Clive Keegan vs Cape Times

Complainant:  Clive Keegan

Lodged by:  Clive Keegan

Article:  Tafelberg joy for blacks

Date: 24 May 2016

Respondent:  Damien Terblanche, on behalf of the Cape Times 

Complaint

Keegan complains that the headline did not reflect the content of the story, and that it provoked racial antagonism.

The text

The story was about a Western Cape High Court decision, preventing the provincial government from selling the Tafelberg Remedial School site. Some people hailed the decision as a “victory for the poor working class”.

The article said, “The controversial sale of the site in Sea Point to the Phyllis Jowell Jewish Day School for R135 million was stopped on Thursday and the Western Cape government ordered to open a public participation process and await a decision by the provincial cabinet on whether the land should be sold.”

Reportedly, the application before the court was to stop the transfer of the property because it could have been used for “affordable housing” instead.

The arguments

Keegan complains that the headline expressed racial triumphalism which was designed to provoke communal antagonism at a time when racial issues in Cape Town were sensitive. It also did not bear any relation to the content or tone of the story – which did not refer to “blacks”, “race” or any cause for ethnic “joy”.

He says that the High Court proceedings to which the article referred also did not justify the headline – there was no mention of racial matters, or of a victory for one population group over another.

“The contested headline can thus only be regarded as a gratuitous and provocative attempt to poison community relations in a climate which is already highly charged. [Normally], of course, there is nothing wrong with provocative or tendentious news headlines, but in this case the Cape Times has verged dangerously close to the purposeful damaging of harmonious race relations.”

Referring to Section 10.1 of the Code of Ethics and Conduct, Keegan complains that the headline was not strictly relevant to the matter reported on and that it constituted a “discriminatory or denigratory reference” to that section of the community at whose cost another section had cause for “joy” (Section 5.1 of the Code).

Terblanche says the term “blacks” denotes people who are African, Coloured or Indian. He says the story was about the provincial government’s sale of land that could and should have been used for housing for disadvantaged (“black”) people. “The people involved in the campaign are black. So when the court ruled – it was a victory for them – the poor.”

He denies that the newspaper was trying to fuel racial hatred or damage race relations. “The Cape Times has been in the forefront of exposing racism. And we are unapologetic about it.”

He adds that the story was in the public interest, and that it aimed to and has achieved its goal of uplifting the community by showing that the law protected people of all races, whether they were rich or poor.

Keegan replies that the newspaper’s response was largely irreleant to his complaint “which did not concern that newspaper’s general policy towards racism or its various campaigns to highlight the nature and extent of this social problem”.

He argues that the headline did not reflect the content of the story, and that it therefore merely reflected an (unconnected) opinion. He adds that the expression “black joy” was an emotionally subjective and gratuitous triumphalist opinion. He adds that the the word “joy” could only be viewed as “an attempt to convey exhiliration, exaltation or triumph by a specific ethic group as the consequence of a specific racially-based incident” – which again, was not reflected in the story at all.

He concludes that the headline was used to create an impression and convey a message which was not justified by the story it purported to reflect – and argues that it was designed to provoke antagonism in the minds of certain readers by portraying the court’s decision as a victory of one race over the other, “where as it was in fact no such thing”.

Keegan says the issue at stake was the legitimate concern that the municipality lacked a policy for facilitating and encouraging the development of affordable, low-income housing close to the amenities and opportunities offered by the inner city. This – world-wide – issue was not essentially a racial matter, “although it has racial or ethnic implications in South Africa because of our society’s peculiar coincidence between race and class and because apartheid drove Black citizens to the distant peripheries of the country’s cities”.

He concludes it is regrettable that an important debate about public policy should be trivialized by the newspaper’s determination to convert it into a racially-charged polemic.

Analysis

It is true that the article did not use the term “blacks”, and neither was the story about a racial matter. Therefore, I have little doubt that the headline did not properly reflect the content of the story, as required by the Code of Ethics and Conduct.

However, I also need to look further than the text of the Code – I should also take its intention, or spirit, into account.

The bottom-line question in this regard is: Did the headline’s use of a word (“black”) which was not reflected in the story cause anybody any harm?

I cannot agree with Keegan’s argument that, because the headline stated that blacks had won, it meant that whites had lost. That conclusion is a mere assumption which, I submit, is without any foundation. The “fight” that was won and lost was not between black and white, but between some black people (I accept that the complainants in the court case were black) and the City of Cape Town.

Therefore, I have no reason to agree with him that the headline “expressed racial triumphalism which was designed to provoke communal antagonism”, that the “joy” had an ethnic origin, and that the newspaper had verged “dangerously close to the purposeful damaging of harmonious race relations”.

In conclusion, I submit that the headline did not do any unnecessary damage to the community, even though the newspaper should have been more cautious in allowing a headline that did not strictly reflect the content of the story.

The fact that the complainants in the court case were black does serve as some mitigation in this regard, though.

Finding

The complaint is dismissed.

Appeal

Our 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