City of Tshwane vs Pretoria News & The Star

Complainant: City of Tshwane

Lodged by: Kgosientso Ramokgopa

Article: R15m to cater for Tshwane staff’s big appetites; the other headline reads, R15m spent on fast food in one month – Tshwane council workers on overtime ran up bill in August 2013

Author of article: Kennedy Mudzuli

Date: 29 January 2015

Respondent: Pretoria News & The Star

Complaint

Ramokgopa is complaining about two stories published in Pretoria News and The Star on 19 November 2014. The front-page article in The Star is headlined R15m to cater for Tshwane staff’s big appetites; the other headline reads, R15m spent on fast food in one monthTshwane council workers on overtime ran up bill in August 2013.

He complains that:

  • a statement in both articles, that Tshwane administrators had to explain how R15 million was spent on take-aways for municipal workers in one month, is incorrect and misleading;
  • the reporter incorrectly referred to Mr Lindela Mashigo as the “municipal spokesperson”;
  • the quoted statement by a Democratic Alliance (DA) councilor (“Somebody has clearly benefitted from this tender.”) was to put that party in a positive light and the administration led by the African National Congress (ANC) in a negative one; and
  • City of Tshwane was not given sufficient time to respond.

He calls the stories malicious, politically motivated and defamatory, and concludes that the reportage has impacted negatively on the City of Tshwane’s image and reputation.

The texts

The stories, both written by Kennedy Mudzuli, said Tshwane administrators had to explain how R15 million was spent on take-aways for municipal workers in one month.

Analysis

R15 million spent on take-aways

The stories say that Tshwane administrators have to explain how R15 million was spent on take-aways for municipal workers in one month.

Ramokgopa complains that this statement is incorrect and misleading – that amount is the three-year budget assigned to a specific line item. The use of the word “spent” is also wrong, as the money referred to a budgeted amount reserved for a tender that would run over three years.

He argues: If a take-away costs R30, it would mean that 500 000 food parcels would have to be eaten in one month – this would mean that 16 667 such units would have to be consumed daily over a period of 30 days. “This is simply impossible, and would raise alarm bells to even the most undiscerning of reporters.”

Ramokgopa adds that the second headline was also incorrect and misleading.

Charle says Mudzuli followed up on a statement released by the DA. He also got hold of an extract of the council report to which the DA had referred. The headline to this part of the report states, “Tender statistics for August 2013”, and among other contents it shows an amount of R15 million spent on the “supply, delivery and off-loading of standby food parcels”.

The executive editor adds that Mudzuli did not take the DA’s statement at face value, but contacted council for comment, used an extract from a council report, and sought to corroborate the information with a different but relevant source – Congress of the People (COPE). These were all reflected in the stories.

My considerations

This may sound contradictory, but in a sense I agree with both parties.

The journalist should have smelled a rat, as it would be impossible to consume so much food in one month.

On the other hand, the headline to the document in question did read “Tender statistics for August 2013”, and an amount of R15 million was tendered for food parcels.

Let me be more specific: Even if Mudzuli smelled a rat, it was not his problem that the figures did not add up – he had the council report on his desk, as his main source of information.

The question whether or not he did enough to get comment from the city prior to publication now becomes relevant. I’ll argue this issue below.

‘Municipal spokesperson’

Mudzuli called Mashigo the “municipal spokesperson”.

Ramokgopa complains that this is incorrect, and adds that the reporter could readily have ascertained Mashigo’s title, “should he have wanted to know”.

Charle says that the newspapers have called Mashigo, on countless occasions, a “council spokesman” or a “municipal spokesman” – and neither council nor Mashigo has ever refuted this.

He also points out that Ramokgopa himself, in his complaint to this office, calls Mashigo “the City’s spokesperson”.

My considerations

The newspapers’ arguments are convincing and need no further deliberation.

Intention

The reporter quoted a DA councilor as saying that somebody had clearly benefitted from the tender.

Ramokgopa complains that this quote was intended to put that party in a positive light and the ANC-led administration in a negative one – which was the “sole intention” of the stories.

Charle replies that this cannot be true, as the DA was not the only source of the story. Also, the story clearly states that the committee where the report was tabled, consisted of ANC, DA and COPE members.

My considerations

It is always difficult to judge a journalist’s “intention” – if it existed at all. To my mind, the reporter believed his story was accurate, and I have no evidence about his “intention”, other than that of serving the public interest, when writing the stories.

Not enough time to respond

Mudzuli reported that Mashigo said the city would only be able to respond on the day of publication.

Ramokgopa complains, “Had the reporter waited to obtain responses to his questions, which were promised imminently, he could have avoided the printing of misleading and false facts.”

Charle says the reporter contacted the council at 09:00, “and thus a response was sought from the City of Tshwane”. He got a written response (saying that the city was not able to respond immediately as it needed to extract information from officials/documents). In addition to this communication, Mudzuli also spoke telephonically to three municipal officials. One of these promised to comment by that afternoon.

Also, the city’s response was published the very next day, “thereby bringing even more balance to the issue and mitigating the first article”.

My considerations

The newspapers should preferably have waited for the city’s response before going to print – there was no immediate need to publish.

On the other hand, I commend Mudzuli for speaking to three municipal officials, in addition to his e-mail to the city.

What sways this part of the complaint in the favour of the newspapers, is that one municipal official did promise to comment that very day (but failed to do so – a statement the city does not dispute).

I also take into account that the city’s response was published the next day.

I am not convinced that – under these circumstances – the newspapers were in breach of the Press Code as the journalist reasonably believed his information to be true at the time of publication, and he did enough to corroborate his story.

Malicious, politically motivated, defamatory

Ramokgopa calls the stories malicious, politically motivated and defamatory, and concludes that the reportage has impacted negatively on the City of Tshwane’s image and reputation.

Charle concludes that the stories were in the public interest and that the issues raised in the articles were true or substantially true at the time of publication. He denies any malice on the newspapers’ side.

My considerations

Based on my arguments above, I have no reason to believe that the stories were malicious and politically motivated.

 

I agree, though, that the reportage has impacted negatively on the City of Tshwane’s image and reputation. The follow-up story the very next day, in which the city’s response was published, went a long way to address the negative impact that Mudzuli’s story must have had on the city.

If not for that, I would have directed the newspapers to publish the city’s views. Because this has been done already, there is no sense in asking the publications to do so again.

Finding

The complaint is dismissed.

Appeal

Our 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 Adjudication Panel, Judge Bernard Ngoepe, fully setting out the grounds of appeal. He can be contacted at Khanyim@ombudsman.org.za.

Johan Retief

Press Ombudsman