John Steenhuisen vs Sunday Times

Complainant: John Steenhuisen

Lodged by: John Steenhuisen

Article: DA infighting ‘disappoints’ Mazibuko – Party faction plans for Maimane to lead

Author of article:  Thabo Mokone

Date: 7 December 2013

Respondent: Sunday Times

John Steenhuisen vs. Sunday Times

Complaint

Steenhuisen complains about a story published on page 2 in the Sunday Times of 17 November 2013, headlined DA infighting ‘disappoints’ Mazibuko – Party faction plans for Maimane to lead.

He complains that the:

  • journalist did not offer him an opportunity to respond; and
  • story could potentially harm his prospects in relation to a DA candidate selection.

Analysis

The story, written by Thabo Mokone, said that DA parliamentary leader Lindiwe Mazibuo had accused a faction of the party of trying to drive a wedge between her and national spokesman Mmusi Maimane. The reporter named Steenhuisen as one of those who were campaigning for Maimane.

No chance to respond

Steenhuisen complains that the journalist did not offer him an opportunity to respond.

Sunday Times admits that it did not ask Steenhuisen for comment for this specific story, but adds that it did approach him for his views on a previous article on the same matter (published on October 27). The publication argues that the story in dispute did not offer any new information on Steenhuisen’s involvement in the matter, “and it was therefore not necessary to approach him for comment again”.

Smuts explains (with regards to the first story) that Steenhuisen did not reply directly to the question about whether he was campaigning to have Mazibuko replaced with Maimane, “but [he]deflected it by saying he was campaigning for Mr Maimane to win in Gauteng”.

The newspaper adds that its source was impeccable, known and trusted by its reporter. However, it offered Steenhuisen a right of reply in the form of a letter to the editor.

Steenhuisen rejects this offer and denies that he did not initially answer the question directly. He says that he did state “very clearly” that the “only” campaign he was involved in was to get Maimane elected as Premier of Gauteng. “The journalist [later]prints a story that is entirely contrary to this original comment and failed to give me a further opportunity in the same story to respond.”

He asks for an apology – which the newspaper, in turn, is not willing to publish (initially, that is).

After several attempts by the Public Advocate to settle the complaint amicably, Sunday Times eventually proposed the following: “If Mr Steenhuisen is prepared to say unequivocally and on the record that he is not part of any effort with the DA to replace Ms Mazibuko with Mr Maimane, then we will apologise to him. If he is unwilling to make such a statement, we have no basis for doubting the information we rely on and there is no basis for an apology.”

Strangely enough, the only response from Steenhuisen was an email to the Public Advocate, saying: “Thank you for your efforts in this regard. It is much appreciated.”

I say “strangely enough”, as Steenhuisen has already in his correspondence to this office indicated that he:

  • was not part of such a campaign; and
  • wanted an apology (which he will get if only he publicly and on the record denies any such involvement).

Therefore, I would have expected him to accept this (reasonable) offer without hesitation.

Potentially harmful

Steenhuisen says that, because he did not have a chance to put forward his views, the story could potentially harm his prospects in relation to a DA candidate selection.

If he himself complies with the newspaper’s suggestion, he will get his apology – which will go a far way in countering the harm that he says the story in question has caused him.

Finding

There is no formal finding.

Sanction

This matter is referred back to the Public Advocate. If Steenhuisen takes up the newspaper’s offer, the text should be approved by all parties concerned, including the Public Advocate and myself. If not, the complaint shall be 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 of appeal. He can be contacted at Khanyim@ombudsman.org.za.

Johan Retief

Press Ombudsman