When Media Ethics and Press Codes Fail…

Many of the South African journalists have gotten away with ethical and professional misconducts without any action by their respective Editors, if not employers. Or at least it so appears to the general readers.

The South African Press Council website is littered with such many rulings against SA publications and their journalists in particular, following some of their silly mistakes that could have been picked up and acted upon by their respective seniors during the editing process.

With some submissions during complaints hearings at the Press Ombudsman, some of these newspapers’ representatives even go to great lengths to try and justify things that cannot be justified, making almost inflammatory, defamatory and insinuations about subjects on their reports.

Some journalists even go to the extent of basing their reports on incomplete sources or books they have not read, but just parts of the books whose certain pages thereof selectively appear on Google Books yet the Press Ombuds accept such as justifying allegations that subjects of such reports had been convicted for customs or tax evasion.

In some instances – as noticed with the recent Press Ombuds ruling over Daily Maverick’s Assistant Editor’s article – some of the allegations are so rehashed as so to suggest they are new allegations when in fact they are not, with some of them even being subject of the Press Ombuds. Other publications even publish columns/blogs whose claims and author cannot be supported or verified/cross-checked against other sources of information – a publication justified by its Editor (Verashni Pillay of HuffPostSA), and only to be retracted a few days later after a backlash from the public. As noted elsewhere, some of the silly but serious errors presented as facts by journalists and Editors in these publications are such that the only inference a reasonable reader can draw from such are to cast aspersions on the character of their subject(s), if not defame them.

One of my memorable and recent Press Ombuds rulings involves a Sunday Times’ journalist, Qaanitah Hunter (recently writing more often for Business Day) and Brian Molefe over her article titled, “From Saxonwold shebeen to parliament: Molefe set for comeback” and published on 29 Jan 2017.

In the article, Hunter alleged “A tearful Molefe claimed that he had been visiting a shebeen in Saxonwold, Johannesburg, and not the Guptas, as the report suggested.” Justifying this false and defamatory allegation against Molefe, Sunday Times’ Legal Editor, Susan Smuts, tried every trick in her legal notes but this failed as the Press Ombuds dismissed her insinuations on 28 Feb 2017 from which Hunter based her defamatory and baseless allegation that Molefe in fact “claimed he had visited a shebeen in Saxonwold…”

Unsatisfied with an earlier ruling against it – in particular, the defamatory allegation against that Molefe had “claimed he had visited a shebeen in Saxonwold” – Sunday Times appealed, and that too, was dismissed by the Appeals Panel, saying Sunday Times had “no reasonable prospects of success before the Appeals Panel”.

From Saxonwold shebeen to parliament - Molefe set for comeback

At the time of writing, 18 April, 20 calendar days after the Sunday Times appeal had been dismissed by the Appeals Panel, and almost 2-months after the same defence by Sunday Times had been dismissed by Press Ombuds, following Molefe’s complaints (part of which were also dismissed) – as can be seen from the above screengrab – the newspaper had not amended its online version to reflect any of the Press Council’s 2 rulings against it.

And so it remains to be seen what further steps, if any, the Sunday Times will now explore.

I bet Molefe is smiling….. as he has since been vindicated, which, one supposes, is an indication that the Independent Press regulatory body is working, although not enough as many of its members and or their journalists are repeated offenders. By repeated offenders I mean the same mistakes their peers have been criticised for by the Press Ombuds – mistakes like not contacting subjects of their reports for comment before publication and stating in the same report if such were available for comment or not, or refused.

Sunday Times is not new to some of these seemingly defamatory allegations against many of its subjects – although it is worth noting that some of the complaints by their subjects have also repeatedly been dismissed by the Press Ombudsman.

Back in 2011, I wrote a blog here (picked up by Imediaethics.org) about a Sunday Times report (behind paywall although at the time of writing my blog post, I had the print copy thereof) which was critical of Robert Mugabe’s wife. The article was not an opinion piece but a critical news report whose author at the time had not approached Grace for comment before publication, and that even if it did approach her for comment and she was not available, this was not stated clearly in the article. This failure alone was, in my view, in breach of and non-compliant with the SA Press Codes.

At the time, writing to then Public Editor, Thabo Leshilo, I noted what a “crap” the article was given the above-mentioned failure. And as was expected, my complaint about a breach of the Press Codes was arrogantly dismissed Leshilo, although I later withdrew my “crap” comment but not the crux of my complaint.

By arrogant I mean, it is not in question whether or not Mugabe’s representative complained about the article in question, but my complaint – like that of an ordinary and reasonable reader of Sunday Times – was whether or not the said report was in breach of the Press Codes or not. And in my respectful view, it wasn’t. But as my interview with the Press Ombuds in 2011 showed, the mistakes the likes of Sunday Times repeatedly make do not seem to “hit” their “credibility… where it hurts [the most]” especially their failure to comply with timeous directives (apologies) from that office.

I have previously defended newspapers to use sources where it is reasonable to do so, but not negligently. As noted elsewhere, if the media wants us – the reasonable readers and policy-makers, including political parties like the ANC – to take its self-regulation seriously, they need to start complying with the standards and codes they have set for themselves. Failing which they open the self-regulation to some doubt from the ANC that is adamant about the introduction of Media Appeals Tribunal, which, as Franz Kruger noted in my Press Ombuds interview, was not a favourable solution.

It is also worth noting that many of the unethical misconduct I have been critical of are mostly from the Times Media Group (see this unethical and professional misconduct by (then) Sunday World journalist, Mduduzi Dlamini – which is actually a breach of the Press Codes which I addressed with its then Editor, Wali Mbhele, a complaint which, he, too, arrogantly addressed without any good reasons).

Now back to the Molefe story…

Will Sunday Times – like former Police Minister Nathi Nhleko sought to defend Lieutenant General Mthandazo Ntlemeza after his appointment was set aside by a High Court, a decision which now new Police Minister, Fikile Mbalula has since withdrawn – still stand by Hunter even after the Appeals Panel ruling, or will it take any action against her?

That remains to be seen…

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