Phillip Dexter vs Mail & Guardian

Complainant: Philip Dexter

Article: The party’s over: Desperate Dexter says Cope is kaput

Date: 03 April 2012

Respondent: Mail & Guardian

Background

The M&G January 2-12, 2012, published a story by Andisiwe Makinana headlined The party’s over: Desperate Dexter says Cope is kaput.

The story is about Congress of the People MP and former party spokesperson Phillip Dexter joining “a long list of party leaders who have left the party over its alleged maladministration”.

Complaint
Dexter complains that:

1.     The story alleges that he had a “falling out” with Cope President Mr Mosiua Lekota.  He says he specifically denied this to reporter Makinana and “yet she chose not to publish my response” to her question.

2.      The story implied that there was a link between what she claimed were his “financial problems” and his resignation from COPE.

M&G response

Falling out

In its response to the first complaint, the newspaper concedes that the specific denial was not recorded in the story.

“Clearly that is an oversight which we would have been happy to correct, and we remain happy to do so…

“Dexter’s hard, clear denial of a falling out was not recorded, but his alternative explanations for leaving were fully ventilated.” 

Financial problems

On the second complaint, Dawes, the editor, responded: “Makinana reported the fact of his Facebook plea (for financial assistance to continue fighting his prolonged and public legal battle with his wife), and put it to him again, that questions were being raised about his willingness to give up his MP’s salary at a time of apparent financial distress.

“His response is recorded in some detail. To wit, he said it was ‘totally wrong’ to link his ‘financial need and political need’ and added ‘I left my position for principled reasons. Surely you are not suggesting that I should sit and get paid to lie to the voters?’ ”

Analysis

Falling out

The paragraph in dispute reads: “…party insiders said his departure did not come as a surprise and described it as a ‘non-event’. They said Dexter had fallen out with party leader Mosiua Lekota and was just one of a number of disaffected MPs and senior leaders who were expected to jump ship.”

From his response to the M&G’s response, the meaning Dexter places on the phrase “falling out” is clear: “On the day I resigned I had a very cordial discussion with him (Lekota).”

He understands “falling out” to imply that there was an angry quarrel between himself and Lekota. A cordial parting, with a handshake, as he left Cope, was not a falling out.

The dictionary meanings of “fall-out” are: to quarrel; to happen; to turn out; and to break ranks. This suggests to me that when a member of a party resigns, he has fallen out with the party. In this case, Lekota, as leader, can be a metaphor for the party.

A careful reading of the sentence in dispute suggests that the “falling out” equals “disaffected”. Taken as a whole, the story points to that meaning.

I agree with Dawes when he argues: “It cannot be construed that he was denied right of reply, or that Ms Makinana was working in bad faith. She was attempting to capture the range of his response, and while she ought to have included the specific denial, the thrust of what she has recorded has a similar effect.”

Dawes has offered Dexter a 500-word space to reply, and continues: “We cannot, however, apologise for reporting on it. The claim was well sourced, and is also supported by Mr Dexter’s own robust comments about party leadership, which are quoted throughout the piece.”

 Financial problems

Dexter does not dispute that a few days before his resignation from Cope he made a request on his Facebook page for financial assistance to continue his legal battle with his ex-wife.

It was therefore legitimate for the journalist to ask questions about his willingness to give up his MP’s salary at a time of “apparent financial distress”.

Dawes told this office: “His response is recorded in some detail. To wit, he said it was ‘totally wrong’ to link his ‘financial need and political need’ and added ‘I left my position for principled reasons. Surely you are not suggesting that I should sit and get paid to lie to the voters?’ ”

Dexter has argued that M&G “must provide the evidence for the claim that I am benefitting by this decision (to resign from Cope and re-join the ANC) and that it is related to my divorce….”

Nowhere in the story does the M&G make such a claim.

The story starts by reporting on what he said at a press conference, that he had not been offered anything of material benefit or an “ambassadorial position” for defecting to the ANC.  And then it gives his response to the question about leaving a paying job when he was “faced with such financial demands”.

It is clear from the correspondence that Dexter is reading too much into the story, pushed by his belief that “the relationships between certain people at the Mail & Guardian and friends and associates of my ex-wife have a lot more to do with informing this article about me than the actual facts”.

There is no evidence of that influence in the story or in the written submissions from Dexter and Dawes.

Findings

1.      Falling out: The M&G is not in breach of the SA Press Code.

2.      Financial problems: The newspaper is not in breach of the Code.

The newspaper has generously offered to give Dexter a right of reply and he may use this offer to set the record straight. I do not accept his request for a retraction and apology.

Appeal

Please note that our Complaints Procedures lays down that within seven days of receipt of this decision, any 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.