Pearl Luthuli, SABC Group Executive vs Sowetan

Complainant: Pearl Luthuli

Article: Broadcaster airs more dirty linen

Date: 28 August 2008

Respondent: Sowetan

Pearl Luthuli, SABC Group Executive, Public Commercial Broadcasting Service, complained about an article headlined Broadcaster airs more dirty linen published in Sowetan on May 12, 2008.
She alleged that the article was in breach of sections 1.1, 1.2, 1.2.1, 1.3, 1.4, 1.5, 4.2 and 5.1 of the Press Code in that Sowetan made allegations which it did not verify, ignored an official response and sought instead to rely on an unidentified source, failed to check its facts, failed to put allegations to the complainant when it had the opportunity to do so, reported opinion as fact and failed to exercise care in the writing of the headline for the report.
The panel heard the matter on June 26, 2008.
Luthuli was not present at the hearing but was represented by Quraysh Patel from her department at the SABC. Sowetan was represented by Monk Nkomo, author of the report Getrude Makhafola, and a legal team from the firm Webber Wentzel led by Keneilwe Matidze.
The panel found that the headline Broadcaster airs more dirty linen was a bad attempt at playing on the expression that broadcasters air programmes. As it was used here it carried the meaning that it was the broadcaster that was exposing more dirty linen when it was in fact the newspaper that was airing allegations of dirty linen at the broadcaster.
The newspaper argued that “the use of the pun in the headline was an intelligent and creative way of linking the broadcasting industry with the subject matter of the article”. This attempt at being clever failed.
The headline did not reflect the contents of the report and was therefore in breach of Section 5.1 of the code.
Comment or interpretation?
The complainant argued that first paragraph of the story – “Poor bumbling SABC …” was in breach of Section 4.2 of the code in that it was comment that was not based on facts which had been shown on balance to be true.
There is a very thin line between interpretation and commentary in journalism. In this case it can be argued that this is legitimate interpretation given the crises at the SABC. It gives the context in which the story is told. The newspaper did substantiate its interpretation in the very next paragraph – that its story comes after the suspensions of chief executive Dali Mpofu and head of news Snuki Zikalala.
Confidential sources
The nub of the complaint rests on the use of allegations from unnamed sources that:
  • SABC Board chairperson Khanyisile Mkhonza and her deputy Christine Qunta were “pushing for the appointment of Luthuli as chief operating officer”;
  • Luthuli “faces an internal investigation into mismanagement of funds”;
  • Luthuli does not know anything;
  • Staff morale in the department is low;
  • Luthuli does not have a good working relationship with her boss, Charlotte Mampane.
The story is structured curiously: In paragraph three the newspaper quotes “sources”; the next references, in paragraphs 6 and 8 quote “the source”; and paragraph 11 quotes “an official in Luthuli’s department”.
In its argument, the newspaper tried to explain the ambiguity of its sources by saying they were in fact two – the first was a senior employee of the SABC at the time and the second was and still is “employed at the SABC and also has first-hand knowledge of the majority of the allegations contained in the article”.
The newspaper argued that the second source corroborated the information provided by the first source and also provided additional information.
The author of the story, Getrude Makhafola, was present at the hearing but was not called as a witness by the newspaper and could therefore not be questioned.
After reading the story and listening to the arguments from the newspaper, it is still not clear to the panel how Mkhonza and Qunta were pushing for Luthuli’s appointment. Was the pushing done at a board meeting, at a meeting between the board and management, or in memoranda?
It is also not clear what access the sources had to the information. Were they present at meetings where the appointment was discussed? Did they see minutes or other documents?
This is vital information to establish the credibility of the Sowetan’s sources. The panel and the readers need to be certain that they are not dealing with office gossip, which can be found in every organisation, especially one that is as unstable as the SABC currently is. (For the office gossip distinction, the panel is grateful to the reports on the Mail & Guardian’s newsroom discussion on confidential sources.)
The sources are making serious allegations not only against Luthuli, but also against board members – who are allegedly pulling wool over the public’s eyes by pretending to advertise a vacancy and going through the charade of selections when they already have a person in mind – and acting COO Charlotte Mampane – who cannot deal with an alleged problem of communication with Luthuli, who reports to her, and with her alleged incompetence, knowing nothing about her responsibilities.
An adverb in paragraph six – “the source said indignantly” – is a clue that the information provided by the source needed investigation. Why was the source indignant? Does he or she have an axe to grind?
The second source is said to be an official in Luthuli’s department. What are the chances that he or she has access to the thinking in the board?
The panel was not convinced of the credibility of the sources and believes more work had to be done before the journalist could reasonably believe the allegations to be true. At least Mkhonza and Qunta should have been interviewed. Other members of the board too should have been interviewed.
Mampane and the chief executive of the SABC should also have been interviewed. The SABC’s human resources department is another possibility that could have been asked about the procedures in the search for the COO.
Financial mismanagement
In the published story, the allegation that Luthuli “faces an internal investigation into mismanagement of funds” is attributed to the first source only. The second source, the official in Luthuli’s department, is not quoted as corroborating this.
The newspaper later admitted that it was wrong when it said the forensic investigation included the running and awarding of the Metro FM Awards. In the arguments at the hearing, Sowetan said the reference should have been to the Golden Plumes Awards. At the hearing, Sowetan did not provide any evidence to support the fresh allegations.
Luthuli’s representative at the hearing denied that there was any investigation into alleged mismanagement of funds by Luthuli.
Sowetan submitted an article it published on May 14, 2008, two days after the original story, headlined Pearl not in wings for new job quoting Mandi Titi, responsible for strategic projects in Luthuli’s department.
In the story, Titi is quoted as saying the allegations that Luthuli faced an internal forensic investigation about the running and awarding of the Metro FM Music Awards were “inaccurate and malicious”. This second article did not retract the allegations and did not offer an apology.
If the source could be wrong about this, what are the chances that he or she was wrong about other information given to Sowetan?
Does Luthuli know her job?
More people in her department, her seniors and the human resources department of the SABC should have been interviewed to assess this.
Staff morale
The same is true for the allegations that staff morale in the department is low because Luthuli did not have a good working relationship with her boss. Mampane and more staff in Luthuli’s department could have been asked for their versions.
SABC responses
To test the allegations Sowetan spoke to Luthuli and the SABC spokesperson Kaizer Kganyago. Luthuli was angry, threatening to sue the reporter, and denying the allegations. Kganyago said he was not aware of the allegations.
A normal response when a spokesperson says he is unaware of allegations is to ask him to go and investigate and return with an official response.
Luthuli’s denial of the allegations leads us to table tennis journalism – the one side says…the other responds…the one side says…the other responds, to and fro – and the reader is left none the wiser. In such journalism, the mud usually clings to the accused.
Reasonable belief
The newspaper’s legal representatives argued that “it is sufficient for the respondents to show that the second respondent reasonably believed that the allegations contained in the article were true, and where appropriate, the article was presented in a manner that clearly indicates that particular facts are founded on opinion, allegation or supposition, in order to establish that the article was presented in a manner that is truthful, accurate and fair….
“It was reasonable for the journalist to believe that the information provided to her by the sources is true.”
The panel finds that it was not reasonable for the journalist to believe that the information provided to her by her sources was true. Simple tests that the panel applied raised questions about the credibility of the sources. Further investigation should have been done before the story was published.
The panel finds that Sowetan is in breach of the following sections of the Press Code:
1.4 – Where there is reason to doubt the accuracy of a report and it is practicable to verify the accuracy thereof, it shall be verified – on five counts in that it did verify the accuracy of allegations that:
  • SABC Board chairperson Khanyisile Mkhonza and her deputy Christine Qunta were “pushing for the appointment of Luthuli as chief operating officer” of the SABC;
  • Luthuli faced “an internal investigation into mismanagement of funds”;
  • Luthuli did not know anything;
  • Staff morale in Luthuli’s department was low;
  • Luthuli did not have a good working relationship with her boss, Charlotte Mampane.
5.1 – Headlines…shall give a reasonable reflection of the content of the report – in that the headline Broadcaster airs more dirty linen did not reflect the contents of the report.
Sowetan is ordered to publish an abbreviated version of these findings and an apology to Pearl Luthuli. The Ombudsman’s office will provide the abbreviated ruling and the apology to be published by the newspaper.
Leave to appeal
In terms of the Complaints Procedures, “within seven days of receipt of this decision, any one of the parties may apply for leave to appeal to the chairman of the Press Appeals Panel, Judge Ralph Zulman, and the grounds of appeal shall be fully set out.
Press Ombudsman Joe Thloloe and Press Appeals Panel members Susan Smuts (Press representative) and Ethel Manyaka (public representative).