Minister Ayanda Dlodlo vs. Mail & Guardian


Tue, Sep 25, 2018

Ruling by the Press Ombud

25 September 2018

Particulars

Complainant: Minister of Public Service and Administration Ayanda Dlodlo

Lodged by: Ms Mava Scott

Date of article: 10 August 2018

Headline: Bombshell plan to lay off 30 000 public servants

Author of article: Paddy Harper et al

Respondent: Beauregard Tromp, deputy editor

Complaint                                            

Dlodlo complains that the M&G did not contact her for comment.

The text

The article was about government’s plan to cut 30 000 jobs from the public service in the next three years as part of the government’s cost-cutting measures.

Harper wrote, “The move is likely to put Ramaphosa on a collision course with labour federation Cosatu, which supported his bid to become the ANC president in December. Government insiders who attended this week’s Cabinet lekgotla said the treasury has set aside R4-billion for this financial year to kickstart the process of issuing severance packages. A senior government official with knowledge of the planned restructuring said the layoffs would reduce the government’s salary bill by R20-billion.”

The arguments

Dlodlo says that, as the employer, the M&G should have asked her administration for comment – while instead, the newspaper relied on anonymous sources and did not bother to speak either to the Presidency, National Treasury or DPSA.

She submits that the allegations about retrenchment created panic and outrage from both within and outside the public service, and threats of unrest and protest against government. This also created an atmosphere of mistrust and uncertainty between employer and employee on account of its potential impact on their livelihoods and families.

“The story had the potential to destabilize not only the workforce in the public service but the entire country as we have witnessed with the outrage from the unions,” she adds.

The Minister also says the M&G has conceded that it should have, as matter of fairness, contacted her administration for her comment.

Tromp says the article was based on a number of impeccable sources, offering insight into what occurred at a Cabinet lekgotla, and adds that the newspaper is confident that all the necessary checks and balances were in place to publish a fair and accurate story. 

He says the newspaper has reliably established that Treasury was spearheading the government’s cost cutting measure hence they approached the department for comment. He therefore argues: “Central to this plan, as reflected in the article, was Treasury, which had set aside R4-billion for this exercise. We therefore sought out their comment, as a representative of government and the department we believed to have the most intimate knowledge of the proposal.”   

The deputy editor adds the story also stated the fact that Treasury publicly announced last year that it was considering the implementation of severance packages to reduce the public sector bill. These plans were also confirmed by deputy Finance Minister Mondli Gungubele, as stated in the story.

Tromp asserts that, over the course of two weeks the newspaper attempted, via email and telephonically, to obtain comment from Treasury on the matter – but without success.                  

In conclusion, he points out that Dlodlo agreed to do an interview with the M&G the following week. “During the interview, the minister clearly substantiated what had been stated in our article,” he says.

Scott replies the fact of the matter is that Dlodlo’s Department was the custodian of employment in the public service. Therefore, anyone who wants information about employment, has to speak to that department “and not any form of proxy”.

She adds the Department is still not satisfied that the newspaper went ahead to allege that government was planning to retrench public servants without checking with Dlodlo.

She concludes that the M&G cannot pretend not to know who is responsible for employment in the public service, adding that the Department still believes there was an ulterior motive which resulted in negligence and shoddy reporting.

Analysis

Kudos to the newspaper for asking Treasury for comment, as it was at the centre of the matter. On August 9, Paddy Harper sent an email to jabulani.sikahkhane@treasury.gov.za, asking if his information was correct. On August 15, he repeated his request.

However, Harper should have stated in the story that he had tried to, but had been unable to obtain comment from Treasury – as Section 1.8 of the Press Code obliged him to do. The main reason for this is that it demonstrates that the newspaper has tried to produce a balanced report – which, of course, enhances the publication’s credibility.

On the other hand, I also believe that the M&G should have asked Dlodlo for comment as well, as her Department was at the very same centre of the matter.

I am thankful, though, that the newspaper did publish Dlodlo’s views extensively in a follow-up article in its very next edition.

Finding

For not asking Dlodlo’s Department for comment, the M&G was in breach of Section 1.8 of the Press Code that says: “The media shall seek the views of the subject of critical reportage in advance of publication…”

For not reporting that it had sought comment from Treasury, but that it was unable to do so, the newspaper was in breach of Section 1.8 of the Code that says: “… If the media are unable to obtain such comment, this shall be reported.”

Seriousness of breaches                                              

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).                                              

The breaches of the Press Code as indicated above are all Tier 2 offences.

Sanction

Because the M&G has already published Dlodlo’s views, there is no point in sanctioning the publication to do so again.

I therefore consider this matter to be closed.

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