Lumko Mtimde vs. Daily Dispatch


Tue, Apr 6, 2021

Particulars 

Complaint number: 8884

Date of article: 26 March 2021

Headline: Ex-OR Tambo accountant gets 15 years for fraud

Respondent: Adrienne Carlisle, Internal Ombud

  1. Complaint                                            

1.1 Mr Lumko Mtimde complains that the headline was misleading and “deliberately brought the ANC and the name of ANC President O R Tambo in disrepute”.

1.2 Section 10.1 of the Press Code is relevant in this regard. It reads, Headlines …  shall not mislead the public and shall give a reasonable reflection of the contents of the report … in question.”

  1. The text

The article said a former project accountant of the OR Tambo municipality had been sentenced to 15 years’ imprisonment after she had pleaded guilty to defrauding the district of over R9-million.

  1. The arguments

3.1 Mtimde says that the story made it clear that the person in question was an accountant at the OR Tambo District Municipality and not of Mr Tambo himself – while the headline suggested that the latter as well as the ANC had in some way been involved.

3.2 Carlisle points out that, after the editor, Cheri-Anne James had received the complaint (she was copied by Mtimde in his complaint to the Press Council), she:

  • inserted the word “municipality” in the headline to read, “Ex-OR Tambo municipality accountant gets 15 years for fraud”; and as Mtimde was not satisfied with this, Carlisle then
  • mentioned at the end of the article that the headline had been updated accordingly. 

3.3 Carlisle adds, “This was a gesture of goodwill and not an acknowledgment that the Daily Dispatch was at fault. It is a matter of convention to shorten place names in headlines and we intend to continue with that convention. We do not believe the reasonable reader would misinterpret the headline to be a reference to the respected leader who died almost three decades ago.”

3.4 Mtimde calls this response “insensitive and unacceptable”. 

3.5 He writes, “There is a big difference between the initial headline and the corrected version as per my complaint. I really thought that Daily Dispatch corrected this in appreciation of the problem and would easily do the right thing and apologize. But their response suggesting it was a ‘gesture of goodwill’ is a clear sign of arrogance and disregard of contravention of the Press Code. Worse to suggest I am an unreasonable reader to read OR Tambo as referring to OR Tambo is really proof of arrogance and caring less about readers. OR Tambo is very different to OR Tambo District Municipality.”

  1. Analysis

4.1 The headline

4.1.1 Let’s read the headline again. It said, Ex-OR Tambo accountant gets 15 years for fraud. Surely, this can mean only one thing. There is no indication that a municipality (or an airport, for that matter) was involved. If words have meanings, and they do, “OR Tambo” means just that – the former president of the ANC.

4.1.2 This, while the first sentence to the story clearly stated the accountant had been associated with the OR Tambo District Municipality (and therefore not with Tambo himself, or with the ANC).

4.1.3 The second sentence is also important. It said that the accountant admitted stealing millions “from November 2012 to 2014” – very few people in this country would not have known that Tambo had died long before that period.

4.1.4 Moreover, there is nothing in the rest of the story that left any room for any misunderstanding.

4.1.5 This can mean only one thing – the headline did not reasonably reflect the story and was therefore misleading.

4.1.6 I also note Carlisle’s argument that it is a matter of convention to shorten place names in headlines. That is true, and acceptable – but then the meaning should not change (as has happened in this case).

4.2 After publication

4.2.1 Responding to Mtimde’s complaint, James added the word “municipality” to the headline and later it was also pointed out at the end of the article.

4.2.2 I note that the Internal Ombud did not admit that the headline was faulty – she says she merely amended the headline “out of goodwill”. While I appreciate her goodwill, I disagree with her that there was nothing wrong with the headline.

4.2.3 Be that as it may, and whatever the reason behind the amendment to the headline, the fact remains that the newspaper did correct the mistake – and also specifically mentioned that the headline was amended.

4.2.4 The only question that remains, is whether this office should direct the newspaper to apologise for the mistake, as requested by Mtimde.

  1. Finding

The headline was in breach of Section 10.1 of the Press Code that says, “Headlines …  shall not mislead the public and shall give a reasonable reflection of the contents of the report … in question.”

  1. Seriousness of breach                                              

6.1 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).                                              

6.2 The breach of the Press Code as indicated above is a Tier 2 offence.                   

  1. Sanction

7.1 I have no reason to believe that the newspaper “deliberately brought the ANC and the name of President O R Tambo in disrepute”, as Mtimde states. I simply cannot envision a situation where the journalist who wrote the headline thought, “Here is my chance to do just that.”

7.2 On the contrary, it is much more reasonable to accept the editor’s explanation in this regard (to shorten place names in headlines).

7.3 In the end, I see no reason why the newspaper should apologise because:

  • I do not believe that the mistake was deliberate;
  • the mistake was corrected promptly; and
  • even a cursory glance at the story should have cleared up any possible misunderstanding.

7.4 Therefore, there is no sanction.

  1. 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

Acting Press Ombud