Izak Berg vs The New Age

Complainant: Izak Berg

Article: Councillors in Ekurhuleni land deal go scot-free

Date: 13 September 2012

Respondent: The New Age

Complaint

Mr Izak Berg complains about a story in The New Age on 27 March 2012 and headlined Councillors in Ekurhuleni land deal go scot-free.

Berg complains that the journalist:

·         wrongly created the impression that the councillors were guilty and that they had gone off “scot-free”;

·         omitted to state that Pasco had put a disclaimer on its report;

·         had not obtained a response from the people implicated in the story; and

·         did not obtain all the facts about a land deal and the subsequent investigation.

Analysis

Although the story did not mention Berg’s name, I have decided to entertain his complaint as his name was alluded to in other stories. It is therefore likely that readers may have known that he was one of the councillors that the story referred to.

I also note that the newspaper did not object to this office handling the complaint.

The story was about a forensic report that fingered various councillors in relation to a land deal. The story was based on an interview with the former city manager who claimed that he had been forced out of his job because he had refused to cover-up a land deal scandal. The manager reportedly told the newspaper that he had hired the services of Pasco Risk Management to investigate the land deal in which some councillors were involved. The findings of the Pasco report include the recommendation that the land deal should be halted.

General comment

The New Age’s (now former) editor merely says that he investigated the matter thoroughly and that he was convinced that the newspaper took all the necessary steps to verify its information. He does not respond to any of the specific claims in the complaint.

This is disturbing and does not reflect the respect that publications should show for their system of self-regulation. Editors are aware of the Press Code and their leadership largely determines the weight of the Code among journalists.

Wrong impression created

Berg complains that the story falsely created the impression that the councillors had been guilty and that they had gone off scot-free.

He says that while the Pasco report was the basis of the story, the Nupen report (which was available to the public and was accepted by the municipality) later cleared the councillors of wrong-doing in regard to the land deal.

Firstly, the story was based on the Pasco report and the city manager referred only to this report. However, the Nupen report did not find any meaningful wrong-doing on the part of the councillors and concluded that there was no evidence to support the Pasco report findings.

The story neglects to mention this. Instead, it chose to rely on a report which had lost its significance, thereby falsely creating the impression that councillors had been involved in wrong-doing and that they were allowed to get off scot-free.

This reporting is not only inaccurate, but also downright unfair – not only to Berg but also to all the other councillors who were involved.

The reporter failed to do his job, and likewise the newspaper failed to serve its readers.

Omitting to state a disclaimer

Berg complains that the story omitted to state that Pasco had put a disclaimer on its report and says that none of their other reports in Ekurhuleni had any disclaimers on.

To the best of my knowledge a disclaimer is common practice. I therefore do not expect the story to have mentioned this.

No response

Berg complains that the journalist did not contact people who were implicated in the story for their comment.

I am puzzled by the newspaper’s failure to deal with this pertinent issue, and especially by its neglect to ask councillors for their comment. The Press Code is clear enough about the latter.

Not all the facts

Berg complains that the reporter did not obtain all the facts about the land deal and the subsequent investigation, and as a result the story was untrue.

He does not elaborate on which facts the story omitted. I assume that this has to do with the Nupen report, in which case I have already dealt with this matter.

Finding

Wrong impression created

The failure to mention the findings of the Nupen report resulted in skew, misleading and unfair reporting. This is in breach of :

·         Art. 1.1 of the Press Code that states: “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, exaggeration or misrepresentation, material omissions, or summarisation.”

Omitting to state a disclaimer

This part of the complaint is dismissed.

No response

The newspaper’s failure to get comment from the councillors is in breach of Art. 1.5 of the Code that states: “A publication should seek the views of the subject of serious critical reportage in advance of publication… If the publication is unable to obtain such comment, this shall be stated in the report.”

Not all the facts

There is no finding on this part of the complaint.

Sanction

Wrong impression created

The New Age is directed to apologise to Berg for its:

·         skew, misleading and unfair reporting as outlined above; and

·         failure to get comment from him.

The newspaper is directed to publish the contents of this decision, clearly stating that it neglected to take the Nupen report into account in which Berg was greatly exonerated – an omission that caused him unnecessary harm.

A draft of the story must be forwarded to the Ombudsman for consideration 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, 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

 

 

 

 

 

 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *