Minister Lindiwe Sisulu, Dirco vs. Sunday Times


Tue, Oct 23, 2018

Ruling by the Press Ombud

23 October 2018

Particulars

Complainants: Ms Lindiwe Sisulu, Minister of International Relations and Cooperation, and the Department of International Relations and Cooperation (Dirco)

Lodged by: The firm Harris, Nupen, Molebatsi

Date of article: 19 August 2018

Headline: Trim your bloated offices – Dlodlo: Public service chief warns cabinet to cut bloat in their offices and shed adviser fat

Page: 4

Online: Yes

Authors of article: Qaanitah Hunter, Aphiwe Deklerk

Respondent: Susan Smuts, internal ombud

Complaint                                            

Ms Lindiwe Sisulu and Dirco complain that the journalists inaccurately / misleadingly / unfairly:

  • inferred that Sisulu had a bloated office, an allegation that was presented as fact – while the journalists valued the information garnered from their sources as more credible than that obtained from her spokesperson;
  • singled them out as the only culprits; and
  • stated that there was a “collision course” between Public Service & Administration Minister Ayanda Dlodlo and her colleagues over their bloated offices, and that the former had clashed with her in this regard.

She concludes that the “tone” of the story was unnecessarily negative and damaging to her.

The text

The article said that Dlodlo was on a collision course with her colleagues over their bloated offices. This reportedly came after only half of the executive authorities responded to her letter in which she had warned them to trim the fat as the government aimed to cut R30.2-billion from its wage bill.

The journalists continued: “According to the ministerial handbook, ministers are allowed only 10 staff members in their offices, while their deputies may employ up to six. Each minister is permitted two advisers, but it has emerged that some have as many as six.”

Honing in on Sisulu, the article quoted “high-ranking officials” in her department who reportedly said that she had brought with her two advisers from her previous ministry (Messrs Thami ka Plaatjie and Menzi Simelane).

However, it was also reported that former director-general of social development Zane Dangor and Messrs Titus Mafolo, Mpho Mmutle and Lloyd Mhlanga were appointed as advisers as well.  

Officials reportedly said that the six officials worked full-time as advisers for Sisulu, and added that she had more than thirty people in her ministry.

Sisulu’s spokesperson, Ndivhuwo Mabaya, reportedly denied these allegations.

The arguments

Sources; bloated office

The complaint is that the article inferred that Sisulu had a bloated office, an allegation that was presented as fact – while the journalists valued the information garnered from their sources as more credible than that obtained from her spokesperson.

The story inter alia said:

  • “Sisulu is said to have an inflated office, with officials saying she has more than 30 people in her ministry”; and
  • “The Sunday Times understands that one of the offenders is international & co-operation minister Lindiwe Sisulu.”

HARRIS et al (“Harris”) says the ministerial handbook, titled Private Office Staff Complement, provides a guideline that may be utilised by executive authorities to establishing core staff for their offices. He quotes from the handbook: “The core staff will be determined by the relevant Executive Authority, who may decide on the creation and grading of posts as identified in their structure, based on proven needs and provided that sufficient funds are available in terms of the medium-term expenditure framework…”

Based on this, he argues that Sisulu, as executive authority, was justified to use this as a guideline when appointing core staff members for her office, and adds that the number of staff members she appointed would depend on the needs and requirements of her office.

He adds the story inaccurately stated that Sisulu had:

  • three special advisers (ka Plaatjie, Simelane and Dangor) – ka Plaatjie was never a special advisor to Sisulu when she was the Minister of Human Settlements;
  • three (other) advisers (Molefe, Mmutle and Mhlanga – it should be noted that Molefe’s correct surname is Mafolo);
  • six officials who worked full-time as advisers; and
  • an inflated office with more than thirty people in her ministry.

Harris says Mabaya responded, via text message, to questions posed by the Sunday Times, informing the newspaper that Sisulu had only two special advisers – Dangor and Simelane.

He also told the journalist that ka Plaatjie, Mafolo, Mmutle and Mhlanga were not Sisulu’s advisers, but that they form part of a twelve-member advisory panel that had been set up to advise her on the functioning of Dirco.

He submits that, despite this information, the article seemed to suggest that the information provided to the journalists by unidentified officials was more credible than the information provided by the spokesperson (who supplied them with the “true facts”). That probably explains why they have portrayed Sisulu as an “offender”, he adds.

SMUTS says that, during the week of publication, the newspaper conducted a wide-ranging interview with Dlodlo. During this interview she spoke about her unhappiness with colleagues who ran bloated offices, and referred to the ministerial handbook in this regard.

She adds that, two weeks prior to the interview, the newspaper was alerted by a senior official in the International Relations and Co-operation department that Sisulu had a bloated office.

She says the reporters considered their information regarding Sisulu to be relevant, but Dlodlo declined to comment on this this matter.

The internal ombud depicts the newspaper’s sourcing as follows:

  • It used three officials in Dirco, who were all independent of each other and did not even know the identities of the other sources;
  • Source 1, a senior manager, told the newspaper that Sisulu had six advisors and accused her of running a bloated office;
  • Source 2 said that Dangor, ka Plaatjie, Mafolo and Simelane were advisors to Sisulu; and
  • Source 3, a middle manager, checked the functional list in Dirco’s internal system and sent the reporters the following information: Dangor – special advisor; Simelane – legal advisor, Mhlanga – advisor; Mmutle and Mafolo – special advisors (review committee); and ka Plaatjie – advisor (review committee).

Smuts says Source 1 confirmed these names, and added that since they appeared on Dirco’s functional list, they were paid as advisors to the minister.

The newspaper then obtained comment from Sisulu’s spokesperson, which was included in the story, she continues.

The internal ombud argues it was reasonable to have reported on Sisulu’s office in the manner the newspaper did. “We could just have easily run them as separate stories, but made a legitimate editorial decision to run them as one story, given that information from one contextualised information from the other,” she submits.

Smuts also says: “It is a somewhat strange view that journalists should discard credible information because a minister’s spokesman gave them ‘the correct information’. It is very much in the public interest that such allegations are aired. Our responsibility to our readers was to publish credible information along with comment from Minister Sisulu. It was certainly not our responsibility to bury the allegations because the information she supplied was different to what our sources told us.”

Smuts also says the journalist presented Sisulu with detailed questions before publication. However, her spokesperson failed to answer how many staff members the minister had – he merely said she had two named advisors and indicated that the composition of the ministry was in line with the guidance of the ministerial handbook.

She argues: “The failure by the Minister’s spokesperson to give specifics on this score strengthened our belief in the information we were given… Minister Sisulu was given an opportunity to respond to specific questions and we properly reflected the information supplied by her spokesman. It is not our fault that he elected not to supply more information that might have clarified the situation.”

 

She points out the story reflected the spokesperson’s comment that four of the six “advisors” to the minister were not acting as her advisors but were part of a 12-member advisory panel.

However, she says, the journalists were not convinced (given the information that they have received).

Besides, the internal ombud adds, the article attributed the information about who Sisulu’s advisors were to sources and did not state that as fact. She points to the statement in the story that said, “The Sunday Times understands that …” (her emphasis) – which presented what followed as information received from sources, and not as objective fact.

She concludes the story did not create the impression that Sisulu had irregularly set up her advisory panel.

HARRIS replies the article characterised Sisulu as an “offender” on the sole basis that she was in breach of the requirements of the ministerial handbook – while she had not deviated from the handbook at all. He argues that, even if she did, non-compliance could never render one an “offender” because the ministerial handbook:

  • was a guideline – it was not a rigid document which required strict compliance; and
  • expressly conferred Sisulu with a broad and overriding discretion when appointing her advisers.

He also says the fact that Sunday Times relies on the fact that the journalists have obtained their information from the three officials does not mean that this information was credible or correct. On the other hand, Mabaya did provide a credible and correct response. He submits that the newspaper did not adequately explain why it considered the information of three sources to be more credible than the information provided by Sisulu’s spokesperson.

He adds the fact that the alleged failure by Sisulu’s spokesperson to give specific answers in relation to questions posed, did not condone its reporting of inaccurate and misleading information.

Harris concludes that it is insulting, unsubstantiated and false to suggest it might be Sisulu’s view that the Sunday Times had a responsibility to “bury the allegations”. 

Analysis

The first, and rather crucial, question is how the media should treat information garnered from sources if that data clash with those given by an official spokesperson. Should the media then say: “The spokesperson knows better, so the sources have to be wrong?”

Certainly not – such an argument would presuppose that the spokesperson is always right which, of course, is a fata morgana. Like the rest of us, spokespeople are not untouchable, and neither are they infallible. It is also in the nature of their work to present any given matter in the best positive way possible (and they sometimes even do so despite facts that cry out against their cause).

One of the major attributes of a good journalist is scepticism – all information should be scrutinised and queried. This does not only go for sources, but also for spokespeople.

It follows that all depends on the number of sources, their credibility, their independence of each other, and the quality of their contacts and knowledge.

Of equal importance, then, would be the question if the story presented both sides, and if the information garnered from sources is presented as allegations and not as fact (unless, of course, a publication is particularly certain of its case).

In this case, I accept that the newspaper had three sources, who were independent of each other, and who were knowledgeable enough to comment on the state of affairs in Dirco (I have no reason to disbelieve this). That does not mean their information is correct, of course, but it does mean that the newspaper was at least justified to publish their allegations as allegations.

I am also satisfied that the story amply presented both sides of the matter. For the record, I quote from the article: “Sisulu’s spokesperson … said the minister had only two advisers: Simelane as her legal adviser and Dangor to deal with international relations. ‘We can confirm we only have two advisers appointed – as indicated in the ministerial handbook, and the composition of the ministry is in line with the guidance of the ministerial handbook,’ he said.”

Thirdly, the story never presented any allegation as fact. It clearly said the newspaper “understood” that that was the case, which indicated that this was what its sources have alleged. Also, the rest of the article consistently attributed the allegations to sources (whether anonymous or otherwise).

I also need to point out that it is not this office’s task to determine whether or not Sisulu’s office was bloated – that is for government, or Parliament, or Dlodlo, or another suitable body, to decide. The complaint that her office was not bloated can therefore not be the subject of adjudication by this office, and I leave Harris’s arguments about the number of advisers up to the relevant person or institution to evaluate.

In conclusion: Looking at the story as a whole, I am satisfied that Sunday Times:

  • had enough credible, informed and independent sources to justify the publication of their allegations (as allegations);
  • sufficiently balanced this out with a comment by Sisulu’s spokesperson; and
  • not once presented the allegation that the minister had a bloated office as fact.                                                         

Collision course; clash

The story stated that Dlodlo was “on a collision course with her colleagues over their bloated offices”. It also said: “[Dlodlo] further denounced ministers who brought in external experts to advise them when directors-general and deputies, as presumed subject-area experts, ought to be advising the ministers.”

SISULU complains statements such as these, together with the tone of the article, falsely implied that there was a conflict between her and Dlodlo, that they have directly clashed with each other, and that the latter then reported the matter to the President.

Harris says these statements created the false impression that the latter had actually been referring to Sisulu, criticizing her decision to appoint an advisory panel to advise her on the functioning of Dirco.

He says that Dlodlo sent the letter to all the ministers, and adds that there was no further communication on this issue between the two of them.

SMUTS retorts that this is not how reasonable readers would have understood the story, and neither was it intended as such. “We neither said nor implied that Minister Sisulu had clashed with Minister Dlodlo, or that Minister Dlodlo had had to report this to the President. The story did not make any reference to any specific interaction or correspondence between the two ministers,” she says.

She also points out the story clearly stated that Dlodlo was “on a collision course” with ministers who had failed to heed her letter. “The only inference that could be drawn from the facts as presented in the story is that the two ministers could be headed for a clash. If we had information that Minister Dlodlo was targeting Minister Sisulu, we would have said so,” she concludes.

HARRIS replies Sunday Times admits that the decision to merge the story concerning Dlodlo and Sisulu was its own editorial decision. However, he argues, this decision created the impression that Dlodlo was on a collision course with Sisulu.

He inter alia argues the reporting that Dlodlo suggested that “only Ramaphosa could take action”, suggested that there was something actionable in relation to Sisulu. He says the article omitted to state that Dlodlo had declined to respond to questions regarding Sisulu, which resulted in an article that was out of context and unbalanced.

Analysis

The statement that Dlodlo was on a collision course with her colleagues cannot be the subject of this adjudication – unless, of course, she herself has complained about that issue (which she did not do).

The only relevant matter, as far as this complaint is concerned, is whether the story said or implied that she was on a collision course with Sisulu – and if so, if it was justified.

In this regard, I note the opening sentence stated, as fact, that Dlodlo was on a collision course with her colleagues.

When Sisulu’s name was mentioned, though, “fact” changed to “allegation” – which made it reasonable to deduct that Dlodlo might have been on a collision course with her. “Might have been”, but not necessarily so.

The story certainly opened up that possibility – which may or may not prove to be correct somewhere in the future.

So then, given the testimony of the sources, such a possibility was real enough to present it as an allegation.

Sisulu ‘singled out’

SISULU complains the story created the impression that Dlodlo was specifically referring to her by criticizing her decision to appoint an advisory panel to advise her on the functioning of her department.

Harris points out that the article did not mention any other minister by name – and therefore, by singling her out, the newspaper created the impression that she was the only minister contravening the ministerial handbook.

SMUTS denies that the reasonable reader would come to the same conclusion, as this was neither stated nor implied in the story. Besides, she adds, both the headline and the introduction to the story clearly referred to multiple offenders, (employing terms such as “offices”, “colleagues”, “errant ministers”, and “their ministries”).

Following this, she submits, Sisulu was introduced as being “one of the offenders”, clearly implying that there were others.

She says the newspaper used Sisulu as an example “to broaden the story away” from Dlodlo’s interview and to contextualise it for the reader. She adds the newspaper had information about two other “offender” ministers, but says the journalists could not properly verify the information and therefore it was not published.

The internal ombud concludes: “We were within our rights to include Minister Sisulu as an example of someone who is said to be running a bloated office, based on our own investigations. It was not necessary for us to do a poll of all the ministers. There is nothing alarming about choosing to report on a minister for whom you have enough credible information to support a story.”

She reiterates there was nothing in the story suggesting that Dlodlo’s comment about external experts was specifically aimed at Sisulu and her 12-member advisory panel – in fact, it was rather presented as a matter of policy.

HARRIS points to the following progression in the story:

  • The first sentence stated that Dlodlo was on a collision course with her colleagues over their bloated offices;
  • The final paragraph of that section indicated Dlodlo “said she has approached President Ramaphosa to take action against errant Ministers who continue to have inflated offices and who appoint too many advisors”;
  • The next sub-heading, in bold, was “Lindiwe Sisulu”;
  • The article then continued to quote Dlodlo expressing her view in relation to the ministerial advisors and her concern and that she had written letters to ministers informing them that “… they are only allowed two advisors each and asking for a list of people in their ministries”; and
  • The story then said: “The Sunday Times understands that one of the offenders is … Sisulu”.

He argues that this manner of presenting the allegations failed to present the facts in context and in a balanced manner.

Harris concludes that the article did not mention any other minister by name, that Dlodlo did not mention Sisulu in her interview with the Sunday Times, and that the newspaper omitted to state that there were allegations about two other ministers, even if those allegations were unverified. “The failure to do so exacerbates the Sunday Times’s failure to place the allegations against Minister Sisulu in their proper context,” he concludes.

Analysis

Smuts is correct in that the reportage made it clear that Sisulu was not the only minister who could possibly have been implicated in this matter.

Unlike Sisulu, I applaud Sunday Times for not naming any other minister without the necessary backing. As she was the only minister the newspaper could get reasonable information about, it was responsible to only name her – while the rest of the reportage abundantly clarified that she was not the only “suspect” in this regard.

‘Tone’ of the story

SISULU concludes that the “tone” of the story was unnecessarily negative and damaging to her.

Harris says the article began by focusing on Dlodlo’s “collision course” with her colleagues over their bloated offices, and also reported that she had approached Ramaphosa to take action against ministers that had inflated offices and those who had more than two special advisers.

In addition, a sub-headline used Sisulu’s name – clearly to draw attention to her, inferring that she was one of the ministers that had a bloated office and that she had acted contrary to the handbook.

SMUTS denies this. She says the story was accurate, and argues that the tone of a story can hardly amount to a breach of the Press Code.

She says the newspaper apologises for the incorrect spelling of Mafolo’s surname, and says it is willing to correct the error.

Analysis

Given my arguments above, it follows that I cannot agree with this part of the complaint either.

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