Pravin Gordhan (National Treasury) vs Sunday Times

Complainant: Pravin Gordhan (National Treasury)

Lodged by: Jabulani Sikhakhane

Article: Gordhan dilutes booze embargo

Author of article: Stephan Hofstatter and Pearlie Joubert

Date: 21 January 2014

Respondent: Sunday Times

COMPLAINT

The Minister of Finance complains about a story headlined Gordhan dilutes booze embargo, published in the Sunday Times on 22 December 2013.

He complains that the following statements in the story were untrue/misleading:

  • He had accused the newspaper of “clearly creating mischief” about alleged political interference;
  • He had admitted that several “revisions” made to his original rules to curb spending taxpayers’ money by officials (amongst others amendments, by banning using taxpayers’ money to fund booze-fuelled government parties) “could severely weaken their impact”;
  • His department had “quietly published” an instruction note that had provided for a number of exceptions (adding that the newspaper did not ask him for clarification on this specific matter);
  • Allegations that he was placed under political pressure regarding these revisions; and
  • Insinuations that government parties were booze-fuelled.

ANALYSIS

The story, written by Stephan Hofstatter and Pearlie Joubert, said that Gordhan had “watered down his ban on using taxpayers’ money to fund booze-fuelled government parties amid claims that he buckled under political pressure”.

Clearly ‘creating mischief’

The statement in dispute said: “Despite dismissing allegations of political meddling as ‘nonsensical’ and accusing the newspaper of ‘clearly creating mischief’, Gordhan admitted yesterday that several ‘revisions’ were made to his original belt-tightening rules that could severely weaken their impact.” (emphasis added)

Gordhan denies this, arguing that he rather accused the newspaper’s source (and not the newspaper itself) of creating mischief.

Sunday Times admits that Gordhan is correct, but submits that this part of the complaint is irrelevant because the minister was “effectively accusing us of being a conduit for ‘creating mischief’.”

It adds that:

  • three sources informed it that Gordhan was under pressure to backtrack on the measures that he had announced; and
  • the passage made it clear that he was responding to the allegations against him, rather than making an issue of where they came from.

The publication concludes: “The purpose of placing the minister’s denial in such a prominent position was so that readers would know that the minister denied being put under pressure as they read the details that followed. We were scrupulously fair in placing his denial high up in the story despite the reluctance of his spokesman to provide us with information requested.”

Sikhakhane replies that, at the very least, the newspaper should have separated what Gordhan had said and its own interpretation thereof. “Sunday Times cannot substitute what Minister Gordhan said for its interpretation of what he said.”

Firstly, this is what the spokesman wrote on 21 December 2013 to the newspaper: “…the Minister wants to state emphatically that the…source is wrong and clearly creating mischief. There is a clear lack of understanding of government processes which seems to lead to unfounded assertions.” (emphasis added)

While I appreciate the fact that the story did place Gordhan’s denial in a prominent position, I also need to state that the newspaper is simply wrong on this point – because:

  • contrary to what was reported, Gordhan never said that the newspaper was creating mischief – nor did he even imply any allegation of mischief on the part of the newspaper;
  • Sikhakhane is correct: the newspaper substituted Gordhan’s words with its own interpretation thereof – which is a recipe for mistakes that should have been avoided;
  • when a source lies to a newspaper, misleads it or merely misunderstands a situation, and the paper publishes information coming from this person, the paper was of necessity being used as a “conduit”. This happens every day, all over the world. Such is the nature of the beast.

Furthermore, I believe that the newspaper’s defence that three sources informed its journalists that Gordhan was under pressure to backtrack on the measures that he had announced, and that the passage made it clear that he was responding to the allegations against him (rather than making an issue of where they came from,)is nothing more than a red herring.

But more needs to be said, as the matter is more complicated: This “criticism” of the newspaper (of creating mischief) left a gap that could easily be misconstrued as an attack on the press, something that neither the media nor the government can afford. Therefore, not only was the statement inaccurate and unfair – it also had the potential to cause Gordhan some serious, unnecessary harm.

Words have meanings, and the press (of all institutions) should choose its words with care.

Revisions to weaken impact

A different part of the same sentence quoted above is now the focus of the complaint. Let me repeat that part: “Despite dismissing allegations of political meddling as ‘nonsensical’ and accusing the newspaper of ‘clearly creating mischief’, Gordhan admitted yesterday that several ‘revisions’ were made to his original belt-tightening rules that could severely weaken their impact.” (new emphases added)

Sikhakhane says that Gordhan never made such a statement, calling it a deliberate distortion of what the minister had said.

Sunday Times denies that it has distorted Gordhan’s comments and argues that the complainant took the phrase in dispute out of context – the disputed part merely reflected that Gordhan admitted to making revisions to the rules that he had announced. The story as a whole made it clear that these revisions severely weakened the impact of the original measures.

The newspaper continues: The article also mentioned that both Gordhan and his spokesman sought to portray the revisions as the result of normal governmental processes – no reasonable reader would conclude that the minister admitted to the weakening of the impact of his rules. “We submit that it is self-serving and dishonest to disembody one sentence from the story and try to imbue it with a meaning at odds with the story as a whole.”

Sikhakhane replies that that it was incorrect to replace what Gordhan had said (regarding the revision) with its interpretation of the likely impact of those revisions.

Firstly, the newspaper’s argument seems to suggest that the story merely stated that Gordhan had admitted to having revised his original instructions, and not that these revisions could have severely weakened the impact of his original measures. It then uses the context-argument (“look at the whole story”) to state that the minister could not reasonably have said that his revisions weakened the impact of his initial announcement.

But again, words have meanings… I submit that the reasonable reader would have understood that Gordhan indeed admitted that his revisions would weaken the impact of his original announcement – the statement in dispute formed part of the same sentence in which Gordhan had “admitted” that he had revised his former instructions.

Also: I have carefully studied all the correspondence between Sikhakhane and the journalists that is at my disposal, and I can find no trace of any acknowledgement that Gordhan had admitted that the revisions could severely weaken the impact of his original directions. True, the minister did “admit” that he had revised certain measures – but he never said (as was reported) that these revisions could severely weaken the impact of his initial announcements.

It is none of my business if the revisions actually did weaken Gordhan’s initial rules or not. Maybe they have, maybe they have not. All that I am interested in, is if Gordhan in fact admitted to this, which the story stated as fact.

He did not.

‘Quietly published’

The story said that Gordhan’s department had “quietly published” an instruction note that provided for a number of exceptions to the rules that he had announced earlier.

Gordhan complains that this statement suggested that Treasury sought to hide the instruction note, which was untrue. “The said Treasury Instruction Note was published in the same way that all Treasury Instruction notes have been published that is on the Treasury website and was also emailed to all the parties affected by the Note…”

He adds that Sunday Times did not ask him about how Treasury Instruction notes were published and whether/why this specific instruction note was treated differently than his initial announcement.

Sunday Times contests this part of the complaint. It says that, while Gordhan’s original announcement was televised and widely reported, this time the revisions were only made known to government entities and published on the Treasury website – “but only after Sunday Times repeatedly asked for it…” The publication stresses that no press release was issued and no attempt was made to bring the revisions to the public’s attention. “We did not say that Treasury went out of its way to hide the revisions, we merely said that it ‘quietly published’ [them]. We submit that this is in fact an accurate description of what took place.”

The newspaper also argues that:

  • it would have been embarrassing for Treasury to make a noise about back-pedalling on the measures, especially in light of the praise from members of the public for the original measures;
  • a technical explanation about what was required for announcing the revisions is misplaced as the story did not say that Treasury did not follow procedures; and
  • a cabinet statement in which further consultation on this matter was supposed to have taken place made no mention of this issue.

It concludes: “We submit that we were justified in using the term ‘quietly’.”

Sikhakhane replies that it was not true that the revision note was published only after Sunday Times had asked for it. “At the very least Sunday Times should have asked…Gordhan for comment on this issue. This was not done and the Sunday Times jumped into a conclusion.”

In later correspondence, Sunday Times retracts the statement that revisions were made known to government entities and published on the Treasury website only after the newspaper repeatedly asked for it. However, the publication adds that the correspondence between Sikhakhane and its reporters shows that the revised version was not publicly accessible until they had asked for it.

This last argument is neither here nor there. Let me rather focus on the main issues, namely the use of the words “quietly published”, as well as the complaint that the newspaper did not ask clarification on this specific matter.

I agree that it would have been better if the journalists did ask Gordhan about this matter. However, I also note with appreciation the lengths to which the journalists went in order to get comment from the minister (through his spokesman). I submit that the newspaper had enough justification to have used the words in question, without having to ask Sikhakhane about it.

Secondly, the spokesman’s argument that the text in question implied that he was hiding something does not hold water. His revisions were published (even though not as widely as the minister’s initial announcement) – it is therefore not logical to argue that Treasury was trying to “hide” the matter.

Placed under political pressure

The story related on more than one occasion that Gordhan was claimed to having been paced under political pressure to tone down his initial instructions.

Gordhan says that he has admitted to the fact that there was consultation (amongst others, by members of cabinet) on the instruction note. “So the crux of the matter is whether what happened [was]consultation…or political pressure.” He argues that the failure of the newspaper’s sources to provide it with more detail was proof that these sources were not knowledgeable about the consultation process. He adds that the story did not disclose which minister came down on Treasury “like a ton of bricks”, nor did it say who put him under pressure.

“Failure to provide this kind of details renders the statements by the Sunday Times sources as rumour or speculation, and [they]ought to have been presented as such…”

Sunday Times replies that three source told its journalists that Gordhan came under pressure to revise the measures. While it opts to keep these sources unnamed, the newspaper does reveal that one of these sources was a senior private sector person who spoke to one of Gordhan’s confidantes; the second source had access to the cabinet meetings in question; and the third source was a senior government official. “The second and third sources had direct access to Mr Gordhan and/or were witnesses or privy to the pressure brought to bear on the minister.”

Firstly, let me highlight all the relevant references in the story:

  • “…Gordhan has watered down his ban…amid claims that he buckled under political pressure” (emphasis added); and
  • “Two well-placed sources – one in the government and the other in the private sector – said Gordhan had caved in to political pressure. Both spoke on condition of anonymity” (this was followed up by quotes from these sources).

My first observation is that nowhere did the story state “political interference” in this matter as fact. Instead, the journalists consistently ascribed this information to its sources. The latter had the right to their opinion on this matter (even if they were wrong), and likewise Sunday Times was within its rights to publish those views.

I also note that the story included a denial of the minister to this effect. It stated: “Gordhan said claims of political interference reflected a ‘lack of understanding of government processes, which seems to lead to unfounded assertions’.” This was followed by another denial, this time by Sikhakhane.

In addition, the sub-headline on the inside page read: Gordhan denies he caved in to pressure.

Given all of the above, the newspaper safely kept within the boundaries of the Press Code on this matter. I also keep in mind that the allegations may have been reasonably true (with reference to the requirement set by Section 2.3 of the Press Code).

Please note that this observation is not a verdict as to the veracity of the allegation that Gordhan was politically pressurized – all it is, is the view that the newspaper was justified in reporting the views of its sources on this matter.

Insinuations of booze-fuelled parties

The intro to the story said: “Just in time for the festive season…Gordhan has watered down his ban on using taxpayers’ money to fund booze-fuelled government parties…” (emphases added).

Gordhan argues that there was no evidence presented in the story that state banquets and functions where foreign dignitaries were hosted had become “booze-fuelled parties”, nor did the newspaper quote any source to this effect. Also: “The meaning of the phrase, ‘just in time for the festive season’, can only be that [he had]revised the Instruction Note to allow civil servants to host booze-fuelled parties during the festive season. This is not true.”

Sunday Times says that it made no statement about government banquets being booze-fuelled parties. However: “There should be no argument that parties where alcohol flows can be described as ‘booze-fuelled’ or that departments and entities commonly host end-of-year functions for staff.”

This part of the complaint has no legs to stand on, because:

  • the sentence in dispute was technically correct – the revisions indeed came just before the beginning of the festive season;
  • the story did not say or imply any “intention” on Gordhan’s part to change matters in time for the festive season; and
  • functions where alcohol was allowed can justifiably be described as “booze-fuelled parties”.

FINDING

Clearly ‘creating mischief’

The words in question are in breach of Section 2.1 of the Press Code that says: “The press shall take care to report news truthfully, accurately and fairly.”

Revisions to weaken impact

The words in question are in breach of Section 2.1 of the Code.

‘Quietly published’

This part of the complaint is dismissed.

Placed under political pressure

This part of the complaint is dismissed.

Insinuations of booze-fuelled parties

This part of the complaint is dismissed.

SANCTION

Sunday Times is directed to apologise to Gordhan for inaccurately and unfairly stating (with the possibility of causing him some serious, unnecessary harm) that he:

  • accused the newspaper of “clearly creating mischief”; and
  • “admitted” that the revisions to his original belt-tightening rules to curb government spending could severely have weakened their impact.

The newspaper is directed to publish the following text on the same page on which the story in dispute appeared, with a headline that uses the word “apology” or “apologises” as well as Gordhan’s surname:

Sunday Times apologises to Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan for inaccurately and unfairly reporting that he accused us of “clearly creating mischief”, and that he “admitted” that the revisions to his original belt-tightening rules to curb public spending by officials (especially regarding alcohol at government functions) could severely have weakened their impact – both of which could possibly have caused him some serious, unnecessary harm.

The story, written by Stephan Hofstatter and Pearlie Joubert and headlined Gordhan dilutes booze embargo (22 December 2013), also reported that Gordhan had “watered down his ban on using taxpayers’ money to fund booze-fuelled government parties amid claims that he buckled under political pressure”.

Treasury lodged a complaint with the Press Ombudsman Johan Retief, who said that Gordhan never stated that the newspaper created mischief – instead, he accused our source of doing that.

He added: “But more needs to be said, as the matter is more complicated: This ‘criticism’ of the newspaper (of creating mischief) left a gap that could easily be misconstrued as an attack on the press, something that neither the media nor the government can afford. Therefore, not only was the statement inaccurate and unfair – it also had the potential to cause Gordhan some serious, unnecessary harm.

“Words have meanings, and the press (of all institutions) should choose its words with care.”

The same went for the statement that Gordhan “admitted” that his revisions his original belt-tightening rules could severely have weakened their impact.

However, Retief dismissed the complaint that the story inaccurately stated that Gordhan had buckled under political pressure and ruled that we were justified in reporting the views of our sources: “Please note that this observation is not a verdict as to the veracity of the allegation that Gordhan was politically pressurized – all it is, is the view that the newspaper was justified in reporting the views of its sources on this matter.”

He also dismissed the complaint about the statement that Gordhan’s department had “quietly published” the revisions, and about insinuations of “booze-fuelled government parties”.

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

Johan Retief

Press Ombudsman

 

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