Daleen Totten vs. GroundUp


Tue, Jun 19, 2018

Ruling by the Press Ombud

19 June 2018

PARTICULARS

 

Complainant

 

 

Ms Daleen Totten (owner, publisher and editor of the former magazine Natural Medicine)

 

 

Lodged by

 

 

Totten

 

Date of article

 

 

9 April 2018

 

Headline

 

 

How a journalist took an ethical stand and risked her job – Natasha Bolognesi refused to edit a bogus article

 

 

Author of article

 

 

George Claassen

 

Respondent

 

Claassen

Complaint                                            

The gist of Totten’s complaint is that Claassen conducted a smear campaign against the magazine Natural Medicine by generalising its content, saying it was “riddled with quackery and pseudoscience” – while his article itself was fraught with inaccuracies due to the lack of proper fact-checking.

She adds that the author has failed to:

·         contact Waveex for comment; and

·         declare his interest in the article as being one of the two expert witnesses (an “ethical expert”, as stated in the article) testifying on behalf of the journalist Natasha Bolognesi.

Totten adds that Claassen has insulted and hurt the good reputation of a well-respected medical expert who had authored an article (which Bolognesi refused to edit).

The text

The article was about the closing down of the magazine Natural Medicine, after Totten had announced that the January/February 2018 edition would be her last, both in print and online.

Claassen inter alia called the magazine “one of South Africa’s most notorious quackery-promoting publications” which had been “riddled with pseudoscience”.

He related how a “brave science journalist” (Bolognesi) stood up for evidence-based science by refusing to edit a “pseudoscientific” article about a product which she believed to be a scam, to help bring about the end of the magazine.

The article was about a product developed in Austria, called WAVEEX – a small plastic chip, which its manufacturers and peddlers claim can be attached to cell phones and other mobile devices to reduce harmful radiation – a claim which Claassen refuted.

Totten reportedly threatened Bolognesi with disciplinary action should she refuse to perform the instruction to edit the text. The journalist, however, preferred to face disciplinary action, after which she was suspended (in July last year).

The disciplinary hearing against Bolognesi took place in Stellenbosch. She reportedly represented herself with two expert witnesses, inter alia “an expert in science journalism from Stellenbosch University” (himself). Claassen did not name himself as a witness because the hearing was confidential.

Ultimately, Bolognesi was found guilty of insubordination, “despite sound evidence produced at the hearing”, Claassen wrote.

He concluded as follows: “One can only ask when the legal profession will one day decide that scientific expertise on the value and potential harm of a product weighs heavier in the public interest than the rights of quacks to mislead gullible consumers.”

Analysis

The magazine, not the product – a vital distinction

I need to state upfront that the complaint comes from Totten, who was the editor of Natural Medicine, and is about statements made by Claassen against and relating to that magazine – the complainant is not WAVEEX, and therefore I am not going to entertain any correspondence regarding that company or its product.

Besides, WAVEEX has threatened with legal action against GroundUp and Claassen, which represents another (fundamental) reason for not dealing with statements made against that specific product (as Section 1.7 of the Complaints Procedures stipulates).

Quackery; a smear campaign

Claassen called the publication “one of South Africa’s most notorious quackery-promoting publications” that was “riddled with quackery and pseudoscience”. He also referred to Totten who would “continue in her old quackery ways.”

The question is if he was justified in doing so.

“Quackery” can inter alia be defined as the promotion of either ignorant or fraudulent medical practices.

In this regard, I find the following citation from Wikipedia quite helpful:

“Since it is difficult to distinguish between those who knowingly promote unproven medical therapies and those who are mistaken as to their effectiveness, United States courts have ruled in defamation cases that accusing someone of quackery or calling a practitioner a quack is not equivalent to accusing that person of committing medical fraud. To be both quackery and fraud, the quack must know they are misrepresenting the benefits and risks of the medical services offered (instead of, for example, promoting an ineffective product they honestly believe is effective).”

For obvious reasons, this distinction is important.

Whatever Claassen might have said about WAVEEX, it certainly is not clear that he was accusing Totten of any fraudulent activities – he has made no case whatsoever in his article that she knew she was “misrepresenting the benefits and risks of the medical services offered”.

That being the case, Claassen had the right to voice his opinion about Totten and her magazine – even if he was wrong (note, I am not saying that he was, as it is not my task to decide which is which).

Because Claassen was entitled to his views, it follows that I cannot find that he has conducted a “smear campaign” against the magazine. I also accept his defence that he was merely acting in the public interest (seen from his point of view, of course).

Inaccuracies

As far as the “inaccuracies” in Totten’s complaint is concerned, it is noticeable that she did not pin-point what those mistakes were. In so far as these referred to WAVEEX, I am not at liberty to adjudicate on those (as argued earlier).

Not asked for comment

Totten cannot complain on WAVEEX’s behalf that Claassen did not contact the latter for comment.

Not declaring his interest

Totten says it is convenient for Claassen to state that the hearing was confidential and witnesses cannot be named, but in his very next sentence mentions “at the hearing it was discussed” – one cannot have one and not the other, she submits.

Claassen says Totten conveniently ignores the fact that the names of witnesses in disciplinary hearings may not be made known according to South African labour law, and that was emphasised in the article.

The fact that Claassen referred to “at the hearing it was discussed” falls outside of the complaint – I am restricted to adjudicate what he published, not what he stated afterwards.

Given the fact that the hearing was confidential, Claassen was fully justified in not mentioning his name (declaring his interest). I also buy his argument that public interest outweighs personal interest – at least, in this case.

Finding

The complaint is dismissed.

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