Complainant: Noupoort Christian Care Centre
Lodged by: Paul Robbertse
Article: Childcare: shock claims – Kids had to clean out pig pens
Author of article: Leonie Wagner
Date: 1 October 2014
Respondent: The Times
Noupoort Christian Care Centre (NCCC) is complaining about an article that was published in The Times of 20 June 2014, headlined Childcare: shock claims – Kids had to clean out pig pens.
NCCC complains that the:
- story was inaccurate, unfair and unbalanced (details below);
- article omitted to mention its successes;
- journalist did not sufficiently ask it for comment, and where comment was given, the reporter omitted the gist of these remarks; and
- reportage was likely to have had a directly negative impact on all affected people.
Leonie Wagner, who authored the story, reported on a court case to evict Noupoort from Transnet land. The Centre for Child Law (CCL) was asked to “intervene” in this case, and consequently produced a report with claims of, among others, daily strip searches, solitary confinement and banning from school for bed-wetting.
The CCL reportedly also found that:
- children were subjected to “grueling workouts and had to clean pig pens”;
- adults and children were housed together; and
- too few professional caregivers were available for the children.
Wagner also reported comments by Ms Maria Venter (a social worker at Noupoort), who inter alia denied that the facility was guilty of human rights violations.
Inaccurate, unfair, unbalanced
Noupoort complains that the story was inaccurate, unfair and unbalanced in that it falsely portrayed the Centre as an institution which ill-treated its residents, and which did not act in the best interests of its residents and concerned family members.
- The NCCC would only ban a learner from school if his or her behaviour was so disruptive that it infringed on the right of other learners to receive quality education. This did not apply to bed-wetting – no learner had ever been banned from school for this reason;
- The statement that children were subjected to grueling workouts and had to clean pig pens required some explanation: Physical training formed part of the NCCC’s corrective intervention programme. This was positive, because it provided an outlet for emotions and stress. It was anything but cruel, and children were checked medically before any physical training. The farm project was part of the job skills training program. Cleaning pig pens formed part of the responsibility of maintaining the farm – it was not used as punishment. Other activities on the farm included gardening, dog care, stock taking, etc;
- Children under the age of 18 lived in units separate from those of adults – as required by law;
- Care given to children was monitored by a social worker. The team working with children included a medical nursing sister, trained teachers, trained pastoral consultants and addiction councilors. The progress of the children was monitored on a weekly basis;
- The Corrective Intervention Program (CI) was used when a person became a danger to him- or herself. The disciplinary programme in CI accommodated residents who qualified for expulsion. It was imperative, for everybody concerned, to remove such people from the mainstream programme. CI was a separate and isolated unit with its own facilities. The level of discipline there was stricter than at the centre itself “in order to build team spirit, respect and self-control”;
- On or before arrival at CI, the sponsor/guardian was informed. In the event of non-compliance, the NCCC had no other option but to expel the resident;
- While at CI, the resident was encouraged to submit to its rules and complete the specified time, and both counsel and support was given during this time “so that the resident/student can be reinstated back into the mainstream program”; and
- The foundation of the NCCC programme was “the Lord Jesus Christ”.
The Times denies that the story was untruthful, inaccurate and unbalanced. Smuts argues: “The main sources for the [story]was a report by the Centre for Child Law…which formed part of court proceedings between Transnet and the NCCC. It is important to note that some of the allegations the NCCC refers to are actually findings in the report.”
The legal editor also points out that the newspaper was entitled to report on the findings as they formed part of court proceedings, and argues that the story made no allegations – it merely reported on findings and allegations contained in the report of the Centre for Child Law.
I take into account that the:
- article indeed reflected a report by the Centre for Child Law – which formed part of court proceedings between Transnet and NCCC;
- reporter did not state any allegation as fact – it was consistently clear that the allegations were allegations, and that these came from the CCL;
- information was in the public domain; and
- public was entitled to know about it.
From this, I deduce that the newspaper merely fulfilled its duty in keeping the public informed.
Successes not mentioned
The NCCC complains that the story omitted to mention the successes of its treatment programme.
The Times denies that it was obliged to refer to these alleged successes. “This would also not have changed the fact that the Centre for Child Law made certain findings and allegations about the NCCC.”
The story was not about an over-all evaluation of Noupoort’s possible successes and failures. If so, the “other side” should of course have been reported. In this case, though, the story was about a court case, and about specific allegations and findings contained in a report by the Centre for Child Law. The newspaper was therefore indeed not obliged to sing the NCCC’s praises for its alleged successes.
Comment not sufficiently asked for, reported
Noupoort complains that Wagner did not sufficiently ask it for comment to all or at least the material allegations in the text; and where comment was given, the reporter omitted the gist of these remarks in her story.
Robbertse specifies that Wagner did not ask any questions on guardians approving its corrective intervention program. If she did, Noupoort would have informed her that each person coming into the programme and their family members get information on the programme before admission is approved. “They sign that they are in agreement with the corrective intervention program if it should be applicable during their rehabilitation program in NCCC.”
He adds: “Balanced reporting…would have required that a specialist in the field of drug dependency should have been approached for comment…and [these]comments…should have been published.”
Robbertse concludes: “This has resulted in the creation of an untruthful and distorted image of the NCCC and potentially elevated the allegations…to the status of fact in the minds of the readership… Furthermore, [this neglect]created the distinct impression that the NCCC operates unlawfully and that it endorses and/or condones human rights violations.”
Smuts says the newspaper was not obliged to obtain comment from the NCC as the findings were presented in court. The reporter nonetheless “went to considerable effort” to obtain comment because the report reflected badly on Noupoort – Wagner requested comment and responses to the findings and allegations in the report from the NCCC “on numerous occasions throughout June 19”.
The legal editor provided this office with details regarding Wagner’s continued attempts (up to seven) to get comment. She said these endeavours were mainly unsuccessful, except for a comment by Ms Maria Venter, a social worker with the NCCC, which was reflected in the story. Smuts also stated that the head of the NCCC remarked that he would not substantially comment on the newspaper’s questions. “We [therefore]deny that we arbitrarily omitted the NCCC’s responses…”
She also denies that The Times was obliged to approach a specialist in the field of drug dependency for comment.
The following issues are at stake here:
- Was the newspaper obliged to get comment from the NCCC; and
- Did Wagner adequately report Noupoort’s comments once she has obtained them?
Firstly, Wagner reported on a court case, and was therefore not obliged to ask NCCC for comment. I take it that the newspaper will make use of the opportunity to report the institution’s views in full, once it is Noupoort’s turn to testify.
All the arguments regarding this issue (from both sides) are therefore beside the point.
The fact that the reporter did try to get comment in spite of the above, however, is commendable.
Secondly, after (nonetheless) having obtained its comment, did Wagner report the essence of Noupoort’s remarks?
After I have carefully perused Robbertse’s explanation of this issue in his reply to the newspaper’s response, I am satisfied that the information she omitted was not material to Wagner’s report on the court case. This included a statement that the matter was sub judice and that Noupoort could not officially respond at that stage.
Noupoort complains that the reportage was likely to have had a directly negative impact on all affected people – it may even have influenced citizens to make misinformed decisions about solving drug addiction. The NCCC was presented as a place to be avoided, without justification. “Society had thereby not been served.”
Robbertse concluded that the dominant impression created by this story was that the NCCC did not act in the best interests of its residents and concerned family members by the employment of treatment methods which were not necessary for the purpose of successful rehabilitation, and that residents were ill-treated unnecessarily and without regard to the welfare of those concerned.
The reportage may have impacted negatively on Noupoort. However, the real question is whether it has caused unnecessary harm (as outlined in the Preamble to the Press Code). As Wagner merely reported on a court case and on findings and allegations by the Child Law Centre that served before the court, it is difficult to surmise that any unnecessary harm was done to NCCC.
The complaint is dismissed.
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.