral Resources Minister Gwede Mantashe had his home security installed by that company. If some of the leaders had been removed from the list, it would have provoked the “Zuma camp”
- It mentions some prominent leaders on the list, including the more “controversial” ones, as well as some of those who are younger and new. It also details some of the prominent provincial people on the list.
- It quotes Magashule saying there is no basis to remove people from the election list, if they have not been found guilty “by any court of law.” He also defended the ANC’s vetting process, saying it had been able to pick up some people with “criminal records”.
- The article quotes ANC Veterans’ League president Snuki Zikalala, saying the “controversial characters” on the list would harm the ANC at the polls, adding ‘the ANC under Ramaphosa has begun cleaning ”
- It also quotes the Communist Party saying its support for the ANC should not be mistaken as support for people “who have violated the values of the revolutionary moral high ground” of the ANC.
1.16 It ends with a warning by Magashule that the votes of young people will be “key” and that the “EFF is working hard on the ground.”
- The Arguments
2.1 The ANC, through Mr Krish Naidoo, says the article is based on an interview “that ran for 6 minutes and 20 seconds” with Mr Magashule. The interviewer was Mr Ngwako Modjadji of City Press.
2.2. Most of the interview dealt with the candidates list which the ANC had recently submitted to the IEC. Mr Magashule explained the vetting process and “elaborated on representivity” which included youth, women, people with disabilities and representatives of “national groups.”
2.3 The interview in the main “vacillated along the interplay between morality and legality”. The journalist put it to Mr Magashule that those who were tarnished by perceptions of corruption should step aside; Mr Magashule responded that until they had been convicted in a court of law, there was no reason to exclude them. The ANC, writes Mr Naidoo, “welcomes” this discussion about the moral/legal dichotomy “as a sign of a maturing democracy” and considers it to be “in the public interest”.
- However the headline was unfair: Mr Magashule never said these words; also, the headline did not reflect the contents of the article nor does it constitute a “balanced summation of the report”. The headline, “either intentionally or negligently” misrepresents the facts and is thus in breach of section 1.1 of the Press Code. It also caused “unnecessary harm” to the ANC just before a national election. The ANC makes it clear that its objection is to the headline and not to the article.
2.5 Partly because of the pressures of covering the election, City Press was fairly late to respond to this complaint; its response came about six weeks after the complaint was lodged. However, Mr Dumisane Lubisi, the paper’s deputy editor, apologised for this.
2.6 In its argument, City Press contends that it “reasonably summarised” everything Mr Magashule said. It cites his statement that the ANC relies on support from the black constituency “and was banking on bolstering its electoral showing with whites (sic) votes.”
2.7 City Press, in its defence, quotes the following from Magashule: “There are whites who believe in democracy and nonracialism. They have been there for many years. But to think that whites, generally, will vote for the ANC this time around, for me, does not make sense…Our hope is not based on colour, and therefore people cannot say that whites this time are going to vote ANC – as if blacks are not actually going to vote ANC…”
2.8 Mr Magashule also stated that whites did not vote for the ANC even in the time of Mandela – who was popular among all race groups – “implying there was no necessity to chase the white vote now.” (My emphasis)
2.9 City Press also argues he “disagreed” with statements by the Gauteng ANC that more whites would vote for the ANC in the coming elections.
2.10 He said there were white people who had voted for the ANC over the years but “it is black people who have voted for the ANC and nothing about this fact was going to change in these elections.” He also said, according to City Press, “people cannot say that whites are going to vote for the ANC, as if black people are not going to vote.”
2.11 The paper argues it is important to “make the distinction’ that it did not write that Mr Magashule said the ANC did not want votes from white people, as that would have implied they were not welcome. He was reported as saying that with or without white votes the ANC would still “perform strongly in the elections.” Thus the headline captures his sentiment that the party does not need white votes.
It did not need “an extra helping hand” from white voters”
The week before the Sunday Times had carried a front page story that said the Gauteng ANC believed whites would vote for the party “because of the appeal of President Cyril Ramaphosa.”
“So the headline captures succinctly the message he was conveying through those quotes, the accuracy of which he does not dispute.”
2.12 There was a debate in the media fraternity about whether journalists were “mere stenographers” or whether they should play a “bigger role in interpreting what the subjects of their stories are saying. This is particularly germane in the writing of headlines.”
“A headline does not have to reproduce every word from the story. It merely has to encapsulate in a few words what a lengthy story is portraying. City Press believes this is the case here”.
2.13 City Press took great care in reporting the story and believes the headline “captured” the essence of the article. “No reasonable reader would have been misled by the headline after reading the body of the story. It was clear that Mr Magashule was saying the ANC’s win in the elections was not depended on whites and that the party had always won based on the majority of black voters.” (My emphasis)
The paper also points to Mr Magashule’s quote about Mandela being popular among all races and that “even then, the ANC was voted for by the black majority”.
2.14 “The headline was the true interpretation of the message that Mr Magashule wanted to be read by readers,” argues the paper.
3.1 The article itself was comprehensive, informative, and with analysis that was well substantiated.
- It quoted Mr Magashule as saying the evidence showed that a group of whites had always voted for the ANC, but this group was not expected to expand significantly even with President Cyril Ramaphosa leading the party. After all, even though Nelson Mandela was well loved across race groups, his leadership of the party had not attracted a significant number of white votes. He says the majority of the ANC’s voters are “those who were oppressed – blacks in general.”
3.3 Contrary to City Press’s argument that he disagreed with research conducted in an internal poll by the Gauteng ANC, there is no indication of this in the article. Instead, the next paragraph says: “However, Magashule insisted there were “no iconic figures” left in the ANC, adding that current ANC leaders love “money and positions.”
- Whether something was lost in the editing, I am unable to tell, but this is not a rejoinder to the Gauteng ANC’s research poll. It is an entirely new point.
3.5 An important focus of the story was on the composition of the election lists and the number of people on them who had been implicated in state capture. Mr Magashule responds to this by saying that none of them have been convicted in a court of law.
3.6 It adds some analysis (based on reporting) that indicates that the lists were a kind of compromise to prevent “the Zuma camp going on a warpath…” It also speaks about the balance of those on the list from various provinces, age groups etc. It ends with Mr Magashule emphasizing the importance of young voters and a suggestion that the ANC was looking to combat possible EFF popularity among the young. (“Whether we like it or not, the EFF is working hard and is on the ground.”)
3.7 Nowhere – even when talking about the racial breakdown of votes – does it quote Mr Magashule as saying the party does not “need” white votes. The use of the word “says” in the print-version of the headline (and a colon in the online version) after Mr Magashule’s name and before the statement “We don’t need white votes” unambiguously suggests that he himself has said this. It is not an argument to say he was “implying” this, without putting the proposition to him directly.There is no indication in the article itself that he discussed the racial breakdown of votes in this way: instead he said there had always been a small group of whites who had voted for the ANC and the party did not expect this to change. The argument that the headline could have been read to infer that “white votes”, because whites are in a minority, will not be of great significance to the party’s election outcomes, does not hold much water. The way the sentence is constructed comes across as contemptuous of white support, and there is no indication in the article that this is what Mr Magashule meant.
3.8 It is quite true that any reader who read the whole article, may have concluded that “Mr Magashule was saying the ANC’s win in the elections was not dependent on whites and that the party had always won based on the majority of black voter”, as City Press argues. But a headline is critical because it sets the tone of debate, particularly in this age of “clickbait” on the internet.
- Furthermore, a publication cannot assume a reader will read the whole story for context. As Judge Philip Levinsohn and others found in a civil case involving the African Echo newspaper in the Swaziland High Court: “Many readers of newspapers simply glance at the bold headings only and then move on. The impression implanted in the mind of the reader by such blaring headlines is likely to be both deep and lasting. Most readers do not read the whole story…”
- This particular headline provoked a negative reaction from a cross-section of people in the country, but particularly among whites some of whom used it to confirm their own biases. Some examples of this were clear in online comments:
- In an article by Jan Bosman on PoliticsWeb it is cited as evidence that Mr Magashule “has become a master of crude racist undertones, hate speech, inflammatory statements and blaming minorities.”
- Other comments on Twitter included: “Like we’d ever vote for you anyway”, or “Good, because you’re not likely to get them. And you won’t get votes from anyone else with even a modicum of common sense.”
- There were a few comments, however, which noted that the headline did not accurately denote what was in the article. As one commented: “The more apt heading, quoting Magashule, would have been: ‘There are no icons left. We are a different breed of leaders.’ So right.” (from @Cerned_Con)
- In a country that still harbours racial tensions, this headline may have aggravated those tensions when there was no basis for doing so. It should also be noted that this was the headline on the lead story on page 1, and thus very prominent.
I find that City Press has transgressed Section 10.1 of the Press Code, which states that “Headlines and captions…shall give a reasonable reflection of the contents of the report..”
City Press is to apologise to the ANC and to Mr Magashule himself for the misleading headline. The apology should be carried prominently on page 1 (where the original story was published)
This is a Tier 2 offence. The newspaper’s correction and apology should be published on the same page as the original print story and be approved by the Ombudsman. The Press Council logo and a link to this finding should also be published.
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.
October 30, 2019