Ruling by the Deputy Press Ombudsman and the Press Appeals Panel
April 4, 2012
This ruling is based on the written submissions of the ACDP (Western Cape) and the Weekend Argus newspaper as well as on a hearing that was held on 2 April 2013 in Cape Town. Mr Grant Haskins represented the ACDP and Mr Jacques Louw, Ms Jamie Truter and Chiara Carter appeared for the newspaper. The two members of the Press Appeals Panel who assisted me were Neville Woudberg (press representative) and Peter Coetzee (public representative).
Please note that this ruling has been adjudicated by the Panel that was in operation at the time of the publication of the story in dispute, and that the former Press Code was therefore used in this process.
Mr Grant Haskin, chairman of the ACDP (Western Cape), complains about a story in the Weekend Argus on 21 October 2012 and headlined ACDP vote swings it as ANC grabs Swellendam – DA will not take it lying down and prepares to go to the high court.
The ACDP complains that the headline was misleading, inaccurate and malicious.
The party also complains that the story:
· excluded statements made by the ACDP, while it included those of the DA; and
· inaccurately stated: “The ANC coalition registered a majority and swiftly used it to evict the DA – a move endorsed by a Western Cape High Court ruling in favour of the new ANC-led administration”.
The story, written by Warda Meyer and Ivor Powell, was about discord and infighting in the Swellendam municipal council. The DA and ACDP alliance reportedly had held sway in the council until the solitary ACDP councillor (Mr Julian Matthysen) defied his party and switched his support to the ANC, giving it the majority. The new council coalition apparently used its new-found majority on 15 October to change the composition of the council through the appointment of a mayor, a deputy mayor and a speaker. The move to oust the DA was reportedly endorsed by the Western Cape High Court which ruled in favour of the new ANC-led administration. The article included comments from the representatives of the parties on the council.
The background is as follows (which seems to be beyond dispute):
Swellendam Municipality had four ANC elected councillors, four DA councillors and one ACDP councillor. In 2011 the DA and the ACDP entered into an agreement in terms of which the latter sided with the DA and its sole member of the council, Julian Matthysen, was appointed as deputy mayor (giving the DA control of the council). On 8 October 2012 Matthysen and the ANC members held a meeting and voted to replace various municipal officials. The DA then issued a press release (October 9) condemning that meeting as unlawful and threatening the ANC with a High Court application. The ACDP said that they had cancelled Matthysen’s membership of the party on October 14. On October 15 another meeting was held with the ANC members and Matthysen attending, at which the latter was appointed as mayor and the entire control of the council changed.
The panel needs to state the following up-front:
· We have noted that both parties refer to developments subsequent to the publication of the story. As our sole task is to establish whether the story was justified, accurate, adequate and fair at the time of publication (with the information available to the journalists), we can only take these developments into account if these have a direct bearing on an issue;
· In its reply to the newspaper’s response to the complaint (called the “C” document), the ACDP raises new issues, or at least refers to other sentences in dispute that it did not mention in its original complaint. We cannot entertain this as the newspaper did not have a chance to defend itself on these matters – the C document is only relevant insofar as it clarifies matters that have already been dealt with in previous correspondence;
· The panel believes that the exclusion of these (new) matters will in any event not be material to the outcome of this ruling; and
· We are cognisant of the fact that our task is not to decide on matters political – our only job is to establish if the newspaper acted reasonably, justly and fairly with the information at its disposal at the time of publication.
Misleading, inaccurate, malicious headline
The main headline read: ACDP vote swings it as ANC grabs Swellendam.
The ACDP complains that this was misleading and inaccurate, and says that it maliciously portrayed it in the wrong light, especially as:
· the party remained in a co-governing agreement with the DA in the council (the ANC/ACDP did not “grab” Swellendam);
· Matthysen had already been expelled from the ACDP before he took part in the “invalid” council meeting on October 15 – he therefore could not have represented the ACDP (there was no ACDP vote at the meeting); and
· the meeting was invalid as it had not been called in terms of the rules of council and it also did not have a quorum.
The Weekend Argus says that, on October 8, the ACDP and the four ANC councillors held a meeting and voted to replace various municipal officials. The next day, the DA released a press statement in which it condemned the meeting as unlawful and threatened the ANC with legal action. On October 14 the ACDP “allegedly” cancelled Matthysen’s membership of the party. On 15 October another meeting was held and the DA lost control of the council because Matthysen then supported the ANC.
The newspaper argues that, at the time of publication, the ANC/Matthysen coalition had seized control of the council “as a result of the ‘ACDP’ representative…changing sides”. It adds that its reporter did not receive formal notification that Matthysen had been expelled from the ACDP and states that he had disputed the alleged expulsion.
At the hearing, it became clear that the question was in dispute if Matthysen was or was not an ACDP member at the time that he was designated as mayor (on 15 October 2012) and therefore if he could have represented the ACDP at that meeting. This led to much debate about the question if the words “ACDP vote” in the headline were accurate or misleading.
If one looks at those words in isolation, one’s decision will be determined by the issues as outlined in the above paragraph. However, the panel rather needs to look at the headline in context – which is the decision by the DA and the ACDP in 2011 to form a coalition government in Swellendam.
This is the point: Irrespective of whether Matthysen was still an ACDP member at the October 15 meeting, the party’s stance on the coalition remained unchanged – even if he voted for a new coalition with the ANC as an ACDP member, the party itself remained true to the coalition. The words “ACDP vote” therefore unnecessarily brought the party’s commitment to the coalition into question, which in turn means that the message was misleading and therefore also unnecessarily harmful to those concerned.
It is significant that, at the meeting, the newspaper admitted that the words “ACDP rebel vote…” would have been more accurate.
As it stands, though, the public could not have been blamed for thinking that the ACDP went back on its coalition agreement with the DA.
The panel also notes that the sub-headline reaffirmed this misperception. It read: DA will not take it lying down and prepares to go to the high court. According to the headline, it was the ACDP’s vote that gave the ANC power – and now the DA (and not the ACDP) would fight the matter. The implication is that the DA would fight both the ANC and the ACDP on this issue.
The ordinary reader would probably have understood that there was conflict between the DA and the ACDP on this matter – which was a misconception.
ACDP statements excluded
The ACDP complains that the story failed to mention that the ACDP was also “resisting” (as was the case with the DA). Haskin says that this was reflected in its media statement on October 16 and that it was sent to Meyer (one of the journalists who wrote the story) two days before publication.
In this statement, the ACDP said that it condemned in the “strongest possible terms” the ANC’s actions in Swellendam “in undermining the co-governing agreement between the DA and the ACDP”. The party stated that Matthysen had been expelled and that he could not have legally participated in a council meeting subsequent to that. The ACDP said that it would “support and assist in all measures necessary to correct all illegal actions”.
Weekend Argus says its journalist relied on the input from the various parties to the dispute. It adds that the ACDP’s official spokesman failed to supply the reporter with any finer details of Matthysen’s dismissal – but he agreed to send a press release instead. The newspaper also says that it published a letter by the ACDP on this issue a week after the story appeared.
The ACDP does not comment on this last statement.
At the hearing, the newspaper argued that the gist of the ACDP’s media statement was already present in that of the DA and that the latter’s documentation was in fact more usable.
The panel understood this argument, as it is normal journalistic practice to do just that. However, we again have to interpret this in context – and in that case more needs to be said.
The fourth paragraph of the story namely said that the ACDP vote had swung the balance in the ANC’s new coalition (with Matthysen, or the ACDP, whichever way one looks at it). It added that this new coalition then “swiftly used it to evict the DA”.
This merely served to strengthen the misconception already created by the headline, namely that the ACDP had betrayed the DA, and that it had supported the ANC.
Again, this did not reflect the truth. Even though the ACDP was not party to the court application, it wanted to continue with its coalition with the DA.
Given this context, the reporting of the ACDP’s statement (as summarised above, and which was at the newspaper’s disposal prior to publication) would have done much to bring the necessary balance to the story; conversely, the neglect to do so contributed to the problem that the headline created.
The story said that the ANC coalition registered a majority and swiftly used it to evict the DA – “a move endorsed by a Western Cape High Court ruling (by Judge Hlophe, in favour of the new ANC-led administration)”.
The ACDP complains that this was not correct. The party says that Hlophe sent back the application (by DA Speaker Koch) to stop the council from meeting) for correction on a technicality and that he did not rule on the matter itself.
Weekend Argus denies that Hlophe sent back the application as he had in fact dismissed it “due to the non-joinder of the municipality”.
The panel believes that the story is correct on this point – the DA was evicted (rightly or wrongly), and Hlope’s decision did not reverse that.
Misleading, inaccurate, malicious headline
The headline misleadingly created the impression that the ACDP as a party voted for the ANC (effectively handing over power to that party). This was untrue, unfair and out of context, and it caused the ACDP unnecessary harm.
This is in breach of the following articles of the Press Code:
· 1.1: “The press shall be obliged to report news truthfully, accurately and fairly”; and
· 1.2: “News shall be presented in context and in a balanced manner…”
ACDP statements excluded
The neglect to report the ACDP’s statement strengthened the misconception already created by the headline, namely that the ACDP had put a knife in the DA’s back and that it had joined the ANC.
This is in breach of Art. 1.1 and 1.2 of the Press Code.
This part of the complaint is dismissed.
The panel takes into account that the newspaper published a letter by the ACDP in which its views were fully aired. However, even while we appreciate this, we also believe that an apology would be appropriate – a letter merely states the beliefs of the writer; an apology portrays the concern of the office of the Ombudsman (and hopefully also that of the newspaper).
The newspaper is therefore directed to apologise to the ACDP and publish the following text:
Beginning of text:
Weekend Argus apologises to the ACDP (Western Cape) for unfairly, inaccurately and misleadingly creating the impression in a headline that its vote led to the collapse of its coalition partnership with the DA in the municipality of Swellendam.
We also apologise for neglecting to publish the ACDP’s statement in which it dealt with the legality of the ANC’s takeover – and thereby strengthening the misconception created by the headline that it had reneged on its coalition agreement with the DA.
The story, published on 21 October 2012, headlined ACDP vote swings it as ANC grabs Swellendam – DA will not take it lying down and prepares to go to the high court, and written by Warda Meyer and Ivor Powell, was about discord and infighting in the Swellendam municipal council. The DA and ACDP alliance had held sway in the council until the solitary ACDP (or former ACDP) councillor Mr Julian Matthysen switched this alliance, giving the ANC the majority.
The chairman of the ACDP, Mr Grant Haskin, lodged a complaint with Press Ombudsman Johan Retief about this story. The matter was heard on 2 April 2013 in Cape Town by Retief and two members of the Press Appeals Panel, Peter Coetzee (public) and Neville Woudberg (Press).
The panel found that the headline misleadingly created the impression that the ACDP as a party voted for the ANC (effectively handing over power to that party). “This was untrue, unfair and out of context, and it caused the ACDP unnecessary harm.”
Moreover, the panel added that the neglect by the journalists to report the ACDP’s statement strengthened the misconception, already created by the headline, that the ACDP had betrayed its coalition with the DA.
They found that we were in breach of Art. 1.1 and 1.2 of the Press Code that state that we are obliged to report news truthfully, accurately and fairly, and that news shall be presented in context and in a balanced manner.
The panel dismissed the part of the complaint where the story stated that the Western Cape High Court had endorsed the eviction of the DA in favour of the new ANC-led administration,
Visit www.presscouncil.org.za for the full finding.
End of text
Please note that our Complaints Procedures lay down that within seven 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.
Neville Woudberg (press representative)
Peter Coetzee (public representative)
Johan Retief (deputy press ombudsman)