Parliament vs Daily Maverick and Notes from the House

Complainant: Parliament

Lodged by: Mr Moloto Mothapo, spokesperson to Parliament

Dates of article: 11 December 2018 (Notes from the House) and December 12 (Daily Maverick)

Headlines: Secretary to Parliament, objects to being called ‘corrupt’  (Notes from the House); and: Gengezi Mgidlana, suspended Secretary to Parliament, objects to being called ‘corrupt’ (Daily Maverick)

Author of article: Moira Levy

Date: 29 March 2019

Respondents: Levy and Marianne Merten

First complaint                                            

Parliament complains about an article published on 2 October 2018.

The deadline for this complaint was towards the end of that month, while the complaint was lodged on December 23.

Section 1.3 of the Complaints Procedures states that a complaint should be made not later than 20 working days after the date of publication. However, this office may “on reasonable grounds” accept a late complaint “if … there is a good and satisfactory explanation for the delay”.

I have no correspondence at my disposal that Parliament has asked for an extension or that it has explained why the complaint was out of time (for approximately two months). I cannot accept a late complaint where no explanation has been offered.

It is regrettable that both parties have put in so much time in either complaining or responding to the complaint.

Second complaint    

Parliament complains:

  • the statements that Mr Gengezi Mgidlana, the suspended Secretary to Parliament (and other senior management of Parliament) had received bonuses, and that it had not offered an explanation for the paying out of these monies, were baseless and false;
  • its denial to this effect was not reported; and
  • the journalist did not contact its spokesperson and did not indicate that its attempts to do so (if any) were fruitless.

The text

The article said the “disgraced” Mgidlana had declared himself aggrieved because the EFF’s Mr Floyd Shivambu had called him corrupt in a Parliamentary debate in 2017.

He reportedly raised his objection to Shivambu’s comment in a letter, dated 29 November 2018 that was published in Parliament’s regular “Announcements, Tablings and Committee Report” of 5 December 2018. He also said that the statement had impugned his good name, character, dignity and reputation.

Levy continued: “Gengezi Mgidlana is the man who, among other dodgy practices, spent R4-million of taxpayers’ money in two-and-a-half years for travel for his wife and himself, awarded himself an ex-gratia payment of more than R71,000 that he was not entitled to, gave himself a R30,503 study bursary just months into the job while denying bursaries to most other staff, and various other dodgy behaviours such as the illegal use of blue light security cars, including to get his kids to school.”

The journalist inter alia added:

  • “In the latest twist, Mgidlana earned an annual performance bonus worth R56, 000… for the little more than two months he spent at work during the 2017/18 financial year”; and
  • Parliament “has not offered an explanation for performance bonuses … awarded to a handful of other senior managers.”

The arguments

MOTHAPO says when DM first made these claims, Parliament immediately corrected the falsehoods in a media statement (dated 4 October 2018), stating: “Parliament has noted with concern the incorrect publication of claims by the Daily Maverick that Parliament has paid performance bonuses to its Executive Managers in the 2017/18 financial year. Parliament has not paid anyone bonuses for the 2017/18 financial year and has also not done so for the past three years.”

This statement by Parliament also called the conclusion that Mgidlana, who has been on suspension while undergoing a disciplinary enquiry, was paid R56 000 bonus, “grossly erroneous” and “an unfortunate misapprehension of the financial section of Parliament’s Annual Report”.

The spokesperson concludes: “The falsehoods in these stories are based on poor understanding of standard financial reports, which could have been averted had Parliament been afforded an opportunity to respond or had Daily Maverick deployed journalists knowledgeable in financial reporting to report on such matters. Parliament seeks an apology as well as corrective measures for these violations of the Press Code.”

LEVY says she sourced her story from Parliament’s Announcements, Tablings and Committee Reports (No 183 of Wednesday 5 December 2018), which contained a letter written by Mgidlana.

She says this letter was in response to a ruling by the Joint Standing Committee on Powers and Privileges permitting him to reply to a comment about him made in the committee by Shivambu. This letter, she adds, was a public document – which meant that she could publish the information contained in that letter.

The reporter says she researched the matter for background information, and used some information published in the DM which helped her provide context for her article.

She submits her only omission was in failing to cite the source of some of the background information she had used to provide context to her story.

MERTEN replies that the case against Mgidlana has been well-aired in public – he was suspended and disciplinary hearings were underway.

Regarding the issue of the R56 0000 adjustment and the comment that Parliament has “not been able to explain”, she says this was an oversight that DM did not pick up in the editing process.

The journalist adds that, in the interest of fairness and to ensure all arguments are covered, DM is willing to include an update to the 12 December story that Parliament did in fact later offer an explanation, and in so doing disputed the article. She says the DM will also include a link to the press statement from Parliament.

Analysis

Given Merten’s admission that the reference to an adjustment of R56 000 and the comment that Parliament could not explain this was an “oversight” which was not picked up during the editing process, no further argument is needed.

The same goes for the complaint that DM did not report DM’s denials in this regard.

These statements made Parliament the subject of critical reportage, which is why Levy should have contacted its spokesperson for comment.

Finding

The complaint is upheld in its entirety.

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

Both Notes from the House and Daily Maverick are directed to apologise to Parliament for:

  • falsely stating that it had:
    • paid out bonuses to Mgidlana and other senior management;
    • not offered an explanation for the alleged paying out of these monies;
  • not reporting its denials to this effect; and
  • not having contacted its spokesperson for comment.

The publications are directed to publish the apology at the top of the page where the stories are published, with a headline containing the words “apology” or “apologises”, and “Parliament”.

The text should:

  • be published at the earliest opportunity after the time for an application for leave to appeal has lapsed or, in the event of such an application, after that ruling;
  • refer to the complaint that was lodged with this office;
  • end with the sentence, “Visit presscouncil.org.zafor the full finding”;
  • be published with the logo of the Press Council (attached); and
  • be prepared by the publication and be approved by the Ombud.

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