Maritzburg College Governing Body vs. Times Live


Mon, Jul 31, 2017

Ruling by the Press Ombud

31 July 2017

This ruling is based on the written submissions of Mr Jaco van der Merwe of Tatham Wilkes Inc, on behalf of the Maritzburg College Governing Body (MCGB), and those of Matthew Savides, news editor of the Durban Bureau of Times Media.

The MCGB is complaining about a story in Times Live of 13 June 2017, headlined Fresh investigation over Maritzburg College race slur.

Complaint                                            

The MCGB’s main complaint is that the newspaper did not ask it for comment.

It also complains that the stories omitted material information, and were unbalanced and incorrect (details below) – the central issue being that the stories created the false impression that the school had deliberately hidden a racial incident involving its learners from the Department of Education.

In addition, the body also says that the reporter should have verified whether the school’s action was appropriate and if not, why not – instead, the reader would have thought that the school had flouted prevailing legislation, failed to act in terms of its own code and instead swept the matter under the carpet.

Van der Merwe adds that the school has received numerous threats of mass action, incitement to violence and even of arson, and argues that the (irresponsible) reportage has jeopardized learners’ safety and security.

The text

The article, written by Jeff Wicks, said that a Maritzburg College prefect who used the k-word to refer to a peer during an argument may face fresh disciplinary action after the school waited nearly four months to report the incident to the provincial education department.

He wrote, “The incident‚ which played out in February‚ was only reported last week after a racist rant went viral at neighbouring Pietermaritzburg Girl’s College. And while race tensions continue to swirl‚ the department has intervened and is calling for an investigation into the matter to start from scratch.”

Wicks reported that the principal, Mr Chris Luman, could not be drawn to comment‚ saying he was not authorised to speak to the media.

The complaint in more detail

The MCGB says the stories were unbalanced in that the journalist had asked the principal for comment – while the headmaster in fact represented the head of the Department of Education at a governing body meeting. Asking the principal for comment, therefore, is tantamount to asking the department itself, Van der Merwe argues.

The governing body says the stories neglected to state that the:

·         law did not require a governing body to inform the department of misconduct;

·         department had no right to intervene and to call for the process “to start from scratch”;

·         journalist had tried to contact the department for comment;

·         principal was not allowed to speak to the media about any incident at the school;

·         “Guidelines for the Consideration of Governing Bodies in Adopting a Code of Conduct for Learners” did not stipulate that a disciplinary hearing was automatically warranted in such a circumstance – instead, the impression was created that the school should have instituted such proceedings; and

·         racism, as a form of misconduct, did not carry a minimum sentence (making it impossible to decide whether the punishment imposed on the learner was justifiable or not).

Van der Merwe adds that the stories omitted to state whose spokesperson Mthethwa was; besides, no mention was made of the manner in which the matter was reported to the department, to whom in the department the matter had been reported, and who had reported the incident – which means that the spokesman had to rely on hearsay evidence.

He also says that the perpetrator received a significantly greater sanction than what was published.

TimesLive responds

Savides says the reporter’s first port of call was the KZN Education Department. He approached spokesman Kwazi Mthethwa, who volunteered the information that were used in the story, including, that:

·         the incident was several months old, but only came to the department’s attention earlier just prior to the incident going public;

·         the department wanted the school to revisit its disciplinary action; and

·         there were concerns over the process that was followed by the school.

 

“Given that Mr Mthethwa is a source that we rely on often and has proven reliable, his comments formed the basis of the story,” he argues.

 

The news editor adds that, subsequent to this, a source within the department supplied the publication, off the record, with two documents that were pertinent to the story. These reports, he submits, confirmed Mthethwa’s earlier comments and were, therefore, used as background to the story.

Savides says Wicks asked the school for a response prior to publication. His e-mail read:

We are producing a story on the racist incident from February which was reported last week.

1. With regard to the delay in reporting the matter to the DoE circuit manager, is delay standard? Please explain?

2. We understand that the disciplinary process will start afresh, are you able to confirm this?

3. Are you able to confirm that the pupil, Truter, has been suspended?

4. Please feel free to add anything you feel is pertinent.

The reporter received the following response from the principal:

I am not sure where you obtained your information from but I am an employee of the KZNDOE and may not discuss any incidents with the media. I would suggest that you contact the Department of Education directly.

Savides says the story reflected this response.

Analysis

The MCGB’s argument regarding the journalist who should have known the law and should have contacted it directly is weak – the principal directed Wicks to the department and not to the governing body. This response relieved the journalist from any further obligation in this regard. The MCGB is wrongly blaming this on TimesLive.

The MCGB’s complaint that the reportage endangered the safety of learners is groundless, for the same reason. If a mistake was made, it was not that of TimesLive.

As there is no complaint that the reporters misquoted either the principal or the department, I have no grounds to find for the complainant.

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