DA vs City Press

Complainant: DA

Lodged by: Geordin Hill-Lewis

Article: Game On. The sub-heading related to the DA read, Manifesto, which will be launched in Polokwane today, doesn’t mention land.

Author of article: Carien du Plessis

Date: 11 April 2014

Respondent: City Press

COMPLAINT

The DA is complaining about a front-page story in City Press on 23 February 2014, headlined Game On. The sub-heading related to the DA read, Manifesto, which will be launched in Polokwane today, doesn’t mention land.

The DA complains that the:

  • statements that its manifesto did not mention land (both in the sub-heading and in the story) were inaccurate;
  • story misrepresented  its policy on the reopening of land claims; and
  • journalist did not give its leader, Helen Zille, an opportunity to respond to allegations about its manifesto.

THE TEXT

The story consisted of three parts – one devoted to the EFF, another to the ANC and the third to the DA. The last part, written by Carien du Plessis, said that the DA was to hold a special caucus meeting the next day to discuss its policy regarding the reopening of land claims.

Du Plessis wrote: “A confidential caucus memorandum leaked to City Press suggests the party changed its position on land because ‘it would be foolhardy in the extreme to take an adverse position on land restitution’ before the elections.” She also stated that the DA’s manifesto, which was to be launched on the day of publication, “doesn’t mention land”, apart from promising that a DA government would allocate an extra R10 billion to “speed up land reform”, and provide training and support for emerging farmers.

The journalist also reported that Zille told the newspaper that the DA did not have a policy on the reopening of land claims, and that she was still working on a position paper. “[Zille] said she would release the DA’s official position after tomorrow’s caucus meeting.”

ARGUMENTS, ANALYSIS

Manifesto not mentioning land

Both the sub-heading and the story stated that the DA’s manifesto did not mention “land”.

The complaint

The DA complains that this was inaccurate – and says that Du Plessis knew full well that it was wrong.

Hill-Lewis explains that the reporter received a copy of the manifesto, headlined Together for Change, Together for Jobs, a few days prior to publication – a document from which Du Plessis quoted and which contained no fewer than four pages on the party’s proposals on land.

However, “the quote is used to pursue a different and disingenuous angle.  One cannot help but conclude that it was in fact deliberately malicious to selectively quote the very section of the manifesto which the story denies exists, to make a point which is patently untrue”.

The newspaper’s reply

Lubisi admits that the sub-heading and its repeat in the story were wrong and says that the error occurred in the editing process. It was meant to read, “…does not mention the re-opening of land claims”.

“We do however submit that readers would have been quite clear that the story is about the re-opening of land claims, as opposed to land policies in general. The very first sentence makes this clear, as does the whole of the report (when) read in context. Notwithstanding, we acknowledge that a mistake was made, and such a mistake was duly corrected by City Press in its next edition.”

This correction and apology (on page 2, headlined For the record) read: “Last week (February 23 2014) in City Press we reported on our front page that the DA’s elections manifesto did not mention land. This was incorrect. The manifesto has a section on land reform. We apologise for the error.”

The newspaper also followed this up with an interview with the DA’s federal chairman, Wilmot James, “about the party’s manifesto” (as stated above the story).

The DA’s response to the reply

The DA says that the text published on March 2 was a tiny block in the lower left-hand column on page 2. “The average reader would never have even noticed it. The mistaken story was a front page lead headline, with a significant story also on the front page.”

Hill-Lewis adds: “And as detailed in our complaint, the story was incorrect, and repeated the incorrect statement twice. The correction is therefore wholly inadequate. It does nothing to correct the significant incorrect impression created about the DA in the original article.”

He also contests the notion that readers would have understood the error and would have been “quite clear” what the story was about.

The DA argues that the interview with James was carried on page 30. “Also, this interview did not cover land reform, other than a tiny right hand side-bar. This interview therefore did nothing ‘to correct the impression created by the original article’.”

My considerations

I appreciate the fact that the newspaper admitted its mistake and summarily corrected and apologized for it.

The questions, though, are whether or not the:

  • apology was published prominently enough, seeing that the story itself covered the full front page;
  • content of the apology was sufficient to undo the unnecessary harm that both the story and the sub-headline must have caused the DA; and
  • interview with James did enough to correct the wrong impression to which the newspaper has admitted.

Firstly, I do believe that page 2 is widely read, and therefore do not think that a correction and an apology would be insufficient just because they were published on this page. I also take into account that it is a world-wide trend to publish such a correction/apology on the second page.

Moreover, Constitutional Court Judge Edwin Cameron stated in a recent verdict that it was reasonable to expect readers to interpret a story within the context of another, similar report that had already appeared – provided that not too long a time had passed between the publication of the stories. In this case, the apology was published in the newspaper’s very next edition. I therefore submit that the DA’s argument that it did “nothing to correct the significant incorrect impression created about the DA in the original article” is not entirely correct. It certainly did not do “nothing” – the real question is if it did enough.

I note that the text:

  • was short, the headline did not indicate such an apology/correction, and it was published relatively low down on the page; and
  • addressed the core issue, namely that it had made a mistake by stating that the DA’s election manifesto did not cover “land”.

I would have preferred an inclusion in this apology of what the newspaper wished to state originally (namely that the manifesto did not mention the re-opening of land claims) and perhaps also a reference to what the manifesto did say about “land”.

However, because the newspaper apologised for its mistake, and in this process addressed the crux of the matter, I am persuaded to give City Press the benefit of the doubt on this issue. My “preference” is indeed not strong enough to sway me into deciding that the newspaper breached the Press Code.

The interview with James did indeed not correct the wrong impression, as it did not address the mistake to which City Press has admitted. The side-bar (mentioned above) did not address this specific issue. Having decided that the apology met the criteria of the Code, though, this matter has become irrelevant.

Regarding “malice”: If the newspaper was malicious and deliberately intended to harm the DA, surely it would not have corrected and apologized for its mistake (of its own accord, without the intervention of this office). An allegation of malice is serious, and I need much more evidence before I can come to such a damning conclusion.

Misrepresenting its manifesto

The story said that Zille had told the newspaper that the DA did not have a policy on the reopening of land claims.

The complaint

The DA complains that the nature of the coverage, when read in the context of the front-page spread, was unbalanced and presented in a distorted context.  The article purported to compare its manifesto with those of other parties, but in the case of the DA, it did not cover the manifesto at all – instead, the story focused on the Restitution of Land Rights Amendment Bill, which was before Parliament, to which the DA was to formulate a detailed caucus response the following week.

“A comparison between the DA’s internal debate about the Restitution of Land Rights Amendment Bill in the context of a front page comparative spread about party manifestos was [therefore]wrong, misleading and prejudicial to the party.”

Hill-Lewis adds that the question of how the DA would vote on the Bill in Parliament was still up for debate, and was the subject of the internal caucus memorandum quoted in the story; but the DA’s policy on land reform and land restitution was not up for debate.

He says the DA has a clear policy on land reform, including on the question of land restitution, and it is available on the party’s website – and still the journalist wrote this “blatantly false” sentence: “Party leader Helen Zille, however, told City Press the DA didn’t have a policy on the reopening of land claims …” As a seasoned political reporter, Du Plessis “would have known the difference between a caucus memorandum and an election manifesto.  This, in our view, is an aggravating factor in the matter, as it demonstrates animus”.

Hill-Lewis argues that the journalist’s attitude towards the DA was “perhaps illustrated by a tweet of hers during the course of Sunday 23 February, in which she re-tweeted an SATrendsmap tweet indicating that the hashtag #DAisAJoke was trending nationally. This hashtag was begun by the ANC.”

He concludes that without the proper context another selective quote (“it would be foolhardy in the extreme to take an adverse position on land restitution”) was also misleading. “In all, this front page article is a confusing, inaccurate misrepresentation of the DA’s position on the Bill, the party’s manifesto, and the DA’s land reform policy.”

The newspaper’s reply

City Press says that the story was largely on the Land Restitution Amendment Bill and not the DA’s manifesto – its complaint about distortion was therefore not supported by a proper reading of the whole of the front-page coverage (which was not, as argued by the party, about a comparative analysis of the three parties’ manifestos).

For example, the angle on the ANC was their attack on Mr Julius Malema and the rhetoric around opposition parties; the approach to the EFF was the actual events at their manifesto launch and its level of support. In contrast, the angle on the DA was rather the issue around their policy on the re-opening of land claims. So, “a current and newsworthy angle on each of the three parties was used, and there was nothing distortive about it”.

Lubisi also argues that there was confusion within the caucus over whether in fact the DA had a clear stance in its policy on whether land claims should be reopened or not. One person in the caucus said it didn’t (“Ms Helen Zille in caucus said she was unhappy about the way the issue has been handled because there is no policy on this”), and the two spokesmen on land reform were too afraid to speak. Mr Kevin Mileham, though, said the matter still had to be debated after he had sent out a statement. Another person in the DA leadership said they had a policy and there were people in the party who claimed they had not. The matter therefore was in dispute by party members themselves.

The editor adds: “When we asked Ms Zille about the bill, she told us ‘we don’t have a position on it’. We might have conflated the issue of position and policy in an effort to make it clearer to the lay reader, and not out of animus as the complainant is claiming. We deny that we conflated the caucus memorandum with the manifesto. We made it clear when we quoted each.”

He also says the allegation about the journalist’s “attitude” as supposedly illustrated by her tweet is “irrelevant”.

The newspaper rejects “out of hand” allegations that its editorial team was operating with any animus towards the DA. “When the concerns were raised, we sought to fix the errors immediately in the following edition of the paper. On March 9, we followed it up on the DA manifesto by carrying a more than half-a-page interview with DA’s Federal chairperson Dr Wilmot James on the manifesto.”

The DA’s response to the reply

The DA says that the story was distortive if for no other reason than that it was nearly entirely incorrect. Secondly, the other two stories were about the ANC’s and EFF’s respective manifesto launch events, and the content of those launches was covered in detail in the story. The City Press had received a copy of the DA’s manifesto ahead of its launch event, and could easily have requested an advance copy of all of the speeches – as other publications did.

 

Hill-Lewis also states there may have been no policy on the re-opening of land claims specifically – but that had not been the case on land reform in general. “The journalist clearly confused the two distinct issues …”

He denies that there was any dispute within the party. “The DA’s policy on land reform has been adopted by the DA’s Federal Council and is publicly available on the party’s website. There is no dispute about our land reform policy. The question of our policy on the re-opening of land claims and this specific piece of draft legislation is an altogether different matter. Clearly the journalist completely confused the two.”

Hill-Lewis says the statement that Zille allegedly told the newspaper that the DA did not have a position on the bill, was “profoundly problematic”. “The City Press is actually suggesting here that they deliberately conflated the two, supposedly to make it clearer. It completely confuses the lay reader; it does nothing to make it clearer. It is unacceptable to conflate two distinct issues, and it is even worse to do so deliberately. Such conflation misleads the reader, and does nothing to clarify the issues under debate.”

My considerations

I’ll firstly deal with the complaint that the article purported to compare three party manifestos, but in the case of the DA, it did not cover the manifesto at all – instead, the story focused on the Restitution of Land Rights Amendment Bill.

I do not agree with Hill-Lewis that the article intended to compare the DA’s manifesto with those of other parties. The reportage on the EFF and the ANC did cover their manifesto launches – but not the contents thereof. Also, while the story indeed mentioned the DA’s manifesto, its thrust was about the party’s stance on the reopening of land claims.

Therefore, there was no intent to compare manifestos, and the reasonable reader would hardly have interpreted it in such a way.

I also believe that the story sufficiently distinguished between the DA’s manifesto and the Amendment Bill.

As far as I am concerned, the DA’s complaint on this matter stems from an incorrect reading of the front-page spread.

The second matter is the alleged confusion between the question of how the party would vote on the reopening of the land claims issue in Parliament (which was still up for debate, and was the subject of the internal memorandum as quoted in the story), and the DA’s policy on land reform and land restitution (which was not up for debate).

My “confusion” comes from Hill-Lewis’s own argument. On the one hand he says that the DA has a clear policy on land restitution (which I fully accept), but then he also argues that Zille’s statement that the party did not have a policy on the reopening of land claims was “blatantly false”. This either confuses “A” with “B”, or otherwise the allegation of “blatantly false” just does not make sense.

The fact that the DA was still in the process of formulating its stance on the reopening of land claims was not in dispute at the time of publication. This made the publication of Zille’s statement reasonable.

Hill-Lewis is also unhappy with the publication of a statement from a caucus memorandum, namely that “it would be foolhardy in the extreme to take an adverse position on land restitution”. I have not seen this (confidential) document, and am therefore not in a position to decide whether or not this quote was “selective”, as alleged by Hill-Lewis.

Lastly, Du Plessis tweeted in her personal capacity, which means that it falls outside the scope of my mandate. The newspaper cannot be held responsible for personal comments by its reporters. If a publication is unhappy with this tweet, it should take up the matter with the journalist herself.

Not asked for comment

The complaint

Hill-Lewis says that the reporter spoke to Zille the day before publication.  “[Du Plessis] did not give any indication that she was writing an article on the manifesto or the launch.  The only thing she spoke about was the Bill before Parliament, and Ms Zille informed her that the DA would, in its forthcoming caucus meeting, determine its position on the Bill.  The DA therefore had no finalized position on the Land Restitution Bill before Parliament.  It was therefore disingenuous in the extreme to present this interview as though it was about the DA’s manifesto.”

He mentions that Du Plessis did not ask for an advance copy of the speech for the Sunday launch, nor did she ask any questions about the manifesto.  Yet the front-page coverage purported to do just that, and furthermore compared the manifesto launches of three parties.  “As far as the DA was concerned, this was profoundly misleading in every respect.”

Also, Du Plessis never mentioned that she was in possession of a confidential caucus memorandum – Zille was therefore not given an opportunity to respond to the content of the memorandum, or to clarify its context.

He explains: Internal caucus memoranda are prepared by the relevant portfolio spokespeople as a basis for debate in a caucus meeting. The memoranda have no standing, and do not constitute party policy and should not be conflated with a manifesto.  It was crucial for Zille to have known that Du Plessis was in possession of the caucus memorandum, and that her article would be based on it, so that it was possible to respond accordingly.

The newspaper’s reply

Lubisi says that the newspaper spoke to two people in the caucus on the memorandum, excluding the two land reform spokespeople who did not want to comment. “We admit that we did not mention the caucus memorandum to Ms Zille, but that wasn’t to deliberately mislead her. It was because we felt the people we had spoken to, had adequately dealt with the memorandum. We wanted comment from Ms Zille on the party position on the bill and we wanted confirmation on the record of the special caucus meeting that was to be held that Monday.”

He adds that the story made it clear that the newspaper had been quoting from a caucus memorandum, which threw light on the debate within the caucus on the matter. “We did not intend to portray this memorandum as the party’s policy or position on the matter.”

The DA’s response to the reply

Hill-Lewis finds this unacceptable – he says that Zille was misled because the central angle of the story (the caucus memorandum) was never put to her, and she had no opportunity to respond to it or to put it in proper context.

My considerations

This is (again) quite confusing. In its complaint, the DA says that the reporter did not give any indication that she was writing an article on the manifesto or the launch.  The only thing she spoke about was the Bill before Parliament.

However, in his response to the newspaper’s reply to the complaint, Hill-Lewis says Zille was misled because the central angle of the story (read: the caucus memorandum) was never put to her, and she had no opportunity to respond to it or to put it in proper context.

These two statements are mutually exclusive.

I accept the newspaper’s response on this issue.

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 for the appeal. He can be contacted at Khanyim@ombudsman.org.za.

Johan Retief

Press Ombudsman