Connie Rampai vs Volksblad

Compliant: Connie Rampai

Lodged by:  Phatshoane Henny Inc.

Article: Raadslid sê jammer vir gedrag (Councillor apologises for behaviour)

Author of article: Marietjie Gericke

Date: 2 February 2012

Respondent: Volksblad

Complaint
Ms Connie Rampai, speaker of the Mangaung Metro, complains about a page 5 story in Volksblad, published on 26 November 2011 and headlined Raadslid sê jammer vir gedrag (Councillor apologises for behaviour).
Rampai complains that:
  • the following sentence appears to represent the view of the newspaper rather than that of a source: “At this meeting, Van Vuuren and other DA councillors lambasted Rampai because they were of the opinion that she did not act impartially and helped the ANC to prevent reports on the financial affairs of the council from being discussed” – and adds that these accusations are unsubstantiated;
  • the story did not reflect her opinion; and
  • the story’s heading is not a reasonable reflection of the contents of the article.
Analysis
The story, written by Marietjie Gericke, says that DA councillor David van Vuuren (Mangaung Metro) apologized at a Council meeting for his possible earlier transgression of rules in an altercation with the speaker. Gericke also reports that Van Vuuren and other DA councillors lambasted Rampai at that (earlier) meeting. The story ends off with a bullet, where FF+ Prof Elizabeth Snyman van Deventer reportedly says that she was glad that Van Vuuren had apologized, but added that Rampai should have done the same – and that she wondered if the latter really was the best speaker available.
I shall now look at the merits of the complaint:
Sentence representing the newspaper’s view
The following sentence is in dispute: “At this meeting, Van Vuuren and other DA councillors lambasted Rampai because they were of the opinion that she did not act impartially and helped the ANC to prevent reports on the financial affairs of the council from being discussed.”
Rampai complains that:
  • this sentence apparently represents the newspaper’s view, because no mention is made of the statement being obtained from any other source or person; and
  • there is no record in the minutes of the relevant Council meeting, or elsewhere, to substantiate this sentence. (She adds she would like to know where this information comes from.)
Firstly, it is clear to me that the story does ascribe the (whole) sentence to the opinion of “Van Vuuren and other DA councillors”. The sentence namely clearly states that “they (the above-mentioned people) were of the opinion”. It does not matter from what angle I look at this sentence, I simply cannot persuade myself that it can represent the newspaper’s view in any way.
Secondly, with regards to the content of the sentence itself:
As far as the first part of the sentence goes (that refers to partiality), the minutes quote Van Vuuren on page 15(l) as saying: “Madame Speaker…You are not doing your job as Speaker, you are protecting the people in the House…”
I interpret these words to indeed mean that Van Vuuren said or meant to say that Rampai did not act impartially.
That was his opinion (rightly or wrongly), and the newspaper was within its right to report that.
Moreover, later on in the story the words “impartially” and “objectively” are (again) ascribed to a DA source (this time, Mr Werner Horn).
I conclude that the reportage on this point was justified, as it is:
  • reflected in the minutes; and
  • clear that it reflected Van Vuuren’s opinion and not that of the newspaper.
I hope it is clear to everybody that this does not mean that I have decided that Rampai had indeed acted partially – my decision only touches on the reasonableness of the newspaper’s reportage.
The second part of the sentence (that refers to Rampai helping the ANC to prevent reports on the financial affairs of the council from being discussed) is not specifically reflected in the minutes. Let me therefore take another look at this document.
This is what was minuted:
  • Mr JF Britz addressed the Council on the Quarterly Financial Report;
  • Mr NG Mokotjo then questioned Britz’s intention behind raising the matter at that stage;
  • To this, the Executive Mayor responded that the Council should indeed deal with the matter (as Britz has indicated); and
  • It was the unanimously resolved that the respective recommendations in the Mayor’s report be accepted by the Council.
No problem, up to here.
Then, the Report on Supply Chain Management was tabled. After so many interruptions and points of order, the speaker eventually ordered Van Vuuren to be seated. After he refused to do so and continued to ask to be allowed to speak on a point of order, the meeting was adjourned for ten minutes. After the break, some decisions were taken – without Van Vuuren being allowed to speak again. The speaker ended off this discussion by requesting him to come to her after the meeting to discuss his total “misconduct”.
My question now is whether Gericke’s reportage was justified on this issue.
Let me be clear about this: My task is not to decide whether or not it is true that the speaker indeed helped the ANC to prevent reports on financial affairs from being discussed and whether the DA councillors were correct in their assessment of the situation. I am indeed not a court of law. My only job is to determine if the reportage was justified or not – in other words, if the newspaper was in breach of the Press Code on this matter.
Firstly, I note in the minutes that Van Vuuren’s accusation that the speaker was protecting the people in the house was uttered during the debate in question where he was not allowed to speak again. The word “lambasted” in the sentence is therefore justified with reference to the second part of the sentence.
This brings me to the question if the Report on Supply Chain Management that was being discussed can be interpreted as “financial affairs’, as the story says. I would think so, even though the Financial Report had already been decided upon.
I also take the following into account:
  • Rampai, rightly or wrongly, did stop Van Vuuren from speaking;
  • The DA, rightly or wrongly, did lambast the speaker during the debate about this issue – with the implication that this “lambasting” was at least partly aimed at her stopping him from speaking; and
  • The newspaper did not present the accusation in dispute as a fact, but rather as the opinion of the DA.
Based on the above, I conclude that the context justified the use of the words in dispute, even though those exact words were not minuted – they were certainly implied.
I can fully understand Rampai’s dissatisfaction at the statement that she helped the ANC to prevent reports on financial matters from being discussed, as this matter was quite technical and the DA’s opinion may not have reflected the reality of the matter. The accusation may indeed not be true!
Be that as it may, in that case Rampai should rather direct her dissatisfaction at the DA and not at Volksblad, who was merely reporting the DA’s opinion on this matter.
Note: I do not take Gericke’s telephonic assertion into account that this specific information also comes from sources within committee meetings, as the story says that it was said “at this meeting” (the specific Council meeting). It is therefore irrelevant whether it was said or implied in other meetings as well.
Opinion not asked
Rampai complains that the story quotes comment from other Council members such as Van Vuuren and Van Deventer, but says that “no such courtesy of commentary was afforded” to her.
Gericke replies that she accepts that she was “possibly wrong” to not include the ANC’s comment. However, she adds that she did speak to deputy mayor Mxolisi Siyonzana, who was according to her not prepared to speak on the record, after which she published without his comment.
She also argues: “I chose not to ask Rampai for her comment…because the eventual decision (that was supported by the ANC caucus) really was a slap in her face.” (By this, she says she means that the whole Council, including the ANC caucus, did not accept Rampai’s suggestion that Van Vuuren should have faced a disciplinary hearing.)
She explains that she made that decision because the newspaper is often accused of only reporting negatively on ANC officials, implying that she did not want to fall into that trap.
I now need to distinguish between comment that was made at the meeting itself (which seems to be the heart of this part of the complaint, as Rampai refers in her correspondence to this office to comments from DA councillors that are reflected in the story – comments that came from the floor), and comment that was gained after the meeting (regarding the bullet at the end of the story).
Firstly, the meeting itself: The accusations made that were discussed above (regarding partiality, etc.) are at the heart of this matter. I would have expected Gericke to mention any kind of reaction against these accusations – if there had been any such reaction to mention. From the minutes, however, it is clear that nobody reacted to the statement in dispute (some reaction was recorded, but not specifically directed to this matter).
No journalist, including Gericke, can report on something that did not happen.
But that is not the end of the matter. The story does include comment from someone that Gericke gained after the meeting.
This is what Snyman van Deventer reportedly said: “…although she thinks Van Vuuren acted wrongly, she questions the competence of the speaker. ‘I am glad Van Vuuren apologized. One, however, expects her to do the same. I don’t want to go as far as to say that she is incompetent, but does wonder if she really is the best speaker’.”
Whilst I accept Gericke’s (good) intentions here, I also do believe that these very intentions did more harm than good – she indeed should have asked Rampai for her opinion, have published it, and have left it to the public to decide for itself on this matter.
It was unfair to not get comment from Rampai to this rather harsh criticism.
The journalist has indeed to be commended for trying to get comment from the side of the ANC (after the meeting), and should not be blamed for the deputy mayor not wanting to go public. It would have been better to state that this had been the case – but as the story was not about the ANC as such, I cannot constitute this omission to be a breach of the Press Code.
Heading no reasonable reflection
The (translated) headline reads: Councillor apologises for behaviour.
Rampai complains that this wording does not give a reasonable reflection of the contents of the story, as the Press Code requires. She argues that the content of the story extends far beyond what the heading suggests, as the story itself focuses to a great extent on her rather than on the councillor who apologized. This, she says, makes her a co-subject of the story, implying that the heading should have reflected her as well.
I agree with Rampai that she can rightly be seen as a co-subject of the story. However, I also take into account that:
  • the first three sentences of the article, which is traditionally the most important ones in a news story, is primarily about the apology and not about her;
  • it is normal journalistic practice to write a heading from the gist of the first few sentences; and
  • the newspaper cannot be expected to cover both co-subjects within the confines of the limited space that this story offers its headline.
Finding
Sentence representing the newspaper’s view
This part of the complaint is dismissed.
Opinion not asked
The part of the complaint that deals with the exclusion of comments from Rampai from the meeting itself is dismissed.
The newspaper should have asked Rampai for her opinion after the meeting, as:
  • somebody else’s comments were gained after the meeting and were reported on; and
  • these comments were quite critical of her.
This omission is in breach of Art. 1.5 of the Press Code that states: “A publication should seek the views of the subject of serious critical reportage in advance of publication…”
Heading no reasonable reflection
This part of the complaint is dismissed.
 
Sanction
Volksblad is directed to:
  • apologise to Rampai for not asking her for comment after the meeting; and
  • publish her comment on this matter, within reasonable space limitations, should she still wish to do so.
The newspaper is directed to publish a summary of this finding (not the full ruling) and the sanction on page 5. After setting the context, the story should start with the apology and with Rampai’s comment (if appropriate). The newspaper then is free to elaborate on the parts of the complaint that were dismissed.
The newspaper should furnish our office with the text prior to publication. Please add to the text: “Visit www.presscouncil.org.za (rulings, 2012) for the full finding.”
Appeal
Please note that our Complaints Procedures lay down that within seven days of receipt of this decision, anyone of the parties may apply for leave to appeal to the Chairperson of the SA Press Appeals Panel, Judge Ralph Zulman, fully setting out the grounds of appeal. He can be contacted at Khanyim@ombudsman.org.za.
Johan Retief
Deputy Press Ombudsman