Gauteng Department of Local Government and Housing vs The Star

Complainant: Gauteng Department of Local Government and Housing

Lodged by: Ms Diedre Londt

Article: MEC’s smashed vehicle, now unfit for use, to be auctioned

Date: 5 September 2012

Respondent: The Star

Complaint

The Gauteng Department of Local Government and Housing complains about a story on 17 May 2012, headlined MEC’s smashed vehicle, now unfit for use, to be auctioned.

Londt complains that the story falsely created the impression that the journalist had interviewed her, and denies that she had been interviewed.

Analysis

The story, written by Baldwin Ndaba, was about Gauteng’s MEC for Local Government who reportedly lied about the condition of a luxury government-owned car which he had damaged in an accident. According to the newspaper Londt requested permission for the car to be auctioned. A direct quote by Londt about the vehicle was also used in the story.

Londt says that she did not speak to Ndaba and that she never had any contact with him. She argues that the story falsely created the impression that the reporter had interviewed her. She wants the newspaper to retract the statements that Ndaba wrongly attributed to her.

The Star says that emails in its possession “offer proof that the department and Londt were aware of his requests”. The newspaper adds that the department and Londt were aware that the reporter was in possession of a properly signed memorandum. “Our reporter had made it clear that it was on that basis that the head of department, Mongezi Mnyani, confirmed the content of the memorandum and the decision to sell the vehicle on auction.”

Londt says that this response does not address the complaint.

I take the following into consideration:

  • The Star does not contest the fact that Ndaba did not interview Londt;  and
  • Instead, the newspaper says it is in possession of a memorandum from which the information was obtained.

Now for a closer look at the story. The relevant parts read as follows: “… Deidré (sic) Londt, requested permission for the car to be auctioned”; and, following that: “Londt confirmed that it was the same BMW X5…”  The next paragraph quotes her as saying that the vehicle was not in a mechanical condition to be used by the MEC.

Clearly, the story created the false impression that the reporter interviewed Londt and that he obtained information from her, as it was not clear that the quotes came from the memorandum.

I was informed that the journalist did quote Londt from the memorandum, but that it got lost in the editing process. This was unfortunate as it put Londt unnecessarily in a negative light. This leads me to taking seriously Londt’s statement in her complaint that this act has compromised her negatively with consequences that could jeopardise her career.

I also note that Londt’s first name was misspelt in the story. In fact, it contains two errors – it should not be “Deidre”, but “Diedré”.

Finding

The relevant sections in the story (mentioned above) are in breach of the following articles of the Press Code:

  • Art. 1.1: “The press shall be obliged to report news truthfully, accurately and fairly”; and
  • Art. 1.2: “News shall be presented in context and in a balanced manner, without any intentional or negligent departure from the facts whether by distortion…or misrepresentation…”

Sanction

The Star is:

  • directed to apologise to Londt for portraying the quotation in the story as coming directly from her, while instead it was obtained from a memorandum;
  • cautioned for misspelling Londt’s first name; and
  • directed to publish the text below.

BEGINNING OF TEXT

The Star apologises to Ms Diedré Londt of the Gauteng Department of Local Government and Housing for creating the wrong impression that we interviewed her and that she spoke to us, while instead the information came from a memorandum. This mistake was made in the editing process.

This comes after Londt lodged a complaint with the office of the Press Ombudsman about a story on 17 May 2012 headlined MEC’s smashed vehicle, now unfit for use, to be auctioned. She complained that the story falsely created the impression that the journalist had interviewed her, and denied that she had been interviewed.

The story was about Gauteng’s MEC for Local Government who reportedly lied about the condition of a luxury government-owned car which he had damaged in an accident. According to the newspaper Londt requested permission for the car to be auctioned. A direct quote by Londt about the vehicle was also used in the story.

Deputy Press Ombudsman Johan Retief said that the story clearly created the false impression that the journalist had interviewed Londt and that he had obtained the information from her. He described this mistake as “unfortunate” as it unnecessarily put Londt in a negative light.

He said that he took seriously Londt’s statement in her complaint that this act has compromised her negatively with consequences that could jeopardise her career.

He also cautioned us for misspelling Londt’s first name.

Visit www.presscouncil.org.za (rulings, 2012) for the full finding.

END OF TEXT

Appeal

Please note that our Complaints Procedures lay down that within seven days of receipt of this decision, either party 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