Gauteng Department of Education vs The Star

Complainant: Gauteng Department of Education

Lodged by: Mr C Phahlane

Date: 04 August 2010

Respondent: The Star

Complaint
Mr Charles Phahlane, head of communication: Gauteng Department of Education (GDE), complains about a story in The Star (January 29, 2010), headlined Schools in printer rip-off – ‘Unnecessary’ R150 000 expense forced on Gauteng institutions.
According to the complaint:
  • The story is misleading in that it claims a school spend half its yearly budget on a printer;
  • The newspaper did not publish the GDE’s response which clarifies that schools enter into a printer contract voluntarily;
  • District offices cannot rip off schools (as the story alleges);
  • The GDE was wrongly implicated in the printer contract; and
  • The possibility that extras may well have brought up the cost of the printer contract is not mentioned in the story.
Analysis
The story is about a school that was “told” (it does not specify which body, but from the context it can be accepted that it is the GDE) to enter into an unwanted, overly expensive and unnecessarily sophisticated printer contract. The Star “reveals” that the cost of the printer contract amounted to approximately R150 000 over a period of three years. A source is quoted as saying that this expense is quite substantial as the school’s annual budget amounts to R300 000.
The Star submitted as its official response to our office the (published) reply by the writer, Angelique Serrao, to the (also published) GDE’s complaint to the newspaper.
We shall now discuss the complaint point by point.
Spending half its yearly budget on a printer
The intro is here in dispute. It reads: “A school whose total budget for the year is R300 000 has had to spend half of that amount on a printer…” The GDE says this statement is misleading – the R150 000 that the school spends on this item must be divided in three, as this amount represents a three year contract.
Serrao says the amount of R150 000 indeed represents half of one year’s budget. “This is a comparison to show just how expensive these printers are in schools whose budgets are not particularly high,” she says.
The reporter is correct. Leaving the phrase “has had to” aside for a moment, the intro is factually correct – neither the school’s yearly budget of R300 000 nor the total amount of R150 000 spent on a printer is in dispute. Besides, it is neither said nor implied that the school has to spend a half of its budget on a printer every year – later in the story it is explicitly stated that the school was charged R150 000 to lease “over a three-year period”.
Voluntary contract; response
According to the complaint:
  • the story falsely states that schools are forced into entering a printer contract; and
  • the newspaper did not publish the GDE’s response which clarifies this matter
The story indeed states that the printer contract was not entered into voluntary. The sub-headline already sets the tone: ‘Unnecessary’ R150 000 expense forced on Gauteng institutions. The use of the words “unnecessary” and “forced” in the sub-headline is supported by:
  • the phrase “has had to spend half of that amount on a printer” (in the intro);
  • “which they do not need or want” (also in the intro); and
  • the reporting that a teacher at the school “revealed” that the school was “told” to order a printer.
This leaves no doubt – according to the story the printer was not obtained voluntarily. The question that remains if it was false or not.
In her reply to GDE’s complaint Serrao says the GDE admits that it is in charge of procurement for Section 20 schools – yet the GDE also says the contract is entered into voluntarily. She says these two statements are “contradictory” (she does not explain why – neither in the story nor in her response to the complaint). She adds that the statement about a voluntary contract also contradicts what the Gauteng Shared Service Centre (GSSC), schools and printer companies told her.
The documentation at our office’s disposal reveals that it is actually the GSSC that denied that contracts are forced on Section 20 schools. In the GSSC’s response to her questions, it is specifically stated that if there is a demand by a school for equipment, that school would take the initiative in obtaining that material. The GDDC says: “It is therefore…highly improbable that a Principal would have been told to pick up a printer…”
Our office cannot decide whether or not the printer contract was entered into voluntarily or not. What we can say, however, is that the GDE is correct in that Serrao did not publish an official response (it does not matter if it comes from the GDE or the GSSC) in which it was denied that schools were forced to enter into a printer contract.
The relevant e-mail was sent to Serrao two days before the publication of the story in dispute, yet she only published that the GDE is in charge of the school’s budget, but not also the statement that contracts are said to be entered into voluntarily.
It boils down to this: Serrao omitted important information (an official response) that was at her disposal, thereby creating the opposite impression of what she had been informed.
District offices
The GDE says the story creates the impression that district offices rip off schools – which they cannot do as these offices are not franchisors but rather act on behalf of schools.
However, although Serrao does not reply to this part of the complaint, it must be said that she was merely quoting GSSC spokesperson Khusela Sangoni (who told the newspaper that district offices were in charge of Section 20 schools’ budget).
GDE wrongly implicated
The story says that the GDE manages the budget of Section 20 schools.
The GDE does not dispute this. However, the GDE says the wrong impression was created as the specifics of the tender were handled by the GSSG and not by the GDE, which means that the GDE was “wrongly implicated” in the story.
Again, Serrao does not reply to this issue.
However, even if the GSSC (and not the GDE) indeed handled the printer contract the GDE still remained in overall charge of the school’s budget. The GDE was therefore implicated, even if the story did not insinuate it.
The renting price
The GDE says the standard renting price of a printer is approximately R122 00 for three years. It says the fact that extras may well have brought up the amount to about R150 000 for certain schools is not mentioned in the article.
The story “reveales” that the real price is R150 197.
Serrao makes no attempt to explain the difference in price – unless the last two sentences of the story is meant to do just that. These sentences quote Mr Mahlomola Kekana from the National Association of Parents in School Governance: “Mahlomola Kekana…said any top-up in price by the district hinted at corruption. He added there was a lack of transparency regarding the management of money at Section 20 schools.”
There are only two options here:
  • This quote was meant to throw some light on why the real price was higher than what it should have been, implying corruption (in which case comment from the GDE was needed); or
  • The quote in question was not an attempt to explain the difference in price.
Neither of these alternatives is fair to the people who are managing the budgets.
Finding
Half the yearly budget
This part of the complaint is dismissed as the reportage was not misleading.
Response omitted
The story omitted the denial by the GSSC that schools were forced to enter into printer contracts. This is in breach of Art. 1.2 of the Code: “News shall be presented in context and in a balanced manner, without any intentional or negligent departure from the facts whether by…material omissions…”
District offices ripping off schools
This part of the complaint is dismissed.
GDE wrongly implicated in the printer contract
This part of the complaint is dismissed.
Extras may have brought up printer costs
It was unfair to either not explain the difference in the renting price, or to explain it by implying corruption without getting comment from the GDE to this effect. This is in breach of Art. 1.1 of the Code that states: “The press shall be obliged to report news…fairly.”
Sanction
The Star is directed to publish a correction, stating the GDE’s side of the story, as well as a summary of this finding (not the full ruling). Our office should be furnished with the text prior to publication. Please add the following sentence to the text: “Visit www.presscouncil.org.za (rulings, 2010) 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 Khanyi@ombudsman.co.za.
Johan Retief
Deputy Press Ombudsman