Complainant: ANC Chief Whip
Lodged by: Moloto Mothapo
Article: Confusion reigns – Officials say ANC bill move is ‘bizarre’
Author of article: Deon De Lange
Date: 21 November 2011
Respondent: Cape Times
Mr Mathole Motshekga complains about a story in the Cape Times, published on September 29, 2011 and headlined Confusion reigns – Officials say ANC bill move is ‘bizarre’.
Motshekga complains that the:
- newspaper did not seek the views of the ANC; and
- reference to “confusion” in both the story and the headline is inaccurate and untruthful.
The story, written by Deon De Lange, says that confusion reigned supreme in Parliament after the ANC surprised “everyone” by announcing a unilateral public consultation process on the controversial Protection of State Information Bill. De Lange adds that this decision, following months of consultations by the multiparty ad hoc committee that processed the bill, has raised questions about procedure. The reporter quotes sources who reportedly described the move as “unprecedented” and “bizarre”. The story says that the ANC planned to hold public meetings across the country to hear people’s views on the bill, but that it has not as yet provided details of when and where these will take place and whether they will be open to all.
I shall now look at the merits of the complaint:
ANC’s views not sought
Motshekga complains that De Lange did not seek the ANC’s views in response to the critical views directed at the ANC Caucus by his sources. He says: “In fact, the entire article is dedicated to a number of sources making allegations against or ridiculing the ANC Caucus’ decision.” He argues that the newspaper’s “deliberate failure” to give the ANC an opportunity to respond renders the story unfair and biased.
The newspaper replies that the public knows the history of the matter as it has been extensively reported on in the press. “All articles written must therefore be read in the context of the broad public reportage on this matter.”
De Lange explains that he did seek the ANC’s views for a story that he published the day before (September 28), asking Mothapo how the consultation process will work in practice. He says that Mothapo then told him that he was not willing to engage the media on the matter as this would “pre-empt the process”. He mentions that he duly reported this in his (first) story.
The reporter also argues that the ANC’s view on the subject was already a matter of record and that he had published that view on September 28 as well. Therefore, “there was no benefit in approaching the ANC the next day on the same issue”. He says that his sources were merely commenting on the ANC’s own media statement as the September 29 story was a follow-up article. He says: “It is not prescribed in the code that a newspaper should seek comment on other’s comment.” That, he argues, would have been unusual and impractical.
Motshekga responds that:
- De Lange’s argument would have been acceptable if the September 28 story was based only on the ANC’s views – but that was not the case, as it also included the critical views of opposition parties and other non-political formations;
- the journalist provided space for critical views to the ANC’s statement in his first story, and a day later he dedicated the entire follow-up story on further critical views – without giving it space to defend itself as required by the Press Code; and
- the ANC had a right to defend itself against various forms of criticism.
He also denies that De Lange asked him how the consultation process will work in practice, saying that the reporter rather asked him what would happen to the information gathered by the party and how this would feed into the parliamentary process of dealing with the bill (as reported in the September 28 story). He states that De Lange has changed the original question in order to support his claim that there was confusion in an attempt to mislead this office.
Here are my considerations:
- The question that the reporter claims to have asked the ANC is in fact materially the same as the one that Motshekga admits to;
- The latter does not deny that he was not willing to engage the media on the matter (as this would have “pre-empted the process”); and
- The story in dispute is a follow-up to the one that was published the day before, and it was about the same issue that the ANC had then declined to comment on.
I therefore conclude that the newspaper cannot be blamed for believing that “there was no benefit in approaching the ANC the next day on the same issue”.
Note that if the second story was not about the same issue, or if a considerable period of time has elapsed since the reporter’s first question, the newspaper would have been obligated to ask the ANC for comment.
The story says that “confusion reigns supreme” in Parliament after the ANC surprisingly announced a unilateral public consultation process on the Protection of State Information Bill. Some sources reportedly said that this move was “unprecedented” and “bizarre”.
Motshekga complains that the reference to confusion regarding whether the public consultation process was run by the ANC or by Parliament and whether the consultation process was funded by Parliament is both inaccurate and untruthful – meaning that, if there had been any confusion, it was already cleared up.
He says that Mothapo clarified this “confusion” in a press statement that was issued two days before the publication of the first story. He argues that this statement made it clear that it was an “ANC public consultation” process and that Parliament was not footing the bill for that process. Motshekga adds that De Lange did publish this fact a day before the story in dispute.
Motshekga says that the journalist’s dislike for the proposed draft legislation interfered with his professional obligation (to be unbiased).
De Lange replies that Motshekga has taken issue with comment contained in the story and not with news reportage itself. He argues that he quoted the sources accurately and truthfully – his sources said that they were confused and that is what he reported. “It is surely not for me to clarify their apparent confusion.”
He also says that paragraphs 3 – 7 in his first story provided the necessary context, informing readers of the decisions which gave rise to this confusion.
Motshapo responds that De Lange has fabricated the so-called confusion as a means to ridicule the ANC’s decision on the bill and to give space to more criticism of its statement. “I say so because all his questions were clarified both in our statement and in my interview with him…”
He adds that he has made the facts available to De Lange – facts that he published on September 28, but which he ignored on September 29. He argues that the reporter did so deliberately to paint a false picture of confusion and to invite criticism of the ANC.
Let me try to be clear about this: Even though the story does not spell out exactly what the confusion was all about (maybe because it was obvious, as a Parliamentary process has been replaced with a party political one?), and even if the “confusion” should have been cleared up by the time that the story in dispute was written, the reporter does not state it as a fact that there was “confusion” – rather, it merely quotes a source who reportedly said that the ANC was “confusing everybody”. The source had a right to that opinion and the newspaper had a right to report that opinion.
Because “confusion” is reflected in the story, there is also nothing wrong with using that word in the headline.
The complaint is dismissed in its entirety.
There is no sanction.
Please note that our Complaints Procedures lay down that within seven days of receipt of this decision, anyone of the parties may apply for leave to appeal to the Chairperson of the SA Press Appeals Panel, Judge Ralph Zulman, fully setting out the grounds of appeal. He can be contacted at Khanyim@ombudsman.org.za.
Deputy Press Ombudsman