Lakela Kaunda vs. The Times

Complainant: Lakela Kaunda

Article: Kaunda wins battle in the presidency – Zuma’s top aide tightens her hold as two more key officials prepare to leave

Date: 18 August 2010

Respondent: The Times

Complaint
Ms Lakela Kaunda complains about a story in The Times, published on July 7, 2010 and headlined Kaunda wins battle in the presidency – Zuma’s top aide tightens her hold as two more key officials prepare to leave.
Kaunda says the story is based on faceless sources who falsely portray her as a person who makes life unbearable for colleagues and who maneuvers to have them lose their jobs if they disagree with her. She also denies that the newspaper ever gave her an opportunity to comment.
Kaunda adds that The Times should produce hard evidence of the following allegations in the story (if not, she says a retraction and an apology would be in order):
  • That she (Kaunda) calls all the shots and render other senior officials mere passengers;
  • That former operations chief Jessie Duarte was referring to Kaunda when she (Duarte) said that she was resigning because of bullies in the office;
  • That Kaunda is indeed a bully that forces other people to leave their jobs; and
  • That people who challenge Kaunda’s authority at work are removed.
Analysis
The intro to the story says a third presidential aide was ousted from Pres Jacob Zuma’s office (while others were reportedly negotiating some form of redeployment). The following sentence sums up the gist of the story: “…Presidency insiders told The Times that Kaunda had won the fight because all those who challenged her authority had now been removed.”
We shall now consider the merits of the complaint:
Making life unbearable for colleagues a ‘fabrication’, using faceless sources
Kaunda says the story falsely portrays her as a person who makes life unbearable for colleagues and who maneuvers to have them lose their jobs if they disagree with her. This, she says, is damaging to her good reputation.
The story does indeed portray her as such. The question is if it was reasonable for the newspaper to do so. Or did it rely on gossip (as Kaunda alleges)?
The Times says it based its reporting on three officials in the presidency who spoke on condition of anonymity.
A close look at the story quickly reveals a worrisome trend – several general statements are made. Consider the use of phrases such as “is said to have”, “is reported to be”, “allegations” and “it is widely believed”. It is not clear where this information comes from. The public, therefore, has no basis to judge the validity of these statements. How is John Citizen to know if these statements are not mere gossip?
Even if this rather sloppy way of reporting does not breach the Press Code, it does erode the credibility of the story. The Times should therefore not be surprised when a complaint like this one comes its way.
On the one hand, the story does refer to “Presidential insiders” (note the use of the plural). The references, first to “one official” and later on to “a senior official”, also indicate more than one source. It is common, accepted journalistic practice to verify information (Art. 1.4 of the Press Code).
On the other hand, proper verification implies that the sources are sufficiently independent. If one, for example, uses a husband as a source, his wife or child cannot be sufficiently independent as to establish a proper second source. The reference to “one official” and later on to “a senior official” does not provide enough of a basis to conclude that these sources were independent enough.
No right of reply
Kaunda denies that the newspaper ever gave her an opportunity to comment on the story in dispute.
The Times admits this mistake and agrees to publish Kaunda’s response as well as to apologise to her.
So be it, then.
Kaunda ‘calling all the shots’
Kaunda says it is not true that she called all the shots, rendering other senior officials mere passengers.
The newspaper says it based this sentence on interviews with three officials in the Presidency (although the story only mentions two sources).
However, the story mentions this as an “allegation” – it does not state it as a fact.
Duarte – was Kaunda the ‘bully’?
The Times says two officials told it that they believed Duarte was referring to Kaunda when she used the word “bully”. It says that it was a belief that was widely held. The newspaper adds: “We did not state as fact that Ms Duarte indeed refer (sic) to her.”
Kaunda flatly denies that she and Duarte ever quarreled, “not even the normal office squabbles”.
The Times is not correct. The story’s third paragraph reads: “In April, Jessie Duarte resigned from her position as chief operating officer following a row in which Kaunda featured prominently.” This is stated without any qualification (eg. using the word “allegedly’) or verification – it is indeed presented as a fact. The rest of the story provides context to the phrase “featured prominently”. Clearly, Kaunda and Duarte were not believed to be on the same side.
Forcing other people to leave their jobs
The complaint is that it is not true that Kaunda forced other people to leave their jobs.
The newspaper says it did not state that Kaunda is a bully that forces other people to leave their jobs. “We did report that Presidency insiders – including a senior official – said that all those who had challenged her authority had now been removed…”
That is true, but it is not the whole truth. Yes, in the story itself it is indeed never presented as a fact that Kaunda caused other people to leave their jobs. People are quoted to this effect – and the newspaper had the right to report these quotes. If presidential insiders said that Kaunda had won the fight, so be it.
However, the same does not go for the headline, where an opinion is elevated to the status of a fact. Kaunda wins battle in the presidency should rather have read: Kaunda ‘wins battle’ in the presidency.
People who challenged Kaunda’s authority were removed
The newspaper says it relied upon two sources when it used the disputed sentence.
The story does not state it as a fact, but indeed mentions “Presidency insiders” in this regard as its sources.
Finding
 
 
Making life unbearable for colleagues a ‘fabrication’, using faceless sources
The independence of the two unnamed sources cannot be established from the story. This means that it is in doubt whether proper verification ever was done. This is in breach of Art. 1.4 that states: “Where there is reason to doubt the accuracy of a report and it is practicable to verify the accuracy thereof, it shall be verified. Where it has not been practicable to verify the accuracy of a report, this shall be mentioned in such report.”
No right of reply
The Times neglected to ask Kaunda for comment. This is in breach of Art. 1.5 of the Press Code: “A publication should usually seek the views of the subject of serious critical reportage in advance of publication…”
Kaunda ‘calling all the shots’
The story mentions “allegations” that Kaunda was calling all the shots, rendering other senior officials mere passengers – it does not state it as a fact. This part of the complaint is therefore dismissed.
Duarte – was Kaunda the ‘bully’?
The story links Duarte’s resignation to a row in which Kaunda featured prominently. This is presented as a fact, without qualification or verification. This is in breach of Art. 1.4.
Forcing other people to leave their jobs
As far as the story is concerned, this part of the complaint is dismissed – it did not state that Kaunda is a bully that forces other people to leave their jobs and sources were quoted who said that all those who had challenged her authority had now been removed.
The headline, however, elevates an opinion to the status of a fact. This is in breach of Art. 5.1 of the Press Code: “Headlines…shall give a reasonable reflection of the contents of the report…in question.”
People who challenged Kaunda’s authority were removed
The story does not state the disputed sentence as a fact, but indeed mentions “Presidency insiders” in this regard as its sources. This part of the complaint is therefore dismissed.
 
Sanction
 
The Times is directed to publish a summary of this finding (not the whole ruling), giving Ms Kaunda a right of reply, if she so wishes, and apologize to her for not doing so in the first place. Our office should be furnished with the text prior to publication. The last sentence of the text should read: “Visit www.presscouncil.org.za for the full finding.”
 
Appeal
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 reached at khanyim@ombudsman.org.za.
Johan Retief
Deputy Press Ombudsman