Melomed Hospital Holdings vs News24


Tue, Jun 9, 2020

Particulars

Complaint number: 7838

Lodged by: Shaafee Hendricks, legal council, Melomed Head Office

Date of article: 15 March 2020

Headline: Cape Town man struggles to get tested for Covid-19 at private hospital

Author of article: Nhlanhla Jele

Respondent: George Claassen, News24 internal ombud

  1. Complaint                                            

1.1 Melomed complains that News24:

  • did not give it a fair opportunity to comment on a harmful allegation, which resulted in inaccurate, unfair, unverified and unnecessarily harmful reporting;
  • did not follow up the initial article in good time; and
  • published the updated version too long after the initial story, resulting in more unnecessary harm.

1.2 The crux of the complaint is that the reportage, and/or the lack thereof, created the impression that the hospital had disregarded medical regulations, thereby endangering the health and safety of its patients. Melomed calls the reportage a “deliberate, if not negligent attack” on it.

1.3 It asks for a retraction and an apology from News24.

1.4 The sections of the Press Code complained about are:

  • 1.1:  “The media shall take care to report news truthfully, accurately and fairly”;
  • 1.2: “The media shall 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”;
  • 1.7: “The media shall verify the accuracy of doubtful information, if practicable; if not, this shall be stated”;
  • 1.8: “The media shall seek, if practicable, the views of the subject of critical reportage in advance of publication… Such a subject should be afforded reasonable time to respond; if unable to obtain comment, this shall be stated”;
  • 1.9: “The media shall  state where a report is based on limited information, and supplement it once new information becomes available”;
  • 3.3: “The media shall exercise care and consideration in matters involving dignity and reputation…”;
  • 6: “The media 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
  • 10.1: “Headlines … shall not mislead the public and shall give a reasonable reflection of the contents of the report or picture in question.”
  1. The text

2.1 The article was about a Western Cape man who reportedly told News24 that his attempts to get tested at the Melomed Mitchells Plain Hospital for Covid-19 “proved futile”. The man, Cameron Jansen, alleged that he was “sent back and forth without anyone seeing him”.

2.2 The closing sentence read: “Melomed Mitchells Plain Private Hospital said management would only be able to comment on the matter on Monday (March 16).”

  1. The arguments

3.1 In support of its complaint, Melomed says:

  • Its staff followed the prescribed protocols of the National Department of Health (NDOH) and National Institution of Communicable Diseases (NICD), identifying that Jansen was not a case fit for the coronavirus and therefore was not a patient of interest;
  • The Covid-19 test was therefore not conducted; Melomed then proceeded to counsel Jansen with the necessary consultation regarding self-isolation;
  • Jansen was also advised to contact his general practitioner (GP), should he have any further concerns;
  • At no stage was Jansen denied medical assistance or turned away from the hospital;
  • It had numerous patients attending its emergency centres, where swab tests were taken and patients instructed to put themselves into self-isolation (if they tested positive);
  • The relevant educational material was provided to these patients; and
  • It prides itself by complying with its constitutional responsibility in terms of Section 27 of the Constitution of South Africa – it has and always will provide emergency treatment to all persons who attend its emergency units.

3.2 Hendricks argues that News24 inaccurately and unfairly “conflated” Jansen’s version of events in his allegations about Melomed not having heeded protocols of the NDOH and NICD regarding Covid-19.

3.3 He notes that Melomed asked News24 on March 16 to remove the article – but without success.

3.4 He also complains that nothing was published (between the initial story and April 6) that included Melomed’s version of events. “To date,” he says, “there has been no further publication to the Article from [News24] with [Melomed’s] version of events…”

3.5 Given the above, Hendricks argues, it is evident that such a misrepresentation was a deliberate, if not negligent attack on Melomed. This, he concludes, has irrevocably damaged the hospital’s reputation and, more importantly, the perception of patients of the Melomed Mitchells Plain Hospital.

3.6 Claassen says News24 did ask Melomed for comment, but was informed that it could only do so on March 16. Adhering to the audi alteram partem principle, this was mentioned in the initial article. He adds, “This clearly shows News24’s bona fides in including the hospital’s response in the original report, as required by the Press Code.”

3.7 He also denies that anybody at News24 received any complaint from Melomed, saying that the email was directed to various incorrect addresses of journalists at the media house.

3.8 He continues: “News24’s view is that we immediately updated the report when we were made aware of Melomed’s complaint. It was not News24’s mistake that the original complaint that should have been sent to me, was addressed incorrectly by Melomed to wrong addresses and not to the public editor of News24… And even more, when the complaint at last arrived on my desk via the Public Advocate as late as 3 April (a Friday), we updated the report as quickly as possible with skeleton weekend staff on duty. The updated report was published on Monday 6 April.”

3.9 This means, he argues, that News24 has adhered to the Press Code both with regards to the initial story and the updated one. “Then, when I as public editor received their complaint, not brought to my attention as public editor dealing with complaints by Melomed from the beginning, I immediately acted to publish an updated story where Melomed’s views were clearly stated from their own complaint,” he concludes.


  1. Analysis

4.1 Issues not in dispute

The following issues are not in dispute:

  • The original story was published on March 15;
  • Melomed told News24 it would only be able to comment on March 16;
  • The initial story did not contain Melomed’s response – and it stated why that was the case;
  • On March 16, Melomed complained to News24, without the knowledge of its internal ombud, George Claassen;
  • On March 30, Melomed lodged a complaint with the Press Council (PC);
  • On Friday, April 3, the office of the PC informed Claassen of the complaint; and
  • On Monday, April 6, an updated version of the original article was published, with the additional words in the headline, “hospital says it did everything correctly”; it also included Melomed’s response as it was worded in its complaint to the PC.

4.2 Issues in dispute: Wrong addresses

4.2.1 I now deal with issues that are in dispute. The first of these are:

  • Claassen’s statement that Melomed sent its response to wrong addresses at News24, explaining why nobody responded to it; and
  • The fact that Melomed did not send the complaint directly to him as News24’s internal ombud.

4.2.2 I asked Claassen for clarification regarding each of the addresses that appeared on Melomed’s correspondence, dated March 16.

4.2.3 This was his response:

  • sheldon.morais@24.com – He is News24’s national news editor. The latter denies having received Melomed’s correspondence. There could be several reasons for this, Claassen explains, inter alia that Media24 started with a huge migration process of Outlook during the preceding weeks (this was because Multichoice, that was part of Naspers, was listed on the JSE). This caused huge problems, including that journalists often for days did not have access to email. Claassen says he had to look for several emails in his spam box. Moreover, Media24 has an enormously strong firewall to stop any junk mail from going through. Huge documents, with attachments, often end up in junk boxes. It is therefore quite possible, Claassen argues, that Morais never received the hospital’s response;
  • nhlanhla.jele@24.com – He is not employed by News24; he works as a freelancer, whom News24 uses from time to time;
  • newsdiary@news24.com – This address is used for general breaking news. The people who handle it, only focus on hard news and cannot be expected to deal with complaints;
  • estrelita.moses@24.com – She has left News24’s employ two years ago; she is currently working at Business Insider, with a totally different address; and
  • nhlanhla.jele@news24.com – Ditto above.

4.2.4 This clarified matters to a large extent. The last four addresses were indeed wrong, but for different reasons – some were not in use anymore, while others were the wrong people to send a complaint to. (The news desk deals with hard news only and cannot be expected to deal with complaints as well; the same goes for freelance journalists.)

4.2.5 Because Jele was the author of the initial article, I tried to ask him when he first received Melomed’s complaint. I sent a message to both his addresses, and they both were returned to me.

4.2.6 This left me with one addresses, that of Morais.

4.2.7 I have established that Morais’s address was indeed correct. However, the hospital has no way of proving that he in fact did receive its email – and neither have I. Conversely, I have no reason to discard Claassen’s explanation as to why it was quite probable that the national news editor did not receive Melomed’s correspondence.

4.2.8 This puts the ball back in Melomed’s court, I guess. The question is why it never sent its complaint to News24’s internal ombud, which was the correct channel to use.

4.2.9 There is quite a squabble on this issue – one party says it should have been easy to find Claassen’s contact details, while the other disputes it (and even says they did not know that News24 had a public editor).

4.2.10 As far as I am concerned, it is neither here nor there if it was easy or difficult for Melomed to find Claassen’s contact details – the fact remains that the hospital should have sent its complaint to him, but did not do so. While I do not blame Melomed for this (the hospital is not the subject of this adjudication – News24’s reportage is), it should understand that Claassen is not to be blamed either. Or Morais, for that matter.

4.2.11 From the editorial side, only Morais could have been held accountable if he knew about the complaint and did not pass it on to Claassen. But, as I have indicated above, I have no evidence that he in fact did receive the complaint.

4.2.12 When Claassen eventually got wind of the complaint, he acted immediately and efficiently. In fact, in all of this saga he was, and remains, blameless.

4.2.13 From all of the above, I conclude it is reasonable to believe that News24 did not receive Melomed’s response – and therefore, cannot be blamed for not reporting it.

4.2.14 With this said, I do hope that the blame game on this specific issue is something of the past.

4.3 Issues in dispute: The initial story

4.3.1 The publication of the initial article was totally in order – News24 reported Cameron Jansen’s point of view, and asked Melomed for a response. When such a response was not forthcoming, it published the fact that it had promised to respond the following Monday.

4.3.2 The matter was overwhelmingly in the public interest, which means News24 could not wait for the hospital to respond.

4.3.3 The reportage was squarely in line with the Press Code.

4.4 Issues in dispute: The follow-up story

4.4.1 Melomed’s response was adequately covered. It inter alia stated that:

  • The hospital has followed all protocols;
  • Jansen was not “a case fit for coronavirus … and therefore not a patient of interest”;
  • Jansen was informed about self-isolation and advised to see his GP; and
  • The hospital did not deny Jansen medical assistance, or turned him away.

4.4.2 I would have preferred this response to be published higher up in the article (it was put at the very end) – but the placing of the response in the story cannot be considered a breach of the Press Code. I also take into account that the headline was amended to include the words, “hospital says it did everything correctly”.

4.5 Issues in dispute: Between March 25, April 6

4.5.1 News24 did not follow up on the matter, despite knowing that Melomed was going to send its response on Monday, March 16. Surely, News24 should have asked the hospital for its response when it received none?

4.5.2 The question, therefore, becomes: Did News24 contravene the Press Code by not following up on the response it knew was coming, but never received? More pertinently, with reference to Section 1.1 of the Code, the real question is: Was this fair to Melomed? Or to the public, for that matter?

4.5.3 I don’t believe it was. Three weeks have gone by. That certainly is a long time. And even more importantly, the issue could hardly have been more urgent. If a hospital with the reputation of Melomed endangers the health and safety of its patients, the public surely has the right to know what that institution has to say about that matter.

4.5.4 While I do not believe, as Hendriks does, that the reportage was a “deliberate attack” on Melomed, I am of the opinion that failing to follow up the story was negligent. I have no doubt that Morais should have kept the story on his news list, and should have made sure that it was followed up. Immediately.

4.6 Other issues in dispute

4.6.1 Claassen argued it was Melomed’s duty to ensure that its complaint was received and acted upon. I do believe that to be true – but again, the hospital is not the subject of my adjudication. I therefore leave it up to Melomed itself to deal with the fact that it never followed up its complaint.

4.6.2 His question about why Melomed was not prepared and ready to respond when they were approached for comment on Saturday, is also not for me to adjudicate on.

  1. Finding

5.1 Wrong addresses

This part of the complaint is dismissed.

5.2 The initial story; audi alteram partem

This part of the complaint is dismissed.

5.3 Publication of the follow-up story

This part of the complaint is dismissed.

5.4 Between March 25, April 6

Failing to follow up the story was intrinsically unfair to Melomed in particular, and to the public in general. This failure breached Section 1.1 of the Press Code that says: “The media shall take care to report news … fairly.”

  1. Seriousness of breaches                                              

6.1 Under the headline Hierarchy of sanctions, Section 8 of the Complaints Procedures distinguishes between minor breaches (Tier 1 – minor errors which do not change the thrust of the story), serious breaches (Tier 2), and serious misconduct (Tier 3).                         

6.2 The breach of the Press Code as indicated above is a Tier 2 offence.

  1. Sanction

7.1 News24 is directed to:

  • unreservedly apologise to Melomed for not following up the story to include its response to Jansen’s allegation; and
  • publish the apology on all its platforms where the story and/or the updated article appeared.

7.2 The text should:

  • be published at the earliest opportunity after the time for an application for leave to appeal has lapsed or, in the event of such an application, after that ruling;
  • refer to the complaint that was lodged with this office;
  • end with the sentence, “Visit www.presscouncil.org.za for the full finding”;
  • be published with the logo of the Press Council (attached); and
  • be prepared by the publication and be approved by me.

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

Acting Assistant Press Ombud