Duane Vermeulen vs Die Burger
Fri, Dec 20, 2019
Finding complaint 4346
Date of article: 30/3/2019
Headline: Skuimkop: Meng jou met die semels…
Author: Skuimkop (satirical column)
This ruling is based on a complaint filed by Mr Duane Vermeulen, correspondence with him and with Die Burger’s Theresa Olivier, as well as Die Burger’s editor, Mr Willem Jordaan, and acting sports editor, Mr Pieter Redelinghuys.
Mr Vermeulen complains that a satirical column in Die Burger, under the headline, Skuimkop: Meng jou met die semels... (from the Afrikaans phrase, “meng jou met die semels dan vreet jou met die varke..” loosely translated as “if you mix with the chaff/bran you will eat with the pigs”), transgresses clause 1.1, 1.2, 1.3 and 1.8 of the Press Code which stipulate that the media shall:
1.1 take care to report news truthfully, accurately and fairly;
1.2 present news in context and in a balanced manner, without any intentional or negligent departure from the facts whether by distortion, exaggeration or misrepresentation, material omissions, or summarization;
1.3 present only what may reasonably be true as fact; opinions, allegations, rumours or suppositions shall be presented clearly as such.
1.8 Must obtain cmment from the subject of critical reportage; and,
6. may strongly advocate their own views on controversial topics, provided that they clearly distinguish between fact and opinion, and not misrepresent or suppress or distort relevant facts, and that
7.2 Comment or criticism is protected even if it is extreme, unjust, unbalanced, exaggerated and prejudiced, as long as it is without malice, is on a matter of public interest, has taken fair account of all material facts that are either true or reasonably true, and is presented in a manner that it appears clearly to be comment.
- The text
1.1 Skuimkop is a satirical “gossip” column that appears in Die Burger.
1.2 In this edition it featured a photograph of Springbok the rugby player, Mr Duane Vermeulen, a member of the Springbok rugby team, in a photograph with Afrikaans singer and well-known conservative, Steve Hofmeyr, as well as the singer Bobby van Jaarsveld and two women, one of whom was identified in the caption as his (Mr Vermeulen’s) wife and the other as Mr van Jaarsveld’s wife.
1.3 The introduction to the piece was: “As daar ‘n Breinfloute van die Maand-prys was wat hier uitgedeel moet word, oorhandig Skuimkop dit met oorgawe aan die Bulle se Springbok-losvoorspeler Duane Vermeulen.” (A loose translation would be: “If there was a brain blackout for the month prize, then Skuimkop would dedicate it to the Bull’s Springbok loose forward, Duane Vermeulen.”)
1.4 It goes on to say that the former Stormer’s “battering ram” was in the spotlight this month on social media platforms after he put on his Twitter profile a photograph of him and his wife with the Afrikaans singer, Steve Hofmeyr, “broad smiles on their faces.”
1.5 The column says he deleted the photograph not long after it was sent to the “wide world”
“Why, you may ask…why was the photograph deleted so quickly? And what is the big fuss about? A fellow can hang out with whom he wants, listen to the music of his taste?”
1.6 The column goes on to give two reasons: 1. That Hofmeyr’s political views are considered, at best, conservative; many consider him an “arch racist” (“aartrassis”); 2. That Duane, as a high profile athlete should know that such a moment with a controversial figure is neither “decent nor honourable.”
1.7 But, it adds, the focus is not Hofmeyr and his narrow-mined (“benepe”) political views, but should be on a popular sportsman who represents his country internationally.
If he subscribes to the principles of SARU, his employer (which Skuimkop believes he does), then he should also believe in diversity and striving for unity across racial barriers.
1.8 The photograph makes him look as though he is fast friends (“dik pelle”) with Hofmeyr. He is smiling proudly with someone many South Africans find unsavoury.
“While you an chose your friends, if its someone who is often in the news for the wrong reasons, you should not go out in public with your friendship. (“nie in die openbare te koop loop”)
1.9 It ends by saying Skuimkop wonders what the reaction would be if the Bok captain, Siya Kolisi, took a smiling selfie with another “racist”, Black First Land First’s Andile Mngxitama.
- The arguments
2.1 Mr Vermeulen argues that although this was a satirical column, it should still comply with basics of the Press Code. The opinion was based on “false facts” and the assumption is that he agrees with Mr Hofmeyr’s political views “through association”.
2.2 The entire column is based on an erroneous assumption: that he placed a photograph on Twitter and then deleted it. “The article makes a big fuss about the fact that I removed the alleged photograph from Twitter”, and then provides “answers” as to why this may have been the case.
2.3 This “ …‘satirical opinion’” was supposedly based on fact and was ‘newsworthy’ enough to crucify me as someone who associates with an ‘arch-racist’, someone who made myself guilty of conduct which is inappropriate and dishonourable.” It is based on the “wrong allegation” that he posted the photo on Twitter and then removed it shortly thereafter.
2.4 Mr Vermeulen says he has done “neither of the above. If Twitter was consulted before the article was published, this would have been detected immediately. The article suggests by implication/tacitly/through innuendo that my ‘removal’ of the photo from Twitter was an acknowledgment of guilt. It was this “untruthful allegation, which opened the door for the ‘satirical opinion’ to begin with.”
2.5 Ms Theresa Olivier on behalf of Die Burger argues that the column is a regular satirical one and thus the principles for news coverage cannot apply.
2.6 These include the need to report news truthfully and accurately, presenting news in context and in a balanced manner, verifying the accuracy of information, and seeking the views of a subject of critical reportage.
2.7 As a weekly satirical column, Skuimkop belongs in the category of opinion “and therefore there can be no argument that fact and opinion were not distinguished.”
2.8 Die Burger initially contended that no facts were “misrepresented”; thus the charge that Clause 7 of the Press Code, which states that “comment or criticism is protected… as long as it is without malice, is on a matter of public interest, has taken fair account of all material facts that are either true or reasonably true…” , could not be upheld.
2.9 Mr Vermeulen countered Die Burger’s claim that “no facts were misrepresented”. “Clearly, even after lodging my complaint, no effort was made to ascertain whether the facts relied on in the article were correct or not.” He reiterates that he never placed the photo on Twitter, which means he could not remove it either. This was a clear misrepresentation of facts.
2.10 He argues his complaint in terms of Clause 7 of the Press Code deals not with the actual photo but on the “alleged actions by myself surrounding the photo”.
2.11 He also points out that the caption on the photograph is wrong. There are two women pictured in the photograph; one is his wife, the other is not, as stated in the caption, the wife of Bobby van Jaarsveld, but “a family friend of ours.”.
2.12 The acting sports editor of Die Burger, Mr Pieter Redelinghuys, in reply said he could not remember where he sourced the photograph; someone may have sent it to him on What’sApp for the Skuimkop column.
2.13 When he tried to research its origins, he found a similar story in the Citizen, which recorded a backlash against the picture of Mr Vermeulen posing with Mr Hofmeyr.
2.14 The Citizen later apologized for reporting that the photo has been placed on and then removed from Twitter, saying Mr Vermeulen had not done so.
2.15 It appears the photograph may have been sourced from Instagram.
2.16 The column was, in essence, “a subjective opinion piece and was not meant to damage Mr Vermeulen’s image.”
2.17 On the contrary, it referred to him as a “popular international sportsman who represents his country internationally. If he follows the principles of SARU (and Skuimkop believes deep in his heart that he does), then he would subscribe to the same principles of diversity and unity across racial lines.
“The photograph makes him look as though he is pally with Hofmeyr. Proudly smiling with a person who is for many South Africans an unsavoury character.”
2.18 “The Bok’s deputy captain, however innocent he may be, has made a serious mistake. There will be those who will want his head, and think he should give up the Springbok jersey.
3.1 There is no doubt that Skuimkop is a satirical column and thus has more leeway than any “straight” news report.
3.2 Satirical columns are often used to highlight small gossip items that may otherwise escape mainstream news coverage, but nonetheless provide key insights into news personalities that inhabit readers’ world.
3.3 That said, they should at least be based on fact: it is now undisputed that Mr Vermeulen did not put this particular picture on Twitter and thus did not remove it.
3.4 However, Mr Redelinghuys is correct: the tone of the column was not condemnatory but rather admonitory, a word of advice, as it were, to someone who is an admired South African sportsman.
3.5 A satirical column must, by its nature, have the “space” to comment and to be amusing. However, in terms of Clause 7 of the Press Code, it must also be based on facts.
3.6 I had a quibble with the fact that the women in the caption to the picture were not named: one was identified only as Mr Vermeulen’s “vroutjie”, and the other (incorrectly as it transpired) as Bobby van Jaarsveld’s wife. This was somewhat demeaning but as this was not the subject of the complaint (that the women were not named), I will just leave this point here.
3.7 However, I should also commend both Mr Vermeulen and Die Burger for the constructive and courteous manner in which they have dealt with resolving this complaint.
3.8 Die Burger editor, Mr Willem Jordaan, has offered to publish an apology to Mr Vermeulen acknowledging that he did not place the photograph on Twitter (and thus did not remove it). It also apologizes for any discomfort (“ongerief”) caused
I find that Die Burger has transgressed Clause 7 of the Press Code, which states that comment or criticism “is protected even if it is extreme, unjust, unbalanced, exaggerated and prejudiced, as long as it is without malice, is on a matter of public interest, has taken fair account of all material facts that are either true or reasonably true..”
In this case, the facts on which it was based were incorrect.
This is a Tier 2 offence
I find Die Burger’s offer of an apology to Mr Vermeulen for stating incorrectly that he placed (and removed) the photograph on Twitter is a fair resolution.
In addition, it should apologize for misidentifying the “family friend” of the Vermeulens as “Bobby van Jaarsveld’s wife” in the caption.
The newspaper’s correction and apology should be published on the same page as the original print story and be approved by the Ombudsman. The Press Council logo and a link to this finding should also be published.
It should also be published as a link to the original online story.
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.
December 20, 2019