Noordhoek Environment Action Group vs The People’s Post

Complainant: Noordhoek Environment Action Group

Lodged by: Glenn Ashton

Article: Now bunny-huggers want to kill squirrels

Author of article: Tony Robinson

Date: 25 January 2012

Respondent: The People’s Post

Complaint

NEAG complains about a column on page 8 in The People’s Post on 24 April 2012, headlined Now bunny-huggers want to kill squirrels.

The organisation complains that the column:

·         was untrue, out of context and unreasonable, and that it presented comment as fact;

·         was one-sided, reflected only the views of the other side and that NEAG’s comment was not asked for; and

·         defamed NEAG.

NEAG also complains that the headline was misleading, sensationalistic and without foundation.

Analysis

The column (called Free Range Thinking), written by Tony Robinson, said that a small group of Noordhoek environmental activists wanted to chop off oak trees and get rid of squirrels at Noordhoek, at the foot of Chapman’s Peak drive in Cape Town. He wrote that these activists wanted to get rid of this community playground and turn it into an indigenous nature reserve complete with indigenous mole rates and snakes “so the oaks, planes and squirrels have to go”. Robinson referred to the people who want to chop down oaks and kill squirrels as “cultural louts”. He ended his column off by asking: “Are the unwanted aliens oak trees and squirrels or those who would axe and butcher them?”

Although the column did not mention the NEAG by name, I take into consideration that there is only one environmental group in the area and that the local people would have understood that that organisation in general and Ashton in particular were implicated.

General comment

I need to start with a general comment about the nature of a column.

The newspaper’s first argument is that the text in dispute was a column. “It was his (Robinson’s) personal opinion and not a news story. Columnists are known to spark debate and this is exactly what Tony’s done!”

That is true, but there are also certain rules that even columnists must abide by. Art. 8 of the Press Code states:

·         8.1: “The press shall be entitled to comment upon or criticise any actions or events of public interest, provided such comments or criticisms are fairly and honestly made”;

·         8.2: “Comment by the press shall be presented in such manner that it appears clearly that it is comment, and shall be made on facts truly stated or fairly indicated and referred to”; and

·         8.3: “Comment by the press shall be an honest expression of opinion, without malice or dishonest motives, and shall take fair account of all available facts which are material to the matter commented upon.”

The same sentiments was held by the Constitutional Court that ruled in April 2011 (Robert McBride vs. National Media) as follows: “Criticism is protected even if extreme, unjust, unbalanced, exaggerated and prejudiced, as long as it expresses an honestly held opinion, without malice, on a matter of public interest on facts that are true.” (own emphasis)

Clearly, a columnist is not allowed to present his comments as fact, and also not to base his/her opinion on untruths. It is all good and well to spark off debate, but then these articles of the Code and the ruling of the Court should be kept in mind.

It is with this background in mind that I shall now continue to look at the merits of the complaint.

Untrue, out of context, unreasonable, presenting comment as fact

The column said that a small group of Noordhoek environmental activists “wants to get rid of the cute little squirrels on the Common”; it added the question as to what kind of “cultural louts would want to kill the squirrels and chop down the oaks?”

NEAG complains that the statement that the squirrels and oak trees were going to be removed was untrue. Ashton explains that there was a difference of opinion on this matter, and adds that the “final position” agreed upon in the management plan stated on page 61 of the report that “there is no immediate plan to remove squirrels from Common”. He adds that Robinson’s neglect to mention this plan resulted in a lack of proper context and argues that it cannot be in the public interest to set forth lies and false opinions.

When reading the column, one constantly wonders what Robinson based his information on as he consistently presented his opinion as fact. Towards the end of the text, it became clear. He wrote: “And how will they kill the squirrels? It’s a question the bunny-huggers don’t answer in the unsolicited document they have prepared on the future management of the common.”

Right. So I asked for a copy of this document.

Firstly, the squirrels: I could not find anywhere in the report a statement that squirrels should be killed or removed. What I did find, was that the report said that there was “no immediate plan” to remove squirrels from the Common. Robinson neglected to state this fact and to take it into account while coming to his conclusions. In the meantime, the readers had a right to know about this context (“no immediate plan”).

So even if the report also said that squirrels should be killed, Robinson still should have balanced his text by at least mentioning this “no immediate plan”.

Now, the oaks: The report clearly did not call for any indiscriminate chopping down of these trees (as implied by the columnist), but merely for their proper management. The only recommendation in the report that I could find regarding the removal of oak trees stated that certain such trees should be removed “where the roots are causing erosion or otherwise degrading the watercourse”. That sounds reasonable and responsible to me.

It also stated: “The oaks and squirrels are a feature of Noordhoek and particularly part of the ambience of the common, ALL young Oaks should be nurtured like the planted trees and the squirrels left alone.”

Again, Robinson neglected to mention these facts. Instead, he indeed created the opposite impression. This presented his opinion as fact – while these “facts” were untrue. The statements in dispute cannot be based on the report.

Whatever Robinson’s views, he cannot distort or supress the facts – and if he did so he did not live up to the Press Code which requires, in this case, that the columnist “… shall take fair account of all available facts, which are material to the matter commented on”.

He also omitted to state that the report had referred to the “killing of indigenous animals by the horse riding community”, as Ashton correctly points out. Robinson was selective with his facts, incorrect or out of context as they were.

This makes the column indeed unreasonable. If Robinson had another basis for his opinions, I would have expected him to mention that both in his column and in the newspaper’s correspondence to this office.

The point raised in this section is extremely important for columnists and editors. In an attempt to be even clearer, I am going to belabour this matter. If, for example, Robinson have said something like: “I know that the report stated the above-mentioned matters, but I still believe that that is merely a smokescreen because I am convinced that they do want to kill the squirrels and cut down the oaks” – that would have been within the boundaries of the Code, because he then would have given his opinion whilst taking all available facts into account.

His opinion may be biased, extreme, etc. – and even wrong. In a very real sense the Press Code and South Africa’s Constitution gives citizens the right to be wrong in their thinking. But then the columnist first must take account of all available facts – which Robinson clearly did not do.

This resulted in causing NEAG unnecessary harm.

One-sided, comment not asked

NEAG complains that the column was one-sided as it did not reflect the views of its side, and adds that no one associated with the common management plan was to his knowledge contacted for comment. Therefore, Ashton says that Robinson did not verify his facts. He also alleges that the newspaper has consistently taken the side of the developer and has sought to project NEAG and community activists in a negative light. He claims that the newspaper is victimising the organisation.

I refer back to the finding of the Constitutional Court that protected criticism (unless it is malicious and not based on facts). The columnist had the right to be one-sided and not to contact someone from NEAG for comment – columnists usually do not ask for comment, especially when they comment on a report.

Unlike news reports, the views of a columnist may also include advocacy of a cause. Robinson is entitled to take issue with people who make proposals about any matter, especially if the issue is in the public interest (as is the case here).

Defamatory

NEAG complains that the column defamed him and his colleagues.

One definition of defamation is that it is the wilful, unjustified and significant lowering of one’s public reputation. While I think that this column did cause NEAG unnecessary harm, I am not convinced that this amounted to defamation.

Headline

NEAG complains that the headline was misleading, sensationalistic and without foundation.

I have already found that Robinson misleadingly presented his views as facts and that this information was inaccurate. It therefore follows that the headline, that indeed reflect the text, will also be misleading and without foundation.

“Sensationalism” is a different matter.

I took the following from Wikipedia:

“Sensationalism is a type of editorial bias in mass media in which events and topics in news stories and pieces are over-hyped to increase viewership or readership numbers. Sensationalism may include reporting about generally insignificant matters and events that don’t influence overall society and biased presentations of newsworthy topics in a sensationalist, trivial or tabloid manner.

“Some tactics include being deliberately obtuse, appealing to emotions, being controversial, intentionally omitting facts and information, being loud, self-centered and acting to obtain attention. Trivial information and events are sometimes misrepresented and exaggerated as important or significant, and often includes stories about the actions of individuals and small groups of people, the content of which is often insignificant and irrelevant relative to the macro-level day-to-day events that occur globally. Furthermore, the content and subject matter typically doesn’t affect the lives of the masses and doesn’t affect society, and instead is broadcast and printed to attract viewers and readers.

I submit that sensationalism in a news report is much worse than in a column. Columnists are allowed to put spin on the ball (be sensationalistic).

Another general comment

The newspaper says that it afforded Ashton an opportunity to respond in an article, stating the facts. He refused (as he wanted an apology instead). To try and resolve the matter, the newspaper then offered Ashton an environmental column – an offer that he accepted.

Yet his dissatisfaction still continued, despite this initiative by the newspaper.

I am not going to criticise him for still bringing his complaint to this office – that was his choice, and I respect it. I do commend the newspaper, though, for its attempts to resolve the matter in this way.

Finding

Untrue, out of context, unreasonable, stating opinion as fact

Robinson consistently presented his opinion as fact, while the “facts” that NEAG wanted to kill squirrels and indiscriminately cut down trees were untrue. This is in breach of Art. 8 of the Press Code (as quoted above).

One-sided, comment not asked

This part of the complaint is dismissed.

Defamatory

This part of the complaint is dismissed.

Headline

The headline was misleading and without foundation. As the column itself was untruthful, inaccurate and unfair (breaching Art. 1.1 of the Code), and this was reflected in the headline, so the headline is also in breach of the same article of the Code that states: “The press shall be obliged to report news truthfully, accurately and fairly.”

The complaint about sensationalism is dismissed.

Sanction

Even though I have not upheld the complaint about defamation, I do believe that the column has significantly caused NEAG unnecessary harm and that an apology to this organisation would therefore be appropriate.

The Peoples Post is directed to apologise to NEAG and its members and associates for:

·         incorrectly stating it as fact that it wanted to kill squirrels and indiscriminately cut down oak trees; and

·         misleadingly stating it as fact in the headline that it wanted to kill squirrels.

The newspaper is directed to publish the following text on page 8:

The Peoples Post apologises to the Noordhoek Environmental Action Group (NEAG) for incorrectly stating it as fact that it wanted to kill squirrels and the insinuation that it wanted to indiscriminately cut down oak trees. We also apologise for misleadingly stating it as fact in the headline that the group wanted to kill squirrels.

This comes after NEAG lodged a complaint with that Office of the Press Ombudsman about a column on page 8 on 24 April 2012, headlined Now bunny-huggers want to kill squirrels.

The column (called Free Range Thinking), written by Tony Robinson, said that a small group of Noordhoek environmental activists wanted to chop off oak trees and get rid of squirrels at Noordhoek, at the foot of Chapman’s Peak drive in Cape Town. He wrote that these activists wanted to get rid of this community playground and turn it into an indigenous nature reserve complete with indigenous mole rates and snakes “so the oaks, planes and squirrels have to go”. Robinson referred to the people who want to chop down oaks and kill squirrels as “cultural louts”. He ended his column off by asking: “Are the unwanted aliens oak trees and squirrels or those who would axe and butcher them?”

Deputy Press Ombudsman Johan Retief found that the column was untrue, out of context and unreasonable, and that it presented comment as fact – which was in breach of the Press Code. He added that the report that Robinson based his views on, contained statements to the effect that no squirrels would be killed and that oak trees would not indiscriminately be cut down. Robinson omitted to mention these facts and instead created the opposite impression.

He also said that the headline was misleading and without foundation.

However, Retief dismissed the complaint that the column:

·         was one-sided, as Robinson had the right to be such as a columnist;

·         reflected only the views of the other side and that his comment was not asked for – which he was not obliged to get as he was commenting on a report; and

·         had defamed NEAG (although he did state that it caused the organisation unnecessary harm – hence his decision that we should apologise).

He also dismissed the complaint that the headline was sensationalistic, as this is allowable in a column.

Retief commended us for trying to solve the matter by affording Ashton an opportunity to write an environmental column in our newspaper.

Visit www.presscouncil.org.za (rulings, 2013) 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