Independent Newspapers vs Business Day

Complainant: Independent Newspapers

Lodged by: Jacques Louw

Article: Independent fires suspended editor

Author of article: Paul Vecchiatto

Date: 29 August 2014

Respondent: Business Day

COMPLAINT

Independent Newspapers is complaining about an article published on page 3 (9 July 2014) in Business Day, headlined Independent fires suspended editor.

The group complains that the article was factually incorrect in that it stated:

  • “Former Cape Times editor Alide Dasnois has been dismissed by Independent News & Media…on the grounds that she let her personal feelings against her employer guide her editorial decisions”; and
  • “The article (published on 6 December 2013) told how Sekunjalo benefitted from a R800m fishing patrol vessel tender that the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries had been improperly awarded”.

They add that the:

  • photograph published with the article created the misleading impression that it was taken recently, while it had been taken six months before; and
  • newspaper did not correct the errors in the article after it was informed of them.

THE TEXT

The story, written by correspondent Paul Vecchiatto, said that suspended Cape Times editor Alide Dasnois had been dismissed because she let her personal feelings against her employer guide her editorial decisions. She was suspended on December 6, the day after the death of former President Nelson Mandela, after she had lead the front page with an article on the Public Protector’s findings relating to Sekunjalo Investments. However, she also published a wrap-around edition that had four pages devoted to Mandela.

Vecchiatto added that a disciplinary hearing had determined that Dasnois had been guilty of six out of eight charges brought against her.

ANALYSIS

First ‘false’ statement

The story said: “FORMER Cape Times editor Alide Dasnois has been dismissed by Independent News & Media…on the grounds that she let her personal feelings against her employer guide her editorial decisions.”

Independent Newspapers complains that Dasnois “was found guilty of a number of charges, including misconduct in the form of gross insubordination and dishonesty, and incapacity”. The statement in dispute is therefore “only one of the evidentiary findings in support of a conviction on the one charge that Dasnois was guilty of dereliction of duty, gross negligence and gross lack of judgment in failing to lead editorially with the death of Nelson Mandela…”

Business Day replies that the “facts” relayed above were not available to its correspondent prior to publication. The editor states that Independent Media did not release this information, and adds that Vecchiatto relied on a response that Sapa managed to get from the company.

The newspaper also says that:

  • Vecchiatto further tried to contact both Independent Newspapers and Sekunjalo – but his messages were not returned. “It is unreasonable/unfair of Independent to now list the ‘real’ reasons without responding to our requests for comment at the time”; and
  • the sentence in dispute came from Dasnois’s attorney – a credible source.

In later correspondence, much is made of the fact that Dasnois was dismissed 40 days prior to the publication of the story. The inference is that the publication of the article was (therefore) not urgent, and that the correspondent had more than enough time to establish the facts.

My considerations

If viewed in isolation, the sentence in dispute did create the impression that Dasnois had been dismissed (only) because she let her personal feelings against her employer guide her editorial decisions.

However, the story added that a disciplinary hearing had determined that Dasnois had been guilty of six out of eight charges brought against her.

On the other hand, though, the article was about her dismissal, and the failure to publish all the reasons amounted to material omission. If the newspaper could not establish the reasons given for Dasnois’s dismissal prior to publication, it should have stated this.

I have no evidence to prove that the correspondent did or did not make a serious attempt to verify his information.

Second ‘false’ statement

The sentence in dispute read: “The article (published on 6 December 2013) told how Sekunjalo benefitted from a R800m fishing patrol vessel tender that the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries had been improperly awarded”.

Independent Newspapers complains that the December 6 story did not allege that Sekunjalo had benefitted from the said tender. “Moreover, the Public Protector report did not find that our client benefitted from the tender (or participated in unlawful business). On the contrary, it found that, once objections were lodged to the tender it was cancelled.”

Business Day concedes that the sentence in dispute was factually wrong.

My considerations

The sentence in dispute should be corrected, especially because it must have caused Sekunjalo some serious, unnecessary harm.

Photograph

Independent Newspapers complains that the photograph published with the article created the impression that it was taken recently, while it had been taken six months before.

The caption read: “VOCAL: Activist group Right2Know and concerned residents picket outside the offices of Independent Newspapers to protest against the suspension of Alide Dasnois as Cape Times editor.”

Business Day replies the caption made it clear that the protest was about Dasnois’s suspension (on December 6), and not about her dismissal. “A reasonable reader would have been able to discern that the picture was from December (when she was suspended) and NOT from July (when she was dismissed).”

My considerations

The caption did indeed make it clear that the protest was about Dasnois’s suspension (on December 6), and not about her dismissal. Therefore, it could not have been misleading.

Mistakes not corrected

Independent Newspapers complains that the newspaper did not correct the errors in the article after having been informed of them (as prescribed by Section 2.6 of the Press Code).

Business Day says Independent Newspapers made surprisingly little effort to contact its editor, deputy editor or editorial management (it merely contacted the correspondent). “Had the Independent contacted [us], we would have corrected the inaccuracies in the report much earlier.”

My considerations

I accept that Business Day was not properly informed of the mistake (only its correspondent was). Therefore, I do not blame the newspaper for not promptly correcting the error.

FINDING

First ‘false’ statement

The neglect to publish all the reasons amounted to material omission. This is in breach of the Sect. 2.2 of the Press Code that states: “News shall be presented in context and in a balanced manner, without any intentional or negligent departure from the facts whether by…material omissions…”

The story also breached Sect. 2.4 of the Code: “…Where it has not been practicable to verify the accuracy of a report, this shall be stated in such report.”

There is no finding regarding the complaint that the correspondent did not do enough to verify his information.

Second ‘false’ statement

This part of the report is in breach of Sect. 2.1 of the Press Code: “The press shall take care to report news truthfully, accurately and fairly.”

Photograph

This part of the complaint is dismissed.

Mistakes not corrected

This part of the complaint is dismissed.

SANCTION

Business Day is:

  • directed to apologise to Independent Newspapers for:
    • inaccurately stating that a story, published on 6 December 2013, relayed “how Sekunjalo benefitted from a R800m fishing patrol vessel tender that the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries had been improperly awarded”; and
    • neglecting to state all the reasons why Dasnois had been dismissed.
  • reprimanded for not stating in the story that it was not able to verify the accuracy of the information; and
  • directed to publish the text prominently on page 3, above the fold, and to provide this office with the text prior to publication. (The text should end with: “Visit www.presscouncil.org.za for the full finding.”)

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 Adjudication Panel, Judge Bernard Ngoepe, fully setting out the grounds of appeal. He can be contacted at Khanyim@ombudsman.org.za.

Johan Retief

Press Ombudsman