Minister Bathabile Dlamini vs. Daily Maverick


Tue, Mar 13, 2018

Ruling by the Press Ombud

13 March 2018

PARTICULARS

 

Complainant

 

 

Ms Bathabile Dlamini, Minister of Social Development

 

 

Lodged by

 

 

Ms Lumka Oliphant, Head of Communications, Department of Social Development (DSD)

 

 

Date of article

 

 

17 January 2018

 

Headline

 

 

Social Development has allegedly paid SABC R500,000 to interview Bathabile Dlamini – but no one’s talking

 

 

Author of article

 

 

Marianne Thamm

 

Respondent

 

 

Thamm


Complaint                                            

Dlamini complains that the following statements in the story were false and unverified:

·         A TV show in which she appeared was masterminded by her spokesperson (Oliphant);

·         Adv Nkosinathi Dladla was the “acting” Chief Director (CD), and he approved the programme;

·         Several e-mails to Oliphant went unacknowledged;

·         The show was aired on 18 December in order to make it seem that was meant to coincide with the ANC conference; and

·         An amount of R500 000 was paid to the SABC to conduct the interview.

The text(s)

The article was based on information provided by a “well-positioned insider” who told DM that a two-hour TV interview with Dlamini, aired on 18 December 2917, had been masterminded by Oliphant, her spokesperson, and that the DSD had paid the SABC R500 000 for that session.

“The programme is an unmitigated attempt at humanising and white-washing Dlamini, allegedly using the public broadcaster and public funds,” Thamm wrote. She also described it as a “hagiographic profile” of the Minister.

The source reportedly said that Oliphant had allegedly approached Anele Mdoda (host of the SABC 3 show Real Talk with Anele) with the idea, after which she then pitched the project to the DSD’s now retired CD, Oupa Ramachela, who turned it down. However, it was later approved by Dladla, the acting CD and DSD head of legal services.

The journalist reported that several e-mails to Oliphant as well as communication with Mdoda to confirm the payment of the R500 000 went unacknowledged and unanswered. Thamm also stated that calls to the DSD went answered.

After the publication of this story, Oliphant provided an explanation for the payment, which the DM published on top of Thamm’s text. She reportedly said that the DSD, through GCIS, was entitled to buy space to market and advertise the DSD and its agencies. To date, through GCIS, the Department has transferred more than R5 million to the SABC for this purpose, she wrote. She also explained that, due to the lack of resources and personnel in different media houses, the DSD bought space to ensure its activities get the necessary coverage.

Complaint in more detail

Oliphant says:

·         she did not approach Mdoda – she says the DSD received the proposal on 17 July 2017 from Mr Sello Matime (SABC Commercial Enterprise);

·         Dladla was not the acting CD (he has been CD since 2009), and he did not approve the programme (she says he saw the programme for the first time when it was aired); it was CFO Fanie van der Westhuisen who approved the engagement with the SABC;

·         she received an e-mail (on January 16, at 17:01); later that day at 20:33, she received a reminder, with an additional query. She says she alerted Ms Sonto Ndala to the two e-mails the next day at 14:38 (as she was on leave at that stage), who responded within the hour; however, Thamm neither acknowledged receipt of the e-mail nor responded to that reply;

·         The DSD did not request the rebroadcast; and

·         The DSD did not pay the SABC R500 000 – the department paid the public broadcaster R149 000 for the interview, and Cheeky Media R350 000 for the production of the interview .

The arguments

 
Thamm’s response to complaint

 

 

Oliphant’s reply to Thamm’s response

 

The information that Oliphant had arranged for the paid interview came from an “extremely reliable source”. 

 

 

The SABC proposed the interview; the DSD’s budget makes provision for communication which can be used at her discretion if properly approved; the money came from a surplus account, and the CFO approved the expenditure. 

 

 

The SABC did not inform its viewers that the interview had been paid for. 

 

 

It was not the DSD’s duty to inform viewers that it had paid for the content – that was up to the SABC. 

 

 

The DSD and Sassa has recorded irregular and wasteful expenditure of over R1-billion, which still has not been accounted for.  

 

 

The DSD has had five consecutive clean audit reports; the Sassa matter is irrelevant to this complaint. 

 

 

The relationship between the DSD and the media is one of obfuscation, hostility and defensiveness; this is evidenced by numerous televised clashes with journalists, as well as Oliphant’s insistence on speaking Zulu during an interview with English language radio station 792 in May 2017.  

 

 

isiZulu is an official language; the incident quoted has nothing to do with presenting false, unverified and incorrect facts – it looks like the DM has a score to settle. Also, she was denied to speak that language with a Zulu-speaking presenter who could have translated for his listeners.

 

She received the information from the whistle-blower that an amount of R500 000 had been paid and that it was Oliphant who had organised the interview; she e-mailed Oliphant with questions. 

 

 

The journalist relied on a single source.

 

 

She received no reply to her e-mail, including an out of office reply; she sent a second e-mail, asking for a response.

 

 

This correspondence took place after publication. 

 

 

She received an unsatisfactory answer from SABC spokesman Kaizer Kganyagoto as to the nature of the arrangement between the DSD and the SABC; she then contacted a member of the SABC Board member for verification. This person provided her with contact details of acting CEO Nomsa Philiso, who confirmed the payment had been made and that it had been irregular.

 

 

Philiso confirmed that the SABC should not have requested the DSD to pay for the airtime – but that was a matter for the public broadcaster, and not for the DSD. 

 

 

Mdoda failed to respond to her query. 


 

 

 

Mdoda was a presenter would not know what happens behind the scenes; the story implied that money exchanged hands between herself and Mdoda. 

 

 

The DSD website does not reveal any specific phone number or e-mail for Dladla, so she called the department’s general number; she made calls every fifteen minutes until her deadline, but the phone went unanswered.

 

 

Thamm’s source should have had Dladla’s numbers; the reporter could have called DPSA to verify Dladla’s rank. 

 

 

The story was in the public interest; the DM published after Oliphant had a chance to respond.


 

 

The DM published an incorrect, unverified story based on speculation and in the process telling South Africa that there was a bribe; the money came from savings and she merely utilized an advertising budget as she thought fit.

 

 

Immediately after publication, Oliphant telephoned her in a “highly agitated state” and screamed so hard that she had no idea what she was saying; she asked the spokesperson to respond to her in an e-mail and told her that the DM would be happy to correct any material errors in the story; Oliphant e-mailed her a response, which the DM immediately published.

 

 

She was agitated, indeed – but that was because the story implied that she was corrupt, which was an intentional attempt to defame her.

 

 

In the meantime, Dladla has informed the DM that he had not approved the deal; however, he did not reply when the DM asked him who had signed off on the amount.

 

 

The documents sent with this complaint clearly show who signed it off.

 

 

The SABC has, in the meantime, stated that it will be repaying the amount to the DSD. The main concern with regard to the expenditure by DSD is that it was made at a critical point in the ongoing uncertainty with regard to the future payment of social grants to some 17 million South Africans. 

 

 

The interview has nothing to do with the social grants.

 

 

DSD and Sassa have a massive communication budget that was meant to be spent on communicating Sassa’s strategy for future grant payments; instead, the budget was used to pay for a highly personal profile on the Minister. 

 

 

The DSD does not have a “massive budget”, and its allocated budget is not for Sassa. 

 

 

The DM has corrected whatever factual errors Oliphant pointed out.

 

 

The deliberate damage was already done; she asked for a retraction or an apology – Thamm replied that she stood by all her facts and referred her to this office if she was not satisfied.

 

Analysis

Masterminded by spokesperson

The reporter has revealed to me – in confidence, of course – who her “well-positioned” source was, and I am satisfied that Thamm had good reason to act on the information coming from this person.

If Thamm had stated the allegation that Oliphant had masterminded the interview as fact, the onus would have been on her to prove that it was true. However, she stated it as allegation, which she was entitled to do – especially given the credibility of her source.

I also note that Oliphant did not deny this allegation when she had the opportunity to do so – her statement of 306 words to the DM, which was published in full, did not contain any reference to this matter.

My argument does not amount to a decision that Oliphant has indeed masterminded the interview – only that Thamm was justified in reporting the statement as an allegation.

Dladla

The documentation provided to me to prove that the CFO had approved the interview is not conclusive – it merely indicates that surplus funds could be spent to the amount of R740 000 for the DSD’s “October Month Campaign”, without any reference to the interview.

Dladla himself denies that he has approved the expenditure, and I have no reason to disbelieve him. However, I also note that Thamm did ask Oliphant about this specific issue, and she did not reply in time. (Her excuse was that she was on leave, but the very next day she did reply in quite some detail.)

Given this scenario, I cannot blame Thamm for this reportage – and I am not in a position to come to any definite conclusion regarding this matter.

I accept that he was not the “acting” CD at the time, but indeed the acting Deputy Director General responsible for Corporate Support Services. However, nothing much turns on this – as will be clear from my comments under the “Seriousness of breaches” and the “Sanction” below.

E-mails

Thamm sent Oliphant two e-mails prior to publication, both on January 16, which made the statement that she had sent “several e-mails” acceptable.

It was also true, at the time of publication, that her e-mails “went unacknowledged and unanswered”, as reported by Thamm.

It is not true, as submitted by Oliphant, that the second correspondence came after publication. That was sent at 20:33 on January 16, while the story was only published the next day.

I also note that Oliphant, in her correspondence with Thamm after publication, remarked that the story had already been published just before the DSD had sent a reply – and not before the department had received the second e-mail.

18 December

Thamm reported that the interview was a re-broadcast of the interview (which was aired on December 18). That is not in dispute. Thamm merely reported this fact. It was not due to her that the second airing took place during the ANC’s conference. The article did not say that the re-broadcast came as a result of the DSD either asking or paying for it.

R500 000

According to an invoice, the DSD had to pay a total of R499 960.16 to conduct the interview. The payment of this amount was confirmed by other official documentation.

Essentially, it does not matter if the DSD paid the SABC R149 000 for the interview and Cheeky Media an amount R350 000 for the production of the interview – what matters, is the total cost to the Department.

That, I believe, is not in dispute.

I also note that the source’s information on this issue was essentially correct.

Finding

Analysis

Masterminded by spokesperson

This part of the complaint is dismissed.

Dladla

The article wrongly referred to Dladla as the “acting” CD. This was in breach of Section 1.1 of the Press Code which says, “The media shall take care to report news … accurately …”

There is no finding with regards to the statement that Dladla approved the expenditure.

E-mails

This part of the complaint is dismissed.

18 December

This part of the complaint is dismissed.

R500 000

This part of the complaint is dismissed.

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 breach of the Press Code as indicated above is a Tier 1 offence.

Sanction

Daily Maverick is cautioned for wrongly stating that Dladla was the acting CD, and is directed to mention this sanction and to correct this mistake.

I suggest that DM asks Van der Westhuisen if he indeed approved the expenditure and to report his response – but this is nothing more than a suggestion (as I have not found that the DM has breached the Press Code on this issue, I cannot sanction it on this matter).

The newspaper is requested to publish the sanction, using the word “cautioned”, on top of the relevant page.

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;

·         remain on the site for as long as the mistake was published;

·         refer to the complaint that was lodged with this office;

·         end with the sentence, “Visit www.presscouncil.org.za for the full finding”; 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

Press Ombud