ANC against City Press

Wed, Feb 29, 2012

Date               : March 27, 2008

Panel :            Joe Thloloe, Press Ombudsman
                         Brian Gibson, Appeals Panel (public representative)
                         Peter Mann, Appeals Panel (press representative)

1.      The African National Congress (ANC) complained to the Press Ombudsman on February 1 2008 about a front-page lead article in City Press on January 27 2008 headlined Cracks in Zuma’s NEC. The ANC complained that the article was a “fabrication”.

In its complaint the ANC said the following statements, “presented as fact in the article”, were untrue:
Ø      An “angry” ANC President Jacob Zuma launched a “blistering attack” on some new ANC National Executive Committee (NEC) members;
Ø    The ANC President accused NEC members of working behind his back to promote the ANC deputy President and Treasurer General;
Ø      The ANC President said NEC members want the two to become the country’s president and deputy president next year if charges of corruption levelled against him lead to a jail sentence; and
Ø      The ANC President was so angry he later had to apologise, and that he was asked to do so by senior members, including Zola Skweyiya.
The ANC alleged the report breached the following articles of the South Africa Press Code:
1.1 The press shall be obliged to report news truthfully, accurately and fairly.
1.2 News shall be presented in context and in a balanced manner, without any      intentional or negligent departure from the facts whether by:
1.2.1 Distortion, exaggeration or misrepresentation;
1.2.2 Material omissions; or
1.2.3 Summarisation.
1.3 Only what may reasonably be true, having regard to the sources of the news, may be presented as fact, and such facts shall be published fairly with due regard to context and importance. Where a report is not based on facts or is founded on opinions, allegation, rumour or supposition, it shall be presented in such manner as to indicate this clearly.
1.4 Where there is reason to doubt the accuracy of a report and it is practicable to verify the accuracy thereof, it shall be verified. Where it has not been practicable to verify the accuracy of a report, this shall be mentioned in such report.
The ANC alleged that the story was also in breach of articles 3.1 & 3.3 of the Code which deal with advocacy but during its oral submission to the panel it withdrew the complaints in terms of these articles.
In its letter of complaint the ANC also alleged that the headline of the article was untrue, which amounts to a complaint in terms of article 5.1 of the Code, which reads:
“Headlines and captions to pictures shall give a reasonable reflection of the contents of the report or picture in question.”
2.      In its written response to the complaint, dated February 15 2008, City Press maintained in summary that its report did not violate the Code. It said the story was not a “fabrication” as alleged by the ANC and it stood by it.

The newspaper said the article was based on information received from its sources and added: “On all the above statements City Press reported truthfully. We also gave the ANC fair coverage…by giving NEC members Matthews Phosa, Gwede Mantashe, and Blade Nzimande a chance to give their own perspectives of what transpired in the meeting. Mantashe himself partly admits that ‘Zuma apologised to the meeting for using the word angry’…and is quoted so in the story.”
City Press said the headline was a proper summation of the events it reported.
3.      The ANC did not have legal representation. Its case was presented by its Head of Communications, Ms Jessie Duarte, and Mr Steyn Speed. Also present from the ANC was Mr Tiyani Rikhotso.

The gist of its complaint as summarised by Ms Duarte was not that City Press had published the article but rather that the newspaper had presented a disputed view of what had happened at the NEC meeting as fact.

This was done despite City Press having received varied versions of what was alleged to have taken place from its five confidential, or off-the-record sources, at least four of whom were NEC members, and the three on-the-record ones.
The ANC complained that the headline, the introduction and the next three paragraphs of the report presented the issue as fact. It was only in paragraph five of the report that the words “sources say” appeared; and the ANC’s denials of what was reported as fact in the article first appeared in paragraph 11 and were in the second leg of the article as it was laid out. The ANC held that many readers would probably have stopped reading before they reached the ANC’s denials or comments.

It was untrue as reported by City Press that Mr Zuma had accused NEC members of “working behind his back to push his deputy Kgalema Motlanthe, and treasurer Matthews Phosa”. It was untrue that “Zuma’s outburst (was) apparently the reason why the NEC had to break with tradition” and declare that Mr Zuma would be the ANC’s candidate for President of South Africa in the 2009 elections.

Ms Duarte said that decision was a resolution of the ANC’s Polokwane conference.

Ms Duarte told the hearing that City Press did not know the statements of its sources to be true and in terms of article 1.3 of the Code it had a duty to present this “in such a manner as to indicate this clearly”.
Her colleague Mr Speed said the organisation had the right to expect “scrupulous accuracy”.
4.      City Press was represented by Advocate Danny Berger, and led evidence from two of its reporters, Mr Sthembiso Msomi and Mr Sabelo Ndlangisa. The hearing also heard from Mr Mathatha Tsedu, the Editor-in-Chief of City Press.
The newspaper maintained that it had taken the greatest care to check the veracity of its report before it was published. Testimony was that Mr Tsedu had been told what had transpired at the NEC meeting by a confidential source and that he had handed the information over to his political staff for them to check.

The newspaper had taken the precaution of giving the information to three reporters and got them to check it with their own different sources. The newspaper had also published the versions of the three members of the ANC NEC who were prepared to go on the record - Messrs Phosa, Mantashe and Nzimande.
In some instances, e.g. the alleged apology by Mr Zuma for using the word “angry” and the issues relating to “gossiping”, “rumour-mongering”, “backstabbing”, and “backbiting”, the on-the-record versions supported the confidential sources. 

The newspaper had also placed the story in the context of what was happening and what other media were reporting at the time, in particular reports of Mr Zuma’s Atteridgeville rally to mark the ANC’s 96th anniversary, where he warned that rumour-mongering, squabbling and back-stabbing would no longer be tolerated, and was quoted as saying: “I have said in the past to the NEC that people must not gossip and plan and mislead….”
City Press submitted that these were in essence the same words that their sources had told them Mr Zuma had used at the NEC meeting.
Mr Zuma addressed the rally on January 12, 2008 and the NEC meeting in question took place on January 7, 2008.
City Press held that in terms of article 1.3 of the Code if the newspaper reasonably believed their version to be true, they were allowed to publish that version as fact.

1.      The Press Ombudsman’s panel are unanimously of the view that City Press has breached articles 1.1, 1.2, 1.3, and 5.1 of the South African Press Code.
2.      Specifically we reject the assertion by City Press that “if in terms of article 1.3 of the Code the newspaper reasonably believes their version to be true they may publish that version as fact”.

Article 1.3 in fact says that: “Only what may reasonably be true, having regard to the sources of the news, may be presented as fact, and such facts shall be published fairly with due regard to context and importance. Where a report is not based on facts or is founded on opinions, allegation, rumour or supposition, it shall be presented in such manner as to indicate this clearly”.

The panel ruled that it takes much more than “reasonable” belief that a story is true to elevate it to being true. The panel asked itself if City Press was reasonable in assuming that the version from its confidential sources was true, given the context in which the story was written. The newspaper’s representatives at the hearing were at pains to show that in the build up to the ANC’s Polokwane conference, there were deep divisions within the organisation and that this story showed that these had carried into the new leadership of the organisation.
The newspaper was convinced that some of what the three NEC members said on the record supported what its sources had said.
There was however no evidence that one or the other of the conflicting versions of the story was the correct one.
It is precisely in circumstances like these that all information should have been treated more cautiously and fairly than City Press did. The panel unanimously decided that the newspaper breached the Code by going too far in reporting disputed allegations as fact. The structure and the wording of the story resulted in a story that was not fair and balanced.
3.      We further find that the headline, Cracks in Zuma’s NEC is a breach of article 5.1 of the Code.

The headline, in order not to mislead, should have made it clear that what was being reported were disputed allegations. A device like a question mark after it would have resolved this. 4.      The panel rules that City Press should publish a summation – to be provided by the Ombudsman’s office – of this ruling on its front page and direct its readers to, where the ruling will be carried in full.