Dr Dirk Schmidt vs Cape Town

Complainant: Dr Dirk Schmidt

Article: Bear truth about top campaigner against great white tagging hunt

Date: 19 September 2012

Respondent: Cape Times

Ruling by the Deputy Press Ombudsman

September 19, 2012

This ruling is based on the written submissions of Dr Dirk Schmidt and the Cape Times newspaper.

Complaint

Dr Dirk Schmidt complains about a story in the Cape Times on 14 May 2012 and headlined Bear truth about top campaigner against great white tagging hunt.

He complains that the references to “baiting”, “hunting”, “crossbow”, the “put in” of species, “Buhala hunting safari lodge”, and a video on the Hastings site are inaccurate, untruthful, unbalanced and biased.

He adds that the journalist:

·         did not investigate her source’s bias;

·         ignored three of his nature publications;

·         omitted to mention his donations to SANCCOB; and

·         did not mention that Mr Chris Fischer was also a hunter.

Schmidt concludes that the story was an attempt to discredit him and his conservation efforts.

Analysis

The story, written by Melanie Gosling, dealt with Schmidt, a businessman who had campaigned against Ocearch’s great white shark tagging programme. The main point of the story was that Schmidt had been a big game hunting operator “with an off-shore role as a shark protector but an on-shore role as a hunter”.

Baiting, hunting

The statement in dispute says that Schmidt was a critic of “shark baiting and capture”. The story also refers to him having “hunted” Canadian black bear.

Schmidt complains that the use of the word “baiting” was misleading as the sharks were hooked and dragged onto a platform. He argues that Gosling used this word to find an angle to bear hunting, which was irrelevant to his critique of the Ocearch methodology.

The Cape Times does not address the “baiting” issue.

The newspaper does argue that Schmidt was well-known for his opposition to the Ocearch project because its methodology was cruel to sharks. It argues that, as many people regard hunting as ethically questionable or even cruel, it was relevant to put the information about his bear-hunting in the public domain. The newspaper also says that Schmidt was a public figure who has made many statements to the media about sharks.

Firstly, internet definitions of “baiting” include:

·         Food or other lure placed on a hook or in a trap and used in the taking of fish, birds, or other animals;

·         To place a lure in a trap or on a fishing hook; and

·         To entice, especially by trickery or strategy.

Using these definitions, it was reasonable for Gosling to have used the word “baiting”. Even if the word in question was not 100% correct, it was at least substantially accurate.

Hunting: I can understand Schmidt’s argument – he believes that there is a legitimate place for hunting and sees no contradiction between his hunting past and his objection to the shark project. I believe that there are many people who would feel the same way.

On the other hand, there will also be many people who would find it odd that someone who is well-known for his objections to Ocearch – based on cruelty to sharks – can also be a qualified, professional hunter.

I therefore think that the reporting on these issues were reasonable, justified and substantially accurate.

Crossbow

The story says that Schmidt shot a bear with a crossbow.

He complains that this is inaccurate, as hunting with a crossbow in Canada and South Africa is illegal. He says that he used a “bow”, and states that he has never owned or shot a crossbow.

The Cape Times admits that this was a mistake, and calls it a “genuine error” and an oversight.

Schmidt rejects this admission, as his bow was clearly visible in the picture.

There is no logical reason why Gosling would have made this error on purpose.

Species being ‘put in’

The story quotes Schmidt as follows: “We rehabilitated cattle land and put in 32 species of game…” (in a safari lodge).

Schmidt says that the species were not simply “put in”, but rather that they were endemic and were reintroduced into rehabilitated barren land – “a conservation achievement”. This, he complains, Gosling conveniently avoided to mention.

The Cape Times says the quote was accurate as it was Schmidt’s own words. The newspaper argues that “put in” was an accepted expression, particularly among wildlife managers, and that it simply means “to reintroduce”.

This reasoning makes sense. There is nothing sinister here.

Buhala hunting safari lodge

The sentence in dispute reads: “Schmidt said he has sold his Buhala hunting safari lodge…”

Schmidt said that this is incorrect – his lodge was called “Matamba Private Game Lodge”. He explains that “Buhala bow hunting safaris” was the name of the hunting operation.

The Cape Times concedes the error.

Video

After the story says that Schmidt confirmed that he had hunted bear, it continues: “A website video shows a hunter shooting an arrow into a bear, which then runs off into the trees. Later there are shots of the hunter with the dead bear.”

He complains that he was not in the video, nor did “his” bear need to be rifle shot after his arrow. He says that the reference to the video was irrelevant and calls it “a further pathetic attempt” to distort his credibility.

The Cape Times says that there was no copyright protection on any of the photographs which appeared on the website of the Canadian hunting company.

The reference to the website video was indeed irrelevant. I find it difficult to understand why Gosling wasted this space. However, my only question is if it breached the Press Code.

I do not think that the ordinary reader would have interpreted the sentences in dispute as having reference to Schmidt – it mentioned “a” hunter. Albeit irrelevant, I do not believe that these sentences significantly lowered Schmidt’s reputation.

Source’s bias not investigated

The story quotes an anonymous source who reportedly found it “bizarre” that the “most vocal opponent of the research was also a big game hunting operator” with an “off-shore role” as a shark protector, but an “on-shore role as a hunter”.

Schmidt says that this source was “undoubtedly” a member of Ocearch’s research team – and complains that Gosling did not investigate this source’s bias.

The newspaper does not respond to this part of the complaint.

Even if the source was a member of Ocearch’s team, that person was still entitled to his/her opinion, and the newspaper was justified in publishing that opinion. The source emailed the newspaper his/her views on the matter, and the newspaper decided that the matter was newsworthy.

I must be careful here. Normally, a newspaper should not base a story on one single anonymous source. The Press Code says that such information should be corroborated. In this case, however, the fact of Schmidt having hunted bear is not in dispute – only the source’s opinion is in question. Therefore, there was no information that needed corroboration. How does one corroborate an opinion, anyway?

Three publications ignored

Schmidt says that the story correctly said that he wrote two bear hunting books, but complains that Gosling neglected to mention that he also authored three nature publications on sharks that were relevant and topical to the issue of marine conservation. He argues that she “completely and purposefully” ignored these publications.

In short: He says that Gosling concentrated on his bear books and ignored his shark books – showing her bias regarding the matter.

The newspaper does not respond to this part of the complaint.

The books about sharks establish his credibility in this field. The focus on the books about hunting and the exclusion of the books about sharks and penguins created the impression that he knew a lot about bear hunting and nothing about sharks.

This omission affected the balance of the story. The inclusion of that information would have painted a different picture of Schmidt.

Donations to SANCCOB omitted

Schmidt complains that Gosling did not mention his regular donations to SANCCOB.

The newspaper does not respond to this part of the complaint.

These donations are irrelevant as far as the gist of the story is concerned.

Fischer, also a hunter

The story says: “Chris Fischer, the man who runs the Ocearch programme is also a hunter and a game fisherman.”

Schmidt complains that the story did not mention how many sharks Fisher (who “owns” the Ocearch operation) had had killed before he got involved with that operation.

The newspaper does not respond to this part of the complaint.

The omission to mention how many sharks Fisher has killed was not material to the story and cannot be in breach of the Press Code.

Attempt to discredit Schmidt

Schmidt complains that Gosling purposefully omitted his background and his books on sharks with the intent of discrediting his persona. He concludes that the story was biased, irrelevant and unbalanced.

 

The newspaper denies this and says that Gosling made a concerted effort to be accurate and find a balance. It also provides me with another story that she wrote on sharks which included two opinions from both sides.

Firstly, even if a story is “irrelevant”, that in itself cannot breach the Code. (“Biased” and “unbalanced” can.)

Biased: I must have solid grounds to find a journalist being biased. In this case, I did look at some of Gosling’s other work on the same topic – and I only found accurate, objective reporting. While I can understand Schmidt’s complaint about bias, I am not willing to go that far.

I am willing, though, to say that the omission of a reference to his books on sharks did result in the story being unbalanced.

Finding

Baiting, hunting

This part of the complaint is dismissed.

Crossbow

This part of the complaint is in breach of Art. 1.1 of the Press Code that states: “The press shall be obliged to report news…accurately…”

Species being ‘put in’

This part of the complaint is dismissed.

Buhala hunting safari lodge

This part of the complaint is in breach of Art. 1.1 of the Press Code.

Video

This part of the complaint is dismissed.

Source’s bias not investigated

This part of the complaint is dismissed.

Three publications ignored

A reference to Schmidt’s books on sharks was needed to bring the necessary balance to the story. This omission is in breach of Art. 1.2 of the Press Code that says: “News shall be presented in context and in a balanced manner, without any intentional or negligent departure from the facts whether by distortion, exaggeration or misrepresentation, material omissions or summarisation.”

Donations to SANCCOB omitted

This part of the complaint is dismissed.

Fischer, also a hunter

This part of the complaint is dismissed.

Attempt to discredit Schmidt

The parts of the complaint that deal with “irrelevance” and “bias” are dismissed.

I do not have ground to find that Gosling purposefully omitted Schmidt’s background on sharks with the intent of discrediting his persona.

I have already found for Schmidt regarding the “unbalanced” part.

Sanction

Cape Times is directed to apologise to Schmidt for publishing a story that was partly unbalanced and that has led to a misleading impression of him.

The newspaper is directed to publish the following text:

Beginning of text

Cape Times apologises to Dr Dirk Schmidt, the Simon’s Town businessman who is well-known for his campaign against the controversial Ocearch great white shark tagging programme, for publishing a story that was partly unbalanced and that has led to a misleading impression of him.

This comes after Schmidt lodged a complaint with the Press Ombudsman about a story on 14 May 2012 and headlined Bear truth about top campaigner against great white tagging hunt.

He complained that the story was an attempt to discredit him and his conservation efforts.

The main point of the story was that Schmidt had been a big game hunting operator “with an off-shore role as a shark protector but an on-shore role as a hunter”.

Deputy Press Ombudsman Johan Retief found that the reference to his books about bear hunting should have been balanced with a mentioning of his books on sharks. He said: “This omission affects the balance of the story. The inclusion of that information would have painted a different picture of Schmidt.”

We admitted to two factual errors in the story:

·         We called Schmidt’s former property “Buhala hunting safari lodge”, while it should have been “Matamba Private Game Lodge”. He explained that “Buhala bow hunting safaris” was the name of the hunting operation; and

·         We reported that Schmidt had shot a bear with a crossbow. It should have been a “bow”.

Retief dismissed eight parts of the complaint, including the assertion that Gosling had been biased and that she had purposefully omitted information to discredit Schmidt.

Visit www.presscouncil.org.za (rulings, 2012) for the full finding.

End of text

Appeal

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 Ralph Zulman, fully setting out the grounds of appeal. He can be contacted at Khanyim@ombudsman.org.za.

Johan Retief

Deputy Press Ombudsman