Pietermaritzburg Chamber of Business vs Maritzburg Sun and Public Eye

Complainant: Pietermaritzburg Chamber of Business

Lodged by: Melanie Veness

Article: City chamber forced to retract bulletin

Author of article: Derek Alberts

Date: March 25, 2014

Respondent: Maritzburg Sun and Public Eye

COMPLAINT                                              

The PCB is complaining about the story published on February 14 in the Maritzburg Sun headlined City chamber forced to retract bulletin. A nearly identical story appeared in the Public Eye on the same day and under the same heading.

The Chamber complains that:

  •  these stories and their headlines were factually incorrect in stating that it was “forced to make a (groveling) apology”;
  • the cartoon that went with the story reinforced this lie, and was both sexist and defamatory; and
  • it was not contacted for comment (no proper verification).

THE TEXTS

The stories referred to an article by the editor of the PCB’s weekly electronic newsletter (called E-Biz Blitz), Derek Alberts, who stated on February14, 2014 that 17 more staffers of The Witness (a Media24 publication) faced retrenchment – and argued that this latest wave of (possible) retrenchments affected its editorial department (the “engine room” of the newspaper). The article voiced the alleged growing concern in Pietermaritzburg over the future of The Witness in the city.

Veness reportedly was forced to make a groveling apology to The Witness (the word “groveling” was used only in the Maritzburg Sun), saying that she distanced herself from that specific edition of E-Biz Blitz and calling it “decidedly unfair”. She also reportedly argued: “Media 24 have shown confidence in the city by buying The Witness, and they have committed (time and time again) to staying invested in Pietermaritzburg.”

The cartoon presented the editor of The Witness, Andrew Trench, as saying that the newspaper remained committed to the city, and added that 38 jobs were lost at the publication. It portrayed him as squeezing the last drops of life out of the publication on behalf of Media24. The sketch also depicted a woman (Veness) on her elbows and knees in front of Trench, saying: “You are committed, you are committed.” This was accompanied by a drawing of a signpost pointing to Durban.

ANALYSIS

‘Forced to make a groveling apology’

The story in the Maritzburg Sun said that the PCB had been forced to make a groveling apology to Media24 after the publication of Alberts’s article; the text in Public Eye was exactly the same, save for the omission of the word “groveling”.

Veness complains that it was factually incorrect to state that PCB was forced to make a retraction (groveling, or not).

The CEO explains that she does not proofread the newsletter before it goes out, “but as soon as I saw it, I realized that it was inappropriate for a business organization to take up labour issues against a member of the Chamber”. She adds that the newsletter also referred to fears about the Witness leaving the city, “which I do not believe to be true”.

She immediately explained her feelings to Alberts, who “understood and offered to do a retraction”. She says she then also phoned The Witness to apologise, stating that she “strongly disagreed” with the article and that the matter would be corrected. “The Witness did not force a retraction at all.”

Capital Newspapers replies that:

  • since Media24 took over The Witness there have been several retrenchment processes and a change of business strategy that has shifted its focus to Durban – which was a matter of public interest;
  • the newspaper’s restructuring processes resulted in a significant withdrawal of sponsorship of key community events;
  • this change in business strategy resulted in approximately 38 retrenchments – the latest of which affected the editorial staff and consequently the editorial content;
  • the PCB represents Pietermaritzburg’s business community and is therefore an important stakeholder in city affairs; this made Veness a public figure who was often quoted in the media and who also wrote various columns in newspapers; and
  • the article was factually correct.

The newspapers note that Veness “took control” of E-Biz Blitz and wrote an entirely contradictory article, berating the editor for being unfair and defending Media24’s retrenchment process, and “seemingly on behalf of Media 24 makes a series of utterances affirming [its]commitment to Pietermaritzburg”. (CN reported this text in full.)

They argue that it is disconcerting that Alberts’s editorial independence and respect for him as a business commentator was compromised by Veness’s actions – the PCB had an obligation to engage in discussion on broad issues affecting the city and its business community, which was precisely what the editor had done in his original article.

CN concludes that Veness left herself open to criticism for not only undermining Alberts’s editorial independence, but also for unnecessarily defending Media24’s retrenchment process and for trying to dispel concerns over the newspaper’s future in Pietermaritzburg.

Responding to the complaint about an apology, CN claims that the article did not state that Veness had been forced to apologise. “In fact her comments do not contain an apology. It was Alberts who apologized for the PCB. We stated that the PCB was forced to make the apology. It does not necessarily mean that The Witness forced the apology but rather that an apology was forced.” (Emphasis added.)

The newspapers add that, according to the Oxford Dictionary, the word “grovel” means to “act obsequiously in order to obtain forgiveness or favour” – and points out that the article in Public Eye did not state that PCB was forced to make a “groveling” apology.

In her reply to the above, Veness says that:

  • people from both Media24 management and The Witness on several occasions went to great lengths to assure the local business community that the newspaper did not intend to leave the city (they spoke about adding new markets, such as Durban, in order to remain competitive – but not at the expense of Pietermaritzburg);
  • it is unacceptable to keep fuelling these rumors (because it suits your particular business agenda) under the guise of public interest and ethical journalism – in spite of denials that they were founded;
  • PCB publishes an electronic newsletter and not a newspaper, as alleged by CN, which means that it is not subject to press standards;
  • the fact that the former business editor of The Witness writes content for it, is immaterial;
  • Alberts offered to apologise, and was not forced to do so;
  • she was not trying to squash the freedom of the press, but merely attempting to fulfil her mandate to her members (for fear that they would become uncomfortable about the Chamber taking up their employees’ grievances against them) – the article by Alberts “created an extreme conflict of interest for me”; and
  • she did not take “control” of the newsletter, but only responded in her capacity as CEO.

The reference to “business agenda” needs some clarification. Veness states that she was recently advised that the editor of the Maritzburg Sun told a member of the business community that if there were two competitors in a particular market space and one wanted to eliminate the other, “then fueling the rumours that they will be leaving town is a good strategy”. She says that those people who heard this statement “could be left with no doubt that…he was referring to the Witness”.

My considerations

I shall first deal with the gist of the complaint, namely that:

  • PCB was “forced” to apologise (mentioned in both newspapers); and
  • this apology was a “groveling” one (only in the Maritzburg Sun).

It is important to note that the texts in dispute were both published under the headline news – clearly, these articles were not opinion pieces. This means that the words in dispute (“forced” to apologise, and “groveling”) should be evaluated with Section 2 of the Press Code in mind (headlined Reporting of News), and not Section 7 (which is concerned with opinion pieces, and not with hard news).

This does not mean that hard news cannot contain comment, of course – but it does mean that such comments should:

  • be truthful, accurate and fair (Section 2.1); and
  • be presented in a balanced manner, without any intentional or negligent departure from the facts whether by distortion, exaggeration, misrepresentation or summarization (Section 2.2).

‘Forced to apologise’

The first question, therefore, is if the statement that PCB was “forced to apologise” concurred with the above sections of the Code.

The apology itself is not in dispute here; the use of the word “forced” is the issue.

This matter is quite complicated. If Alberts was “forced” to apologise, it may suggest that someone else has used his or her power to make him do that – something which the editor would not otherwise have done. However, it may also allude to a situation where Alberts (in hindsight) has decided on his own to apologise – this time forced not by someone else, but rather by the acceptance that he had “underestimated the sensitivities surrounding the restructuring at The Witness” (his own words) and his eagerness to put matters right.

In the first instance the force comes from outside, in the second it comes from the inside. There is a world of difference between the two.

Let me try to explain: If the “force” came from outside Alberts (either from Media24, or from The Witness, or from Veness/PCB), then the newspapers will have to prove that was the case because it stated that as fact – failing which they will fall short of the perimeters set by the Press Code. However, if Alberts apologized on the strength of his own convictions, the use of the word “force” would be justifiable because the apology in itself would be proof of the veracity and fairness of the statement.

The problem is that a careful reading of the articles does not necessarily give preference to either interpretation. Therefore, I need to look at factors other than the texts themselves – and yes, there is such an indicator. The only real question, however, is how much weight to attach to this “indicator”. I shall shortly return to this matter under the sub-heading Other issues.

‘Groveling’

As stated above, this word was not used by Public Eye, only by Maritzburg Sun.

I take it that the word “groveling” mainly portrays a subservient, submissive or servile attitude.

Let me now take a look at the wording of his text itself. Alberts wrote that he wished “to apologise for any perception created that the newspaper is less than fully committed to the city. The Witness is a key role player in [Pietermaritzburg] and despite the challenges it faces in a tough operating environment, is committed to add value in all its endeavours to better serve society”.

Based on what Media24 and The Witness said on several occasions, I do believe Alberts was justified in stating that they were “fully committed to the city”. There was nothing in the text that suggests that Alberts had been groveling, bending down before Media24, or having been subservient to the media house.

If this was the case behind the scenes, it certainly did not shine through in the wording of his apology.

Other issues

CN argues that Veness compromised Alberts’s editorial independence.

Here is the indicator that I referred to above. Even if the texts were not clear about where the “force” came from, with this statement the newspapers clarified the intention of their wording – that the force did come from outside, namely from Veness in her capacity as CEO of PBC (how else could she have “compromised” Alberts’s editorial independence?).

Given this argument by the newspapers, it follows that I need to interpret the “forced” as a power from outside Alberts that compelled him to apologise, in which case CN needs to prove that Veness indeed forced the editor to take this step – which the newspapers have failed to do.

This would make both the texts and the headlines unjustified.

However, I am also cognisant of the fact that the texts with which I am dealing are not scientific articles, but (merely) newspaper stories. Therefore, my basic question should not be how to interpret the matter in hindsight, but rather how the reasonable reader would have understood the “force” behind the apology.

Having read the text over and over again, I have no reason to come to the conclusion that Joe and Joanne Public would have understood that Alberts acted under instructions from Veness. This makes it impossible for me to find for the complainant. On the other hand, I am also not willing to find against Veness, as my (hindsight) knowledge leads me to believe that she was probably right on this matter.

This dilemma will be reflected in my finding below.

On the matter itself, I take into consideration Veness’s statement that E-Biz Blitz was not a newspaper but rather a newsletter – a statement that the newspapers did not contest. Such a newsletter indeed falls outside the mandate of this office, as PBC is not a publication and therefore does not subscribe to the Press Code.

CN also says that Veness unnecessarily defended Media24’s retrenchment process and tried to dispel concerns over the newspaper’s future in Pietermaritzburg. This argument is weak, given her role as CEO of PBC – she was merely doing her job by acting in defence of one of PBC’s members who may have been caused some unnecessary harm by the publicity in question.

Thirdly, the reference by Veness to CN’s “business agenda” is an extremely serious one. Section 3.1 of the Press Code states: “The press shall not allow commercial … considerations to influence or slant reporting. Conflicts of interest must be avoided, as well as arrangements or practices that could lead audiences to doubt the press’s independence and professionalism.”

The editor of the Maritzburg Sun may or may not have said that if there were two competitors in a particular market space and one wanted to eliminate the other, “then fueling the rumours that they will be leaving town is a good strategy”. However, that is not enough on which to base a finding against this newspaper. There is nothing in the text that may point to such an agenda behind the articles; there is also no indicator to this effect in CN’s correspondence with this office.

The cartoon

Veness complains that the cartoon reinforced the lie and argues that it was both sexist and defamatory.

Capital Newspapers responds that Veness failed to specify what this “lie” was, nor did she substantiate her assertion about the cartoon being “sexist and defamatory”. It also argues that Veness’s gender was immaterial to the issue “and we contend it is unnecessary for her to play the gender card”. In fact, “it may have been perceived as derogatory had we attempted to portray her [as]anything other than a woman in the cartoon”.

The newspapers deny that the cartoon was defamatory – it was “satirical and requires no further justification”.

Veness replies that the cartoon sought to humiliate her personally because she chose to stand up for The Witness. She argues that it was derogatory and sexist to depict any woman, never mind a professional one, bowing down in front of a man on a podium. This was “designated to be humiliating and is full of sexual innuendo”.

My considerations

The central question is, which section of the Press Code should be applied to this part of the complaint?

Normally, of course, a cartoon is comment – which therefore falls under Section 7 of the Code.

However, this matter is more complicated than that, as the cartoon did not stand on its own, but was published inside the text of a hard news story – it was also used to illustrate the content of the story. The rules of Section 1.2 of the Code should therefore (also) apply. (Strictly speaking: If the content of the story was false, then the depiction of that falseness in the sketch will also be false.)

This leaves me with a rather unique situation.

After much thought I submit that an and-and approach would be fairer than an or-or one – both Section 2 and Section7 of the Code should be taken into account. Of course, this means that fairness dictates that I should apply a certain amount of leniency in both instances.

Firstly, the cartoon portrayed Veness  – not the PCB or Alberts – on her elbows and knees in front of Trench. However, as its CEO she represented the PCB and the fact that she was a woman became irrelevant. I therefore do not think that the complaints about sexism and defamation have any leg to stand on. I also take into account that the rest of the cartoon was, in the main, fair comment.

However, one element of the sketch was troublesome – Veness (or the PCB) in a subservient (groveling) position in front of Trench. I have already argued that the use of the word “groveling” in one text was unsubstantiated. The depiction of the PCB in such a groveling position cannot be justified, not in either of the cartoons in these publications.

Not contacted for comment

The PCB complains that it was not asked for comment by either newspaper to enquire about what really had happened. Veness says that these newspapers “chose not to verify the facts, because this version suits their agenda quite well” – in the process destroying innocent people’s reputations.

CN says that the articles were balanced in that they gave equal space to the PCB to respond.

My considerations

Section 2.5 of the Press Code clearly states that the press should ask the subject of critical reportage for comment prior to publication.

It is true that much of the articles was devoted to Veness’s response – which is commendable. However, CN did not ask PCB for its views on the statement(s) in the opening sentence of the articles (that PCB was forced to apologise – which was also reflected in both headlines – and, in Maritzburg Sun’s text, that this apology was “groveling”), as it should have done. This was indeed material to the story.

FINDING

‘Forced to make a groveling apology’

There is no finding on the complaint regarding the words “forced to apologise” in both the texts and the headlines.

The use of the word “groveling” in the Maritzburg Sun was unjustified and in breach of the following sections of the Press Code:

  • 2.1: “The press shall take care to report news truthfully, accurately and fairly”; and
  • 2.2: “News shall be presented in…a balanced manner, without any intentional or negligent departure from the facts whether by distortion, exaggeration or misrepresentation…”

The cartoon

The complaint that the cartoon was sexist and defamatory is dismissed.

The depiction of Veness, representing the PCB, in a groveling position in front of the editor of The Witness was unjustified as there was no trace of such subservience, and was in breach of Section 2.1 of the Press Code.

Not contacted for comment

CN did not ask PCB for its views on the material statement(s) in the opening sentence of the articles (that PCB was forced to apologise – which was also reflected in both headlines – and, in Maritzburg Sun’s text, that this apology was “groveling”). This is in breach of Section 2.5 of the Press Code: “A publication shall seek the views of the subject of critical reportage in advance of publication…”

SANCTION

Maritzburg Sun is directed to apologise to PCB for stating in the story that its apology to Media24 was “groveling”.

Both newspapers are directed to apologise to PCB and to Veness for presenting her in a groveling position in front of the editor of The Witness.

Both newspapers are:

  • reprimanded for not asking PCB for its views on the statement(s) in the opening sentence of the articles (that PCB was forced to apologise – which was also reflected in both headlines – and, in Maritzburg Sun’s text, that this apology was “groveling”); and
  • directed to publish PCB’s views on these matters as part of the apology (if indeed the Chamber wants to do so).

The newspapers are also asked to present this text to me prior to publication.

Please add to the text: “Visit www.presscouncil.org.za for the full finding.”

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 for the appeal. He can be contacted at Khanyim@ombudsman.org.za.

Johan Retief

Press Ombudsman

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