Tim Maake vs Letaba Herald

Complainant: Tim Maake 

Lodged by: Tim Maake

Article:  Maake guilty and fired!

Author of article:  Matome Maila

Date: 1 July 2016

Respondent:  Letaba Herald

Complaint

Maake complains the story falsely stated that he had not been available for comment, and adds that the correct and proper picture regarding his dismissal as municipal manager was not properly captured.

The text

The first sentences of the story, written by Matome Maila, aptly summarised the gist of the story.

They read, “The Mopani District Municipality Council last Friday dismissed the municipal manager Time Maake for gross financial management. Maake, one of the longest serving municipal managers in the country, was dismissed with immediate effect after the disciplinary committee found him guilty of 18 charges, including gross negligence, gross misconduct, gross dereliction of duties and gross dishonesty emanating from the contravention of several sections of the Municipal Finance Management Act and Municipal Supply Chain Management Act.”

The arguments

Maake says he asked the editor for proof that the journalist tried to phone him. He says Maila told him that he had been called on February 2, but that he had been unavailable. “No evidence was provided [to this effect]…” he says.

The editor then indicated to him that he could tell his side of the story, which he promptly did. The editor then told him that his response would be published in the follow-up story the next week (February 19) – but this has not happened.

Maake says the (editor’s) neglect has “attacked” his integrity as “the thrust of the matter is that the correct and proper picture regarding my dismissal was not properly captured because the guilty conviction and dismissal happened in my absence whilst the employer was aware that we are approaching the Court to declare the proceedings unlawful owing to their non-compliance”.

He concludes that, in the eyes of the public, he failed to explain himself regarding the charges levelled against him.

He says this matter is before the CCMA and the Labour Court.

Slabber replies that the story was based on a media statement issued by the official spokesman of the Mopani District Municipality, Neil Shikwambana.

She says that before publication, Maila phoned Maake (on February 2 at 10:14) on his cellphone (number 083 256 7563); she attached evidence to this effect.

The editor submits that Maake did not answer his phone. She continues, “After cancelling an appointment to visit our offices, he emailed [me. I] then forwarded the email to Matome Maila… He emailed Maake the proof that he did call him (photo attached) and then advised Maake to respond in writing.” She says the newspaper received his side of the story only on Wednesday, February 10, after the follow-up story had already gone to the press.

By then, Slabber concludes, the newspaper had already received another media statement, saying that Maake’s Labour Court application to have his dismissal nullified was dismissed with costs.

Analysis

I am not at liberty to make any statement as to the correctness or veracity of the charges against Maake – that is the task of the courts; it is not for me to decide.

My first mandate in this case is whether Maake was unfairly treated when his response was not included in the story or stories.

I note the following interesting facts:

·         The media statement was issued on Monday, February 1;

·         The reporter phoned Maake the next morning;

·         A story was then published online, dated February 2 – the same story that was published on February 5; and

·         There is one difference between the two articles, though – the online version reported that Maake could not be reached for comment, while the printed version left that out.

I asked Slabber if the statement that Maake could not be reached was true and if so why this was the case, to which she responded: “It wasn’t stated in the printed version that we did try to reach Tim Maake, which should have been done. We did though receive a formal statement from the Mopani Municipality which stated that Mr Maake was fired. Because of this I don’t feel that any comment from him could change anything to his situation nor was his comment required in reaction to a press release from his employers.”

The editor’s logic escapes me here, as on the one hand she seems to acknowledge that the story should have included a statement to the effect that that the newspaper had tried to contact Maake, but on the other hand she says that his comment was not required.

After I have sent out this finding, the editor discovered that she has made a mistake, and sent me a pfd version to prove that the printed version also contained that statement.

This made a difference to my finding, which I am adjusting accordingly (below).

Be that as it may, the other question remains. Should the Letaba Herald have asked Maake for his comment, or not?

I cannot condone a blanket statement that a newspaper is not obliged to contact a subject of critical reportage if such a response “could not change anything to [a] situation”, or because the story is based on a press release. Each case should be decided on its merits.

The matter was a serious one, and the newspaper was obliged get Maake’s comment – regardless of whether he was in the right or in the wrong. He has been a municipal manager for long, and the municipality’s decision was radical (it is not for me to say whether this was right or wrong either).

Maila did well to try and contact Maake for comment – and, because an online story is immediate, I do not blame him for publishing the article (whilst stating that Maake could not be reached for comment).

However, this situation changed during the following days, as the reporter must have had ample time to make another attempt to contact Maake – which he neglected to do. That, I submit, is not living up to the standards of ethical journalism, as envisaged in the Code for Ethics and Conduct. 

Finding

Letaba Herald is in breach of Section 1.8 of the Code of Ethics and Conduct for not trying hard enough to get Maake’s comment for the printed version of the story. This section reads, “The media shall seek the views of the subject of critical reportage in advance of publication…”

The complaint that the story did not portray a correct and proper picture regarding Maake’s dismissal has no ground as the newspaper merely acted as a messenger in this regard – and it did so accurately, based on the information garnered from the media release. This part of the compaint is dismissed.

Seriousness of breaches

Under the headline Hierarchy of sanctions, Section 8 of the Complaints Procedures distinguishes between minor breaches (Tier 1), serious breaches (Tier 2) and serious misconduct (Tier 3).                                                                                        

The breach of the Code of Ethics and Conduct as indicated above is a Tier 2 offence.

Sanction

Letaba Herald is reprimanded for not trying hard enough to get Maake’s comment.

The newspaper is asked to publish this reprimand in its printed edition, together with Maake’s comment (if indeed he still wants to comment).

The text, which should be approved by me, should:

 

    • be announced on the front page as a kicker;
    • start with the reprimand; and
    • end with the sentence, “Visit www.presscouncil.org.za for the full finding”.

 

The headline should reflect the content of the text. A heading such as Matter of Fact, or something similar, is not acceptable.

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