Complainant: Rev Frank Chikane
Article: Mbeki spurns top advisers’ advice to quit the race with honour intact
Date: 06 August 2009
Respondent: The Times
Rev Frank Chikane, who was director-general in President Mbeki’s presidency, complained that on December 18, 2007 The Times published an article under the by-line of Wally Mbhele, Ndivhuho Mafela, Xolani Xundu, Moipone Malefane and Mpumelelo Mkhabela headlined Mbeki spurns top advisers’ advice to quit the race with honour intact in which references to him were not true.
He also complained that the newspaper did not give him the opportunity to comment on the allegations before publication.
The story said President Thabo Mbeki had rejected the advice of ANC officials who asked him to withdraw from the vicious race for the leadership of the ANC and avoid humiliation, as the overwhelming victory for Jacob Zuma looked increasingly likely.
It said a source “close to the campaigning” had overheard a conversation between Chikane and then Minister of Trade and Industries Alec Erwin in which Chikane had said he had advised Mbeki to stand down.
The story hangs on what the source says he overheard at a lunch table at the Polokwane conference of the ANC.
According to the story, there was a meeting on the night before at which members of the national executive committee had told Mbeki to consider pulling out of the race because of the open hostility directed at him by most of the delegates on the first day of the conference.
“Chikane is understood to have been one of those who advised Mbeki to stand down,” the article says.
“ ‘The writing is on the wall. You can see the mood,’ Chikane is understood to have told Chikane.”
Chikane told the hearing in the Ombudsman’s office that all the delegates, including NEC members queued for the food and sat at any of the tables in the dining hall. It was possible he sat next to Erwin but he had never told him about a Sunday meeting, was not at such a meeting, and never uttered the words attributed to him. He said the newspaper did not contact him to comment before publication.
Reporter Mafela told the hearing that his source spoke to him after 2 pm and he submitted his story to The Times team coordinator at the conference, Political Editor Wally Mbhele, at 5 pm. He didn’t have Chikane’s cellphone number so he asked Xundu to phone him. Rev Chikane did not respond and there was no voicemail to leave a message for Chikane to contact them.
The team members, however, phoned NEC members to confirm that the Sunday night meeting did take place and it was confirmed.
The story itself does not quote a single person who was at the meeting. Instead it goes to a time before the alleged meeting and mentions that “Mbeki’s lobbyists” had told the newspaper that the Sunday night meeting would be held; it quotes “a member of the national executive committee, who is close to Mbeki” denying that there was a move to ask Mbeki to withdraw from the race but said he had heard about Sunday night’s meeting. Not a single person who was at the Sunday meeting is quoted and nobody corroborates the lunchtime source on the Chikane-Erwin conversation.
Alec Erwin was not contacted nor was any other person who was at the table.
Mafela told the panel that Chikane was present all the time at the conference, but he could not talk to him directly because he was seated in the VIP area and security kept journalists from it. He had not thought of sending a message to Presidential spokesperson Mukoni Ratshitanga to ask Chikane to call him.
Editor Ray Hartley said the newspaper had no reason to mistrust its source because he was a Mbeki supporter. He said he had subsequently been in contact with the source, who stood by what he had told them.
Hartley said the newspaper had used a well-known journalistic device “Chikane is understoodto have told Erwin” to show that the statement should be taken with a pinch of salt.
He said Ratshitanga was a government employee and that is why the newspaper did not ask him for help in contacting Chikane because this was an ANC party matter.
This is another example of the reckless use of anonymous sources.
A source tells The Times he overheard a conversation and the newspaper rushes to publish without making the effort to corroborate the facts. Even if the newspaper had had Chikane’s denial, it would still have amounted to reckless use.
A reasonable journalist would have questioned why an NEC member and a cabinet minister would discuss such a matter at an open lunch table where so many ears could hear them. The journalist would have wondered if the source could have misinterpreted what he heard.
The panel accepts Chikane’s evidence that he is too responsible a person to have said this and said it at such a place.
The newspaper should at least have gone to Chikane and Erwin and asked about the event. Mafela knew that Ratshitanga was at the conference and was contactable. Surely Ratshitanga would have facilitated contact with Chikane, even if he was not on duty as government spokesperson.
Times should have traced at least one other person who was at the table and asked about the conversation.
Hartley’s argument that the journalistic device of is understood to have diminishes the credibility of he information does not hold after the newspaper had stated categorically in the headline and the opening paragraph that Mbeki had spurned and rejected his top advisors advice.
The quotation marks around Chikane’s alleged statement are instead intended to bolster the credibility of the allegations in the story.
The panel also rejects the argument by Hartley that this type of writing is in the nature of political journalism and it does not require the same tests as court reporting, for example. He said the Polokwane was a charged environment and the story reflected that milieu.
It is particularly when the environment is volatile and tempers are high that journalists should take extra care in their writing. The newspaper should have anticipated that Mbeki supporters would be angry with Chikane – as they were – after reading the story and checked it rigorously before putting it out to the public.
We find that The Times is in breach of the Press Code’s:
v Paragraph 1.1 in that it did not check if its story was truthful, accurate and fair; and
v Paragraph 1.5 in that it did not seek Chikane’s views before publication.
The panel rules that The Times publish an apology and an abbreviated version of this decision and both to be provided by the Press Ombudsman.
The panel finds that the argument by Hartley that Chikane has rejected the publication’s offer of space for a letter to the editor putting his side of the story to be disingenuous. The code is clear: “A publication should make amends for publishing information …that is found to be inaccurate by printing, promptly and with appropriate prominence, a retraction, correction or explanation.” The code does not throw the ball back into the offended subject’s court.
Chikane was well within his rights when he wrote to him: “I find it unacceptable that I am now expected to rectify what I did not falsify.”
Please note that our Complaints Procedures lays 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.
Advocate Kameshi Pillay, instructed by Webster Sekwati, State Attorney, represented Rev Chikane; and Editor Ray Hartley represented The Times.
Ruling by Press Ombudsman’s Panel:
Ronnie Taurog, public representative on the Press Appeals Panel, who died recently and whose contributions to the PAP and the press self-regulatory system were enormous;
Peter Mann, Press representative on the Press Appeals Panel; and
Joe Thloloe, Press Ombudsman.