meraSETA vs City Press

Complainant: meraSETA

Lodged by: Neil Lewis

Article: Man lifts lid on Merseta – Staff member turns to labour court for protection after blowing the whistle on corruption in Seta

Date: 1 November 2014

Respondent: City Press

Complaint

Lewis is complaining about an article published on page 11 in City Press of 14 September 2014, headlined Man lifts lid on Merseta – Staff member turns to labour court for protection after blowing the whistle on corruption in Seta.

He complains that the apology published by the newspaper (in its next edition):

  • should have reflected both the concessions made by the newspaper and merSETA’s concerns (detailed below); and
  • was not consistent with the prominence given to the article.

The texts

The story was published as the page lead, and said that a merSETA employee had asked the labour court for protection after he had exposed possible procurement corruption involving approximately R45-million.

The apology (on page 2, at the very bottom, headlined For the record) read:

In a story published last week…we did not adequately reflect the comments from the Seta. It did not respond to detailed questions, but did comment and, while not answering specific questions, said: “The suspended official raised the allegations initially with the Special Investigating Unit on 17 January 2014, the same day he was issued with a confirmatory suspension notice. After the SIU indicated the allegations did not warrant an investigation by them, the official took the matter to the Public Protector. Merseta management will cooperate fully with any investigations these institutions may wish to pursue.”

The Seta indicated it would oppose the application that is in the labour court.

We apologise for the oversight.

My considerations

Reflecting concessions, concerns

Firstly, a general remark: City Press says merSETA’s complaint was not about inadequate coverage of its response in the apology, but merely that the apology was not published prominently enough.

I beg to differ. In its complaint to this office, dated October 21, merSETA wrote: “This written concession [by the newspaper’s attorneys, stating that the newspaper under-reported the SETA’s response]was not reflected in the article… [It] should be properly reflected in a written apology… [It] should underpin an appropriate apology…”

merSETA also stated the following in correspondence with City Press, which was part of the complaint lodged with this office: “… we … demand … an unconditional apology … [which should]present a more balanced, accurate and complete response from MerSETA” (emphasis added).

These statements, when read together, surely point to merSETA’s dissatisfaction with the content of the apology as well. Therefore, I need to look at the gist of the apology.

I note that City Press apologized for not adequately reflecting the Seta’s comments. I commend City Press for doing so.

However, that is a general statement. The question now is whether the apology included the necessary specific material issues raised by merSETA.

I am quoting only the material responses from the complaint:

  • merSETA had instituted a forensic investigation subsequent to serious allegations;
  • The investigation resulted in a formal proposal to suspend the official (which was subjected to a formal disciplinary hearing);
  • The allegations were devoid of any truth and constituted malice; and
  • merSETA remained confident about the measures in place to detect and counter-act any irregularities.

None of these matters featured in the apology. It is unfortunate that the apology did not at least include merSETA’s denial of the allegation in question.

Prominence

The relevant section of the Press Code is Clause 2.7, which says: “A publication shall make amends for publishing information or comment that is found to be inaccurate by printing, promptly and with appropriate prominence, a retraction, correction or explanation.” (Emphasis added.)

I take into account that many newspapers publish their apologies/corrections/etc. on page 2. That page is “prominent”, and it is a world-wide practice to publish apologies there.

However, the text was published at the very bottom of the page. The question is whether that was prominent enough.

Another factor in this regard, of course, is the nature of the mistake. If, for example, a newspaper publishes a correction because it has misspelled somebody’s name, it would be sufficient to publish it at the bottom of the page. (That is why Section 2.7 uses the phrase “appropriate prominence”.)

In this case, though, the allegations were such that they constituted a much more serious issue than merely misspelling somebody’s name.

I also note that the apology appeared immediately next to information about the Press Council and the Code which, I believe, gave it greater prominence.

So, I need to weigh up the pros and the cons:

Positives                                                                      Negatives

It was published on page 2. It was published at the bottom of the page.
It appeared next to information about the Press Council and Code. The nature of the allegations was serious enough to warrant more space, and more prominence at that

The scale tips in favour of merSETA, especially because of the serious nature of the allegations.

Finding

Reflecting concessions, concerns

The apology did not adequately reflect material aspects of merSETA’s response. This is in breach of Section 2.2 of the Press Code that states: “News shall be presented in context and in a balanced manner, without any intentional or negligent departure from the facts whether by … material omissions, or summarization.”

Prominence

The newspaper is in breach of Sect. 2.7 of the Press Code: “A publication shall make amends for publishing information or comment that is found to be inaccurate by printing, promptly and with appropriate prominence, a retraction, correction or explanation.”

Sanction

City Press is directed to prepare another apology which contains the gist of the four bullets that I have summarized above under the headline Reflecting concessions, concerns.

The newspaper is asked to publish the new text, after approval by this office, higher up on page 2.

The text should end with these words: “Visit www.presscouncil.org.za for the full finding by the Press Ombudsman.”

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

 

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