What editors need to do to avoid a repeat of The Star and Daily Sun on Malema

At the time of writing I was listening to ANCYL Spokesperson Floyd Shivambu on SA FM’s Talk Shop show hosted by Ashraf Garda tonight (on 05 March 2011) saying South African Press Ombudsman cannot deal with the ‘unbecoming conduct of the media’.

Shivambu advocated for harsher punishment to be taken against “those” [read editors] who let incorrect reports make to print. Whether this “harsher”, whatever it is, punishment is the answer to curbing incorrect media reports or not remains to be seen. But that could take a very long time, that’s if we let the ruling African National Congress and the ANCYL have their way – something that seems very unlikely. This because the two, together with their alliance partners, especially the SACP, have now been calling to Media Appeals Tribunal, one thing seen by industry experts and observers as another form of censorship.

Comments by Shivambu on the radio show and even before that came after The Star newspaper last week (29 March 2011) published an article sourced from the news agency African Eye News Service (AENS) and written by Matome Sebelemetja alleging that ANCYL President Julius Malema criticised the ruling ANC President Jacob Zuma. Sebelemetja allegedly quoted Malema criticising Zuma as saying “since he got into power, comrade Zuma has been surrounded by bad advisers”. Of course that may well be true. Or maybe not?

It was following this report that Shivambu issued a statement denying that Malema criticised Zuma. In the statement, Shivambu “place(d) it on record that ANC Youth League President Julius Malema never mentioned President Jacob Zuma” and that was when he “instructed” the league’s legal representatives to “demand the retraction of these allegation” from The Star newspaper because it believed none of its journalists was at the conference at the time. Shivambu backed his claim with “an unedited video footage of the address” which showed “there was no mention of President Jacob Zuma on the address”. He said it was “disgusting” that The Star relied on “hearsay and rumours to report on issues they have not originally captured” and went further to say with the 25th National Congress around the corner it was clear that “certain media houses will deliberately drive distortions with lame intentions to influence the outcomes of the National Congress”. This, said Shivambu, was reflected in the regrettable report by The Star. He accused the media of an “agenda” of trying to “draw divisions in the ANC and portray a picture that there are irreconcilable differences between the leadership of the ANC and ANC Youth League”.

Despite the league’s denial of Malema having criticised Zuma as was alleged, the newspaper stuck to its story saying three journalists had worked on the story and one of them had attended the conference and had made notes of Malema’s comments, according to The Times report. From this it is only one journalist mentioned and the other two are not. Why? What is Star trying to hide? Is the paper playing political games? Is it really trying to draw division within the ANC and portray a picture of “irreconcilable differences” between the ANC and its youth league? What is that is true?

You be the judge.

But from an observer point of view a report by The Star newspaper did in fact read as some kind of a vendetta against the ANCYL. Or worse, it may have been seen by some as trying to fuel division between the league and its mother body. This follows previous fall-out between the two and other reports of Malema finding himself in hot water with the ruling party. This after Malema was found guilty last year May by the ANC Disciplinary Committee for criticising Zuma in public and made to apologise and then warned that should he be found guilty of the same offence [contravening rule 25.5 (i) of the ANC constitution] within the next two years, his membership would be summarily suspended.

As if The Star’s inaccurate report was not enough – the Daily Sun had to see to it that it also did not get left behind. It then chose to ran the same story with the same quotations with the title: “MATOME SELEMETJA SAYS HE’S GOT NOTES OF MALEMA’S CRITICISM OF THE PRESIDENT AND HIS GOVERNMENT!”.

Apology

It was only on Thursday, 31st March 2011, that The Star published an apology after it alleged that Malema had criticised Zuma when in fact that was not true and still could not be proved it. This despite its claim it had proof to back up its claim of Malema’s comment at the time. In its apology the daily said it only came to its “attention that our front page report on Tuesday, headlined ‘Malema blasts Zuma’ was not accurate”. The daily said it was able to “able to verify that Malema, in his speech to the Mopani regional ANCYL conference last weekend, had not referred to President Jacob Zuma”.

“The Star regrets the error and unreservedly apologises to Malema for whatever embarrassment it caused. Not disputed in the rest of the story are the statements attributed to Malema in which he criticised the government and ANC on their decisions on Libya and their support for UN resolution 1973 on a no-fly-zone over that country,” read The Star newspaper’s apology to Malema.

The league was not impressed at all that the newspaper had failed to mention in its apology that league had given it “unlimited access to an unedited video footage of ANC Youth League President’s address”. It further accused the newspaper of not acknowledging that Sebelemetja had not seen the story before it was published. The league also said it was not clear in the apology who had inserted the quotes.

Despite instructing the Daily Sun to “make a front page retraction and unreserved apology” to Malema for “spreading lies”, having shown one of the newspaper’s journalists a “full unedited video recording of the address” and making available an open letter from Sebelemetja distancing himself from the allegation – Shivambu said the newspaper failed to do so. He said no one at the Daily Sun had spoken to Sebelemetja. Although at first saying the league would take “necessary legal action, not through the Press Ombudsman, but through formal judiciary process, because the Press Ombudsman is useless” – Shivambu later changed his mind. In his letter to Press Ombudsman, Shivambu demanded that the ombudsman:

  • Investigate who inserted the wrong quotations The Star Newspaper published on the 29th of March 2011 because Sebelemetja said he was not responsible as he had even written to the Press Ombudsman to indicate that he was not responsible,
  • Investigates why the Daily Sun claimed it had spoke to Sebelemetja when it had not done so,
  • Investigates why AENS had terminated the services of Sebelemetja before a thorough investigation has been conducted on who was responsible for the insertion of those quotations.

Speaking on the radio show tonight, Press Ombudsman Joe Tlholoe said these three requests by the league were “absolutely rubbish” as they meant he had to walk into the newsroom and demand to know who did what and what. And I agree as this is not the way to go about it, and that maybe the league is being a bit childish and asking too much and demanding more than the mandate and scope of the Press Council of South Africa dictates.

According to AENS Editor Sharon Hammond, Sebelemetja had initially confirmed the accuracy of the disputed quote and promised to fax copies of his notes. She said when the ANCYL disputed the quote, the reporter assured her it was correct, and promised to fax the agency copies of his notes as proof. “At no point did he indicate to AENS that he no longer stood by the story, nor that he had issued a letter to the ANCYL distancing himself from it. He has also failed to send us his notes and has ignored our numerous attempts to reach him and get clarity on the matter. As a result of his lack of co-operation and conduct in this matter, we have terminated his services as a freelancer,” said Hammond.

So if the journalist thinks he was unfairly dismissed he can approach the industry’s bargaining council, if any, or approach the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA) or even when he can prove beyond reasonable doubt that his resigning from AENS was a constructive dismissal. This is when his employment conditions were so unfavaourable to work under. But this is labour relations case the neither the Press Ombudsman nor the SA Press Council has jurisdiction over and is better left to the CCMA.

It is very important to note that it is incorrect reports such as these that give more weight to political parties’ “long standing view that South African print media is neither respectable, nor professional… [as] they rely on hearsay and rumours to insert their words in the mouths of leaders and report stories that suit their narrow, evil agendas”. And it is still not clear how the league would conduct its “own independent investigations” to find out who “exactly” inserted the quotes as the journalist alleged to done so has since denied the report.

According to The South African Press Codes – which both The Star and Daily Sun subscribes to – all publications in reporting news are obliged to report news truthfully, accurately and fairly; resent news in context and in a balanced manner, without any intentional or negligent departure from the facts whether by distortion, exaggeration or misrepresentation; material omissions or summarisation; verify where there is reason to doubt the accuracy of a report and it is practicable to verify the accuracy thereof. Where it has not been practicable to verify the accuracy of a report, this shall be mentioned in such report; and make amends for publishing information or comment that is found to be inaccurate by printing, promptly and with appropriate prominence, a retraction, correction or explanation.

From there is it quite clear that the two publications is error and have since apologised to this inaccuracy in their reporting.

Tlholoe said there was not much he could and that he could not request the newspapers to more than apologise as he believed the front-page of both The Star and Daily Sun would make been the same outcome of his offices had the case been taken up by the Press Ombudsman. He went further to say both apologies were appropriate as the first reports were made on the publications’ front-pages. Despite these having taken quite a day of two to be issued, but they did happen ultimately.

I do agree with the league that Daily Sun should “continue focusing on reports of witchcraft and tokoloshes because reporting about politics will expose them to the humiliation they suffered of having to retract and apologise unreservedly on issues they could have avoided”. This because “political reporting requires stable, reputable and consistent newspapers which will be able to justify why and how they covered certain stories” although it is still not clear whether both Daily Sun or The Star have what it takes to meet the standards of “reputable and consistent newspapers” as Shivambu requests of them because “as things stand, there are very few Newspapers in South Africa that have these features and Daily Sun is nowhere close to respectable”.

The inaccurate and incorrect reporting brings us to one contentious issue of who should take responsibility: editors or journalists.

We often hear editors saying the take “full responsibility”. However, this is not the case. The only time you are to believe this is when one journo gets sacked. This “full responsibility” is then interpreted as something totally different. Of course it does not amount to editors resigning, if that’s what you had in mind.

In order to take responsibility of how these inaccurate and incorrect reports make it to print, it is worth considering suggestions by The Media Online editor, Glenda Nevill, that our media needs a “serious shake up” not government though as it has “has no business interfering in the media”.

Instead, said Nevill, the following should happen:

1. Media need proper sub editors. If you need to make budget cuts, cut the managers with the big cars and the expense accounts, not the people who understand who fulfill the role of checking and balancing stories.

2. Teach journalists that other newspapers are not sources. Getting information wrong, and then saying ‘oh but Independent says it was so’ is just plain lazy and inept. Other newspapers might provide leads, but for goodness sake find sources to substantiate facts.

3. Editors must take responsibility as the buck does in fact stop with them. David Bullard’s column for which he was fired might have been a shocker, but who the hell let it through? Where were the checks and balances? Don’t fire the messenger. Fire the editor.

4. Press releases are not stories. Don’t just add some quotation marks and think that makes it a story. Much as I love it when that happens, as a communicator, it makes me sick to see journalists do that.

5. Take note of the fact that we are a developing nation, and that there are an awful lot of stories out there that should be told, even if it costs money to tell those stories. A newspaper recently reported on a story happening in a rural area. It was a shock horror story. Imagine our ‘shock and horror’ when we found out that in fact the journalist had never been there, and had taken the word of someone that it was true. It wasn’t. But the newspaper never apologised or even admitted that the journalist had not been there.

6. Why boot out old and experienced journalists when they could serve a useful role in the newsroom mentoring young journalists and relieving news eds of some of the load? They might be expensive, but god, so are lawsuits and so is this fight with the ANC.

7. For god’s sake, go out there and tell service delivery stories, good and bad. Stop playing into the politicians’ hands by falling for this massive spin around the media – not that it’s not HUGELY important – and ignoring the fact that there are stories beyond JHB, beyond Cape Town, beyond our borders that should be told. We are NOT a first world country, and we should be telling stories about all our people. There’s a lot of good being done out there. Not by government, but by ordinary people.

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