Andrew Whitfield vs. City Press


Tue, Apr 24, 2018

 

Ruling by the Press Ombud

24 April 2018

PARTICULARS

 

Complainant

 

 

Andrew Whitfield, campaign manager of mayor of Nelson Mandela Bay Metro Athol Trollip

 

 

Lodged by

 

 

Whitfield

 

Date of article

 

 

1 April 2018

 

Headline

 

 

DA might turn on Athol Trollip

 

Author of article

 

 

Nosipiwo Manona

 

Respondent

 

 

Dumisane Lubisi, editor


Complaint                                            

Whitfield complains that the:

·         story inaccurately and without the necessary verification stated that he was related to Mr Athol Trollip, the mayor of Nelson Mandela May Metro – which might have left the impression of nepotism (read: that he had received preferential treatment as a result of this alleged familial bond);

·         headline was misleading; and

·         journalist did not give him a right of reply.

He accuses the journalist of bias.

The text

The article was about a debate that involved a vote of no confidence against Trollip, and about deals by councillors from different political parties that led to the postponement of the debate.

The crux of the story was that not all DA councillors had supported Trollip’s deals with the Patriotic Front (PA) that would have seen the latter party vote against the motion to get rid of the mayor.

The councillors reportedly were unhappy that DA (coloured) councillor Rano Kayser had been axed as a member of the Mayoral Committee, instead of Whitfield, to make way for PA councillor Marlon Daniels.

The arguments

Inaccurate statement; false impression of nepotism

Whitfield complains that the story inaccurately referred to him as Trollip’s nephew, without the necessary verification, while the two of them were not related at all. He adds that this might have left the impression of nepotism in that he could have received preferential treatment because of this alleged relationship.

Instead, he says, he offered up his position to Trollip as part of the negotiations. “I believe that this information would have had a material impact on the angle and narrative of this story as it centers around … Kayser having to forego his position,” he states.

Lubisi says that, at the time of publication and by Whitfield’s own admission, the alleged familial bond between himself and Trollip was in the public domain, and the former had never rebutted the allegations.

This neglect, he submits, has left the impression that the two men were indeed related – an allegation that his fellow DA councillors repeated when they spoke to City Press. For these reasons, he argues, the newspaper had no reason to doubt the veracity of that statement.

In the same vein, he says it is a bit rich for Whitfield to claim that City Press should have double-checked this matter before publication.

The editor also denies that the article has either stated or implied nepotism of any sort – if read in context, he argues, the story was about DA councillors who were unhappy with the PA deal. “The story clearly reflected that narrative throughout,” he says.

He also contends that Whitfield’s alleged offer to step down from his position would not have changed the angle of the story, because the article was not about who had offered to resign first. “At all times, the story reflected the unhappiness of Mr Whitfield’s fellow councillors in the DA who felt that they, as coloureds, were treated unfairly,” he says.

Whitfield replies that he in fact denied this “spurious rumour” when a journalist from another publication contacted him to verify this allegation. However, that reporter never published the allegation. “Whenever I have been asked directly about this rumour, by anyone, I have always denied the claims,” he says.

He also says he shook his head in the council meeting when the allegation was made and stated, “it’s not true” – but concedes that this was not placed on the official record. “[However] it is important to note that I am not required to respond to such blatant lies made in a politically charged environment where many false claims are raised,” he adds.

He calls Lubisi’s statement that it was not true that he has offered his position “outrageous”, and says that this has called into question his integrity by suggesting that he was lying.

Analysis

Familial bond: The first question is if City Press was justified to publish the allegation that Whitfield and Trollip were related to each other. (I shall deal with the verification of this statement lower down.)

From Whitfield’s point of view, clearly this was not justified, as it was simply untrue.

From the newspaper’s vantage point, though, I need to take into consideration that the:

·         publication had no knowledge that Whitfield had ever denied this allegation – if he did, this was not done publicly, and was not reported either;

·         allegation was (therefore), to the best of the journalist’s knowledge, common cause;

·         sources repeated this allegation; and

·         story did not state the familial bond as fact – it merely quoted some sources to this effect.

Given these considerations, I do believe that City Press was justified in publishing the allegation as an allegation.

However, this cannot be the last word on the issue – Section 1.10 of the Press Code stipulates that a publication should amend its information if new facts come to light. Therefore, in the interest of fairness City Press should publish Whitfield’s denial of such a familial bond.

In other words, there was nothing wrong with what City Press has reported; but new information asks for new action.

It falls beyond my mandate to make any judgment on the issue of Whitfield offering his post, as this was not part of the story.

Nepotism: For the same reasons as bulleted above, I do not believe that it was the newspaper’s intention to imply nepotism on the part of either Trollip or Whitfield. On the other hand, though, I also cannot overlook the possibility that some readers might have interpreted it in such a way.

There is a simple, but effective way forward: Setting the record straight regarding the alleged familial bond will namely kill two birds with one stone – on the one hand, it will clarify that, at least according to Whitfield, no such bond exists; on the other hand, it will, by definition negate any possibility of nepotism.

Headline misleading

Lubisi says the headline and posters fairly reflected the content of the article, based on the information the newspaper had at the time of publication.

Analysis

I am convinced that the headline adequately reflected the content of the story, and therefore adhered to Section 10.1 of the Press Code.

No right of reply

Whitfield complains that City Press did not give him a right of reply that, he contends, would have changed the angle of the story and would not have led to a debate on social media.

Lubisi says City Press had tried many times to contact Trollip to put the allegations to him (records of such attempts, made on the Friday and Saturday before publication, are available), but the calls as well as an SMS went unanswered (prior to publication). With these attempts, he argues, the newspaper has fulfilled its obligation.

He adds that Whitfield was not the focus of the story.

Whitfield calls the newspaper’s attempts to contact Trollip “commendable”, but asserts that the story should have mentioned this. He says he accepts that he was not the focus of the story, yet the article did refer to him and therefore he should have had the opportunity to respond to the allegation levelled against him.

Analysis

I do not blame City Press for not asking Whitfield for comment, as the newspaper:

·         had reason to believe that the matter was common cause;

·         had no record of him denying the allegation;

·         reported the allegation as an allegation (by ascribing it to a source); and

·         did not focus on him in the story.

While there was a chance that some readers might have interpreted the allegation in question as pointing towards nepotism, which would have made Whitfield a subject of critical reportage (which I do not believe was the newspaper’s intention), the publishing of his denial of any familial bond between him and Trollip will solve this issue as well. This will kill three birds with one stone.

Finding

The complaint is dismissed, as City Press was justified in its reportage – at the time of publication, that is.

‘Sanction’

Section 1.10 of the Press Code reads, “The media shall make amends for presenting information or comment that is found to be inaccurate by communicating, promptly and with appropriate prominence so as to readily attract attention, [an] explanation.”

While I have dismissed the complaint and therefore cannot sanction the newspaper, I am also convinced that publishing Whitfield’s denial of the allegation is the right and ethical thing to do. I am therefore I am imploring City Press to do so.

Because this is not a sanction, I do not need to approve this text prior to publication.

Appeal

The Complaints Procedures lay down that within seven working days of receipt of this decision, either party may apply for leave to appeal to the Chairperson of the SA Press Appeals Panel, Judge Bernard Ngoepe, fully setting out the grounds of appeal. He can be contacted at Khanyim@ombudsman.org.za.

Johan Retief

Press Ombud