Rochelle John vs. News24


Thu, Sep 7, 2017

Ruling by the Press Ombud

7 September 2017

This ruling is based on the written submissions of Ms Rochelle John and those of Ahmed Areff, on behalf of News24.

John is complaining about a story in News24 of 26 August 2017, headlined I was admonishing my daughter – McBride speaks out on assault allegations.

Complaint                                            

John complains that she was not given a right of reply prior to publication – to comment on the inaccurate and harmful allegations (details below) made against her.

The text

The story was about Independent Police Investigating Directorate (Ipid) head Robert McBride’s denial of an allegation that he had assaulted his daughter (15), stating his version that he had merely “admonished” his “rebellious” child.

The article also said that John, who had opened a case of assault against him, was a friend of his estranged ex-partner.

In a statement, McBride said the person who had opened the case was linked to an Ipid investigation into former acting national commissioner Kgomotso Phahlane, and that a “normal family disagreement” had been used to create a public spectacle to get at him.

He said he did not believe that John had his daughter’s interest at heart; she had also (illegally) posted pictures of his daughter without any concern that the child would be identified.

He stated, “Out of concern for my daughter, I have also opened a case of abduction against Rochelle John on the basis that she has no legal standing to be in custody of my minor child as she is not the guardian, teacher, doctor, district surgeon or youth counsellor, all of whom could have done so, if there was any reason to open a case in the interest of the child.”

News24 responds

Areff says the story in question carried the full text of a public statement issued by McBride.

He says that News24 stated, in a separate story headlined I deny that I assaulted her (also published on August 26), that it had attempted to contact John (without naming her).

He adds that the reporter tried several contact numbers for John, but there was no answer.

He explains, “Mr McBride issued a public statement on Saturday night to counter the claims. We made a decision to carry the statement in full, since it was a matter of public interest – the head of IPID being accused of assault, and since the statement was in the public domain.  We also immediately went to work writing an actual story from that statement, while attempting to contact Ms John, unsuccessfully. Hence we refrained from naming her in that story.”

He adds that News24 is still keen to carry John’s side of the story: “We will accord this full coverage, including a video interview, or if she is not comfortable with that, a written story.”

Areff says News24 traced her telephone numbers from her ID number, and tried both numbers repeatedly – one was “off” and a gentleman eventually returned the call on the other number. He told the reporter that he did not know who John was.

“We also attempted social media, but her Facebook account was not active for the last two years,” he adds.

John replies

Right of reply

John replies there is no proof that News24 tried several times to contact her.

Listing the statements made by McBride against her, she says they are “wrongful and defamatory towards me in that they were intended and were understood by readers of the newspaper to mean that I am a dishonest individual…”

She argues that the source who gave News24 her ID number would surely also have given the publication her contact number and adds, “I do not believe that he even made an attempt to contact me…” 

She says the article has since been updated and she still has not spoken to News24 – not even after lodging her my complaint to this office.

No relevance; not in public interest; personal information not protected

John asserts that the information published and disseminated with regard to her alleged history of complaints bears no relevance to the matter between McBride and his daughter. She says the article cannot be seen as a benefit to the public.

She claims to have been duty bound to lodge the complaint in the absence of the minor child’s legal guardian or any other responsible or interested party.

She adds that News24 infringed upon her right to protection of personal information, as enshrined in the Protection of Personal Information Act Number 4 of 2013, in that it:

·         failed to take reasonable steps to ensure that the section of her personal information then under News24’s control, was protected from misuse; and

·         ought to have ensured that her personal information and the entire story were accurate, reasonably complete and up to date.

Adverse effect on dignity, reputation

John says the inferences in the article included that she:

·         was party to unlawful and untoward activities;

·         acted with an intent to commit untoward and unlawful activities;

·         had an untoward relationship with Phahlane;

·         was of low moral fiber and possessed a low moral turpitude;

·         was a serial complainant; and

·         sought to extort money from a number of parties for her sole benefit.

John says these allegations and implications adversely affected her dignity, professional reputation as well as her ability to sustain her business interests.

In conclusion

John demands that News24 (including the publishers, editor and journalist) publicly apologise for the defamatory article, and retract it.

“As I was not given a right of reply in this first instance, I do not accept the offer by News 24 to be interviewed or respond now as the damage has already been done,” she says.

Analysis

In her reply to News24’s response to her complaint, John raises some issues not included in her initial complaint.

This is not fair, as News24 has not had an opportunity to respond to those matters.

Be that as it may, the additional concerns raised by her have no merit – even if McBride’s allegations against her were untrue or bore no relevance to his alleged conduct towards his daughter, as John argues, the fact remains that News24 merely reported what he (McBride) had to say. The latter made a public statement, and News24 was justified to publish that text. Also, the publication was under no obligation to verify the veracity of McBride’s allegations involving John – such is not normal journalistic practice – beyond giving her the opportunity to respond.

I also disagree that the story was not in the public’s “benefit”.

This brings me to the complaint as such, namely that News24 has not given John a right of reply.

As the story is ongoing, and McBride did make some serious allegations against her (which News24 is obliged to raise with her, as she became the subject of critical reportage), I have written the following e-mail to Areff:

“Please respond to the following issues:

  1. Prior to publication: Please provide me with some kind of proof that News24 has indeed tried to contact Ms John; and
  2. After publication: What attempts did News24 make to contact her since?”

He promptly replied by sending me a copy of a search News24 conducted for John, dated August 26. “We got an extensive list of contact numbers and we tried to contact her on the recent ones,” he explains.

He says, “Since we could not establish contact with her we decided not to name her in the stories we wrote ourselves – prior to Mr McBride’s statement, and after the statement as well.  She is however named in the statement issued by McBride publically – which we carried the full text of. One of the stories we carried was about that specific statement, and since we couldn’t contact her, we decided not to name her in our subsequent story.”

He adds that John contacted the Press Council on August 28 and, since the matter then rested with this office, News24 did not take the matter further. However, it would still like to carry her comments and is willing to conduct an extensive interview with her. 

I take into consideration the fact that News24:

·         conducted a search for John’s information;

·         did not pursue the matter further in lieu of the fact that it rested with this office (although that need not necessarily have stopped the media house from trying again to get comment from her);

·         stated in one of its stories (which should be read in conjunction with the story in dispute) that it could not get hold of John to obtain her comment; and

·         did not name her in any other story apart from the one in question.

Given these considerations, I have no reason to find against News24 in this regard.

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