Why Press Ombuds must investigate Sunday Times editor

As mentioned on Facebook 30 May following a report that South African Press Council had refused to investigate an ethical misconduct complaint against Sunday Times editor, Phylicia Oppelt, by Communications minister Dina Pile spokesperson, Wisani Ngobeni, I still maintain she must be investigated.

This follows a City Press report on 19 May (“More twists in the Pule inquiry”) in which she seemingly confessed to and is suspected to have colluded with Democratic Alliance in submitting a detailed report to Parliament’s ethics committee currently investigating the minister. Although the editor did not specify who the report was given to, it is however clear from the City Press report that she submitted what I now call Sunday Times Pule Report (STPR) to the ethics committee; as the ONLY source thereof, the STPR somehow was anonymously leaked from Sunday Times to DA’s Dianne Kohler Barnard who then made it part of her submissions on the first sitting of the committee on May 2, and that her (Barnard’s) report revealed Sunday Times as the main source (a report ethics committee chair now deems confidential). Confidential my foot!

Oppelt claimed (emphasis) she was compelled and obliged – as if she was threatened by some secrecy bill to reveal and or submit any information or documentary evidence against the minister – to give the STPR to the ethics committee because she (and the entire Sunday Times editorial team, I suppose, including its three implicated journos) was afraid that it “might reach a finding based on partial or incomplete evidence”. This, Oppelt told City Press, was because the minister’s “actions are a matter of great public interest and that is where the focus should remain”.

Ngobeni viewed his (and probably the leaking to DA) of the STPR to the ethics committee as unethical, hence a request to the Press Council to investigate her alleged unethical misconduct. Additionally, and irrespective of whether she had leaked the information to DA or not (even if it were to be a ruling party, ANC, whose member the minister is), but the fact that the STPR reached the hands of a political party – a perception was created in the minds of reasonable media observers that Oppelt connived and colluded with political formations in Parliament in ensuring that the minister is subjected to an inquiry. He appealed in an open letter to the council to ensure that the editor and her journos be “held accountable for their unethical conduct (of submitting privilege newspaper investigations to third parties, ethics committee and DA)” and that she should “abide by the same high ethical standards to which she holds others”. “Failure to act or to be seen to be acting in this matter will, in my view, destroy the hard-earned credibility of the Press Council and the media in general. You will recall that under the apartheid regime the media suffered a major blow in terms of credibility,” said Ngobeni.

Although Oppelt did not specifically admit to leaking the STPR to DA – something Ngobeni insists she did, which is actually not true, according to a City Press report – the fact that she admitted to submitting the report to the ethics committee clearly shows that indeed the newspaper, and by implication Oppelt herself, might have “crossed the line and … wilfully taken steps which have the potential to destroy the credibility of [Sunday Times]”, noted Ngobeni in his open letter to the council on 25 May. This is because she might be “in serious violation of the South African Press Code of ethics”.

Ngobeni believes the editor might have “acted contrary to the Sunday Times’ mission they were entrusted to protect and live by”. And I concur. It is therefore very worrying – if Ngobeni’s telling the truth, by the way – that the council had dismissed his letter requesting an investigation into Oppelt’s ethical misconduct. He said the council told him Oppelt’s ethical misconduct “can only be dealt with by the publication [Sunday Times] itself”.

According to Ngobeni, the council’s public advocate, Latiefa Mobara, wrote to him, saying it was “unfortunately … unable to deal with this complaint as the issue of unethical conduct by the editor is not covered by the Press Code. This matter can only be dealt with by the publication itself”. Denying ever receiving Ngobeni’s complaint or that it had rejected it outright (emphasis) – Press Ombudsman, Dr Johan Retief,  reportedly said a decision has not been made yet to entertain the complaint. He said he will only intervene once the matter has been escalated to his office either by the Public Advocate or Ngobeni himself, media activist Michelle Solomon reported in her blog on May 28. This, suspects Solomon, means Ngobeni himself may have not followed the correct procedures (which are available on the council website) in lodging a complaint with the Ombuds’ office, and that South African Press Association, too, which first reported that his complaint had been rejected by Moraba, did not contact the council for comment.

As indicated earlier that unless Ngobeni’s version of events in not true – or that he had not followed the publicly available procedure in lodging a complaint with the Press Ombuds as noted by Solomon – I hope the indeed the council will heed his call to investigate Oppelt’s alleged ethical misconduct as soon as reasonably possible for this specific case, in my view, has left the integrity of not only Sunday Times but that of the editor herself in tartars.

Worse, should this complaint not be treated with the urgency it deserves and investigated fully by the Press Ombuds – an office that one feels is best fit to get to the bottom of it without fear or favour – it is likely to set a very dangerous precedence for other publications whereby instead of being messengers, they would at times be required (or even subpoenaed through court orders) to submit any documentary or otherwise evidence against any person they may have in their possession. This will then render them as informers who will have then become part of the story (to paraphrase Ngobeni).

And that’s not the kind of media we envision. Or is it?

This article was first published on #ZAGossip on 30 May 2013. 

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