Andrew Lines vs. The Herald


Wed, Nov 16, 2011

Ruling by the Deputy Press Ombudsman

November 16, 2011
 
This ruling is based on the written submissions of Mr A. Lines and The Herald newspaper, as well as on an informal hearing that took place in Port Elizabeth on October 28, 2011. The newspaper was represented by its editor, Heather Robertson, its news editor, Angela Gillham, and the journalist, Guy Rogers; Lines represented himself.
 
Complaint
 
Mr Andrew Lines complains about a story in The Herald, published on April 21, 2011and headlined Boost for Settlers Park – New sponsors set to see rangers return.
 
In a 45-pages hand-written document, Line’s chief complaint is that The Herald refused to use relevant information that was in the public interest that he had provided the newspaper with (implying bias), and in the process dishonouring an “agreement” to report and investigate his claims – all of which resulted in a story that falsely depicts the security situation in Settlers Park.
 
He adds that the:
  • photo and the caption are misleading; and
  • reference to security promises is deceptive to such an extent that the story in fact compromises citizens’ safety. 
Analysis
 
The story, written by Guy Rogers, says that Settlers Park and the lower Baakens Valley in Port Elizabeth looked set to benefit from a new tranche of international funding and a new donor contract to relaunch the ranger protection project. It says that this has come “not a moment too soon”, following a few recent attacks in the park.
 
I shall now look at the merits of the complaint:
 
Refused to use relevant information
 
The relevant clause in the Press Code regarding this part of the complaint is Art. 1.2.2 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…”.
 
Lines complains that he has given the newspaper relevant information that was in the public interest, which it refused to publish. He puts this “neglect” down to a friendly relationship between Rogers and Mr Morgan Griffiths from Fidelity Security Services (FSS). He adds that The Herald also dishonoured an “agreement” that it would report and investigate his claims.
 
In later correspondence, Lines elaborates on the reporter’s alleged bias. He says that Rogers “vehemently objected” to any evidence that would inflict on FSS people, that he vouched for their good character, and that he did not investigate any “evidences” regarding the security situation at the park. Lines adds that, despite assurances by the newspaper to the contrary, Rogers has failed to take note of his side of the story. This, he says, has led to a story that falsely depicts the security situation at Settlers Park.
 
At the hearing, Lines explained that this “relevant information” mainly referred to negligent security control at Settlers Park.
 
The examples that he cited in this regard were:
  • A ranger had told a couple not to enter the park, and when they did, they were mugged – and said that no action had been taken against that ranger;
  • FSS sent the rangers on a course for a few days, leaving the park unattended and not notifying the public to this effect;
  • A warden slept on duty with his shoes off; and
  • Guards were not issued with two-way radios, as they should have been.
Lines said that he has presented Rogers with a complete folder, and remarked that the reporter was not interested in these matters.
 
Other “pieces of evidence” that he said The Herald did not publish were his statements that:
  • DA leader Helen Zille was a liar;
  • the DA’s and the Municipality were not accountable (he says that those organisations have snubbed him when he tried to get information from them);
  • there was a corrupt relationship within FSS;
  • the Municipality and FSS had acknowledged guilt with regards to negligent security control;
  • there was a possible fraudulent contract involving FSS during the Soccer World Cup tournament; and
  • there were a lack of maintenance and waste management in the park.
Lines concluded that the newspaper’s “agreement” that it will investigate “his story” has never materialized. He again also put the reporter’s “neglect” to investigate and to publish down to bias, due to his “friendship” with Griffiths.
 
The Herald responds that it has afforded Lines “every chance” to have his concerns published. However, the newspaper says that Lines was “very prescriptive” in how he wanted Rogers to write the story – he even asked to be present when Rogers wrote the story “to ensure it was written correctly” (an allegation that Lines denies in later correspondence).
 
The newspaper says that Lines indeed has a valid concern as Settlers Park was not safe, and stressed that it has widely reported on various attacks in the area. However, it argues that it has struggled to find a fresh angle as Lines’ concerns were not new. Still, the newspaper said that it had decided to speak with him, as well as with other stakeholders.
 
The Herald also explains that the majority of regular park users seemed to feel that the situation had in fact improved, and adds: “Mr Lines however seemed angered that other stakeholders had been consulted for the article and told Guy that it was his story and if others were to be involved he wanted no part in the article.” (This, Lines also denies in later correspondence.) The newspaper argues that, in the interest of balance, it had to speak with as wide a group of (concerned) people as possible.
 
Rogers then offered Lines an opportunity to write a letter to the editor (which Lines denied, arguing that nobody would propose that he wrote a letter as there had already been an agreement that his side of the story would be published.)
 
At the hearing the reporter also said that he would like to convey Lines’ opinions and stated that he had in fact first asked Lines for comment.
 
The newspaper concluded that Lines would not give information to its reporter unless he was allowed to say how the story would be written – so it was not privy to all the “evidences”. (Lines denies this, saying that he verbally submitted “evidences” to Rogers who “declined to peruse such evidences” in contravention of the “agreement”. He adds that he has in vain requested a meeting with the news editor.)
 
The Herald added that:
  • the “evidence” that Lines had presented was not evidence at all;
  • there was no “agreement” between itself and Lines;
  • Rogers knew Griffiths, but denied that they were friends (and that there was therefore no reason to be biased);
  • it had been struggling to find a new angle for a follow-up story;
  • it had been keen to get Lines’ opinion, but that the latter had been vague; and
  • Lines was not quoted in the story in dispute, as he wanted to be the only source and did not want the story to include other people’s views.
Of all the pieces of information that Lines said that he had provided The Herald with, the newspaper only admitted to four, namely that rangers were sent on a course (leaving the park without security), that a barefoot warden slept whilst on duty, that guards were not issued with proper radios, and that there was the possibility of a fraudulent security contract during the Soccer World Cup.
 
The Herald argued that the first two issues had already been dealt with and that it was therefore not newsworthy anymore – notices were put up to inform the public of the rangers’ absence (albeit a few days later), and the barefoot, sleeping warden had been disciplined.
 
It added that the other two issues that it knew about did not warrant a story.
 
The implication of admitting to the four “evidences” mentioned above is that the newspaper could not be blamed for the others as it did not know about them.
 
The newspaper undertook to investigate FSS and, indeed, also to look at the greater picture regarding security matters in Port Elizabeth; it reiterated that it would publish a letter to the editor by Lines.
 
The Herald also provided me with quite a few stories that it has carried on the security situation at the park, indicating that it cared about the situation, that it did report on the park whenever something newsworthy cropped, and argued that it would continue to do so.
 
I am now going to consider the following:
  • Which information material to the story that was in the public interest did Lines provide the newspaper with that it did not publish;
  • Was there a friendly relationship between Rogers and FSS that cause him to report unfairly and unbalanced;
  • Was there a binding agreement, which the newspaper has subsequently dishonoured;
  • Does the story falsely depict the security station at Settlers Park.
I am first going to deal with the four issues that The Herald admitted to knowing about, after which I shall turn my attention to the rest.
 
I am willing to accept the newspaper’s explanation regarding the rangers’ absence and the barefoot, sleeping warden, as these arguments were reasonable – these matters have already been settled or attended to, and as such did not represent a news-worthy angle to a new story.
 
I also doubt if a lack of proper radios and a possible fraudulent security contract warranted a story – the first issue was not strong enough to compete successfully for space, and the other one was mere speculation.
 
The context of the story should also be taken into account. Lines may have been correct that the story falsely depicts the security situation in the park – if the story’s purpose was to report on a comprehensive picture regarding security at the park. In that case, it would have been necessary to use some of or all of the “evidences” that Lines put forward at the hearing. However, the story does not purport to sketch such a comprehensive picture regarding security; instead, the newsworthy angle to the story is that Settlers Park was set to benefit from new international funding over the following two years.
 
I therefore do not believe that the newspaper has breached the Code regarding the matters that it admitted to knowing about.
 
Let me now take a look at the other “evidences” that Lines claims that the newspaper omitted, but of which it said that it was not aware of.
 
These are the:
  • allegation that Zille was a liar;
  • DA’s and the municipality’s “unaccountability”;
  • alleged bias of Rogers;
  • matter of a “binding agreement”;
  • “investigation” of the security situation; and
  • misrepresentation of the security situation at the park.
Firstly, Lines argues that Zille has earlier (in the election campaign) promised to make Port Elizabeth safe from crime, and says that this has not happened. From this, he deducts that she is a liar (as she has allegedly gone back on her promise, because crime was not stopped).
 
This argument does not hold water. If, for example, the Minister of Police promises that the Police will focus on the prevention of murder, and the very next day a few murders are committed, it does not make him a liar or means that he has gone back on his promise – he has not promised to stop all murders (which he cannot do, for obvious reasons), all that he has done is to undertake to do his best to stop murders.
 
The same applies to Zille – she has reportedly prioritized crime as something that the DA would fight against. She did not promise to stop all crime (which would have been ludicrous, anyway). If all crime is not stopped, it does not logically follow that she was lying when she identified this issue as a priority.
 
Lines also complains that he has contacted the DA and the Municipality for information, but that both have snubbed him. From this, he deduces that these organisations are not accountable, as they should be. He then blames the newspaper for not reporting their lack of accountability.
 
This argument is also not strong enough. Although I do not condone the alleged snubbing, I am not going to generalize – when an organization gives an individual a cold shoulder, it does not necessarily follow that it is not accountable to the public at large.
I do not think that it is necessarily newsworthy if that happens to a private individual, and I therefore do not blame the newspaper for not reporting this specific allegation.
 
I also take into account there may be many reasons why these organisations did not reply to Lines (if indeed they did not) – reasons that are unknown to me, because it falls outside the scope of my task to investigate them.
 
Regarding the reporter’s alleged bias: Not only did the newspaper deny this allegation, but also judged by how Rogers denied this and the way he conducted himself throughout the hearing, I have no difficulty in accepting his bona fides in this regard. I could indeed find no basis for this part of the complaint.
 
Lines says that the “binding agreement” was verbal, but he also furnished me with an email by Robertson, dated April 14, 2011 to support his claim that there was an “agreement” or an undertaking by the newspaper to report and investigate his claims (a claim that the newspaper denies).
 
This email is all that I have to go on, so let me take a look at it.
 
Robertson’s correspondence was in response to a request by Lines earlier that day to meet with her regarding reportage on the unsafe situation in Settlers Park. In his email, Lines also voiced his concern about Rogers being “friendly” with some stakeholders.
 
Robertson replied as follows:
  • Her reporters have to be unbiased, irrespective of their affiliations;
  • She has assigned the story to Rogers, and it is his responsibility to report fairly and accurately on the issues that Lines has raised;
  • “If you want your story published…I strongly urge you to work with him to get your story told”; and
  • She, and the news editor, will ensure that Rogers gets all sides to the story.
There are no signs of any “binding agreement” in this email, only an undertaking that Rogers will report fairly and accurately. The only “agreement” is that Lines will get his side of the story published – but only if he works with Rogers. This clearly is put as a pre-condition.
 
However, there is no indication that Lines was willing to work with Rogers – not in any documentation, not from our hearing, and not from his complaint. Given his complaint about the journalist’s alleged bias, and the fact that, at the hearing, I had to prevent Lines from making a remark that I strongly suspected was heading towards an accusation regarding journalist’s ability to report fairly and balanced, it is not reasonable for me to believe that Lines was willing to work with Rogers – and therefore, and also based on the email, I do not think that there was any “binding agreement” between the two parties.
 
As for the “investigation” that was possibly still to come: It is not for this office to dictate to the newspaper what future investigations it should or should not undertake. That is for the editor to decide. She has indeed indicated at the hearing that the newspaper would do a story on this issue.
 
Lastly, it is not as if the story paints a picture of (relative) safety in the park, as Lines alleges – not only does the re-enactment of the rangers imply that more/better security was needed, but the story itself also mentions that this comes “not a moment too soon”, referring to “two bike-jackings by knife-wielding thugs reported in the valley in the past three weeks following on a bloody attack last month on a motorist sitting in his vehicle at the Target Kloof entrance to the park”. The story also refers to the killing of a boy in the park in 2008.
 
Based on the above, it is not reasonable for me to accept that the story paints a picture of “relative safety”.
 
From the rest of his allegations, only the one that the Municipality and FSS had acknowledged guilt with regards to negligent security control seems newsworthy to me. But again, I don’t think that it is strong enough to provide an angle for a new story. Maybe the newspaper will include this as part of its envisaged story on the security situation in the city.
 
In conclusion: As was the case with the issues that The Herald admitted to knowing about, the ones that the newspaper denied any knowledge of also are not substantive enough to have represented a breach of the Code – even if it knew about these “evidences”.
 
Picture, caption misleading
 
The picture shows four rangers on horseback, busy patrolling the area. The caption reads: “IN THE SADDLE…Patrolling on horseback in the Baakens Valley are (from left)…”
 
Lines complains that the picture and the caption portrays a false image – at the hearing he said that there were either no such regular patrols, or that these patrols were few and far between.
 
I note that he does not complain that the picture was staged, but only that it implied the false message that patrols were undertaken on a regular basis.
 
However, the caption does not say that patrols were undertaken on a regular basis; it merely states that these four people on horseback were patrolling on that specific day – which seems to be accurate. Moreover, the story suggests that the patrols will come in future, leaving the distinct impression that the patrolling rangers have not started with their work yet.
 
‘Security promises’ deceptive, citizens’ safety compromised
 
The story mentions a “new donor contract to relaunch the ranger protection programme”.
 
Lines complains that this is deceptive, as security promises have not yet materialized. He argues that the newspaper has miss-informed the public and that it failed to report “both sides of my story in public interest”. He adds that the story in dispute is damaging to the park and constituted a life-threatening situation, as it does not portray the real situation.
 
In fact, at the hearing Lines actually accused The Herald for being at least partly to blame for the death of a murdered child (in the park); he alleged that the newspaper was not doing its duty to adequately inform the public of the security situation there.
 
I note that the information about a new donor contract is not in dispute. Also, it is clear from the story that the security situation has not as yet improved as indicated above (at least, not sufficiently so) – only that it is believed to be going to happen sometime in future. The story mentions a promise, which is by definition something that could not have materialized at the time.
 
It is therefore not reasonable to accept the accusation that the newspaper has miss-informed the public.
 
Finding
 
The complaint is dismissed in its entirety.
 
Sanction
 
There is no sanction. The newspaper is free to publish (a summary of) this finding if it wishes to do so, without intervention from this office.
 
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 contacted at Khanyim@ombudsman.org.za.
 
 
Johan Retief
Deputy Press Ombudsman