Premier Helen Zille vs The New Age

Complainant: Premier Helen Zille

Lodged by: Michael Mpofu

Article: Zille under fire over cabinet – ANC blasts majority white male composition but Premier dismisses criticism as hot air.

Author of article: Siyabonga Mkhwanazi

Date: 30 June 2014

Respondent: The New Age

Complaint

Zille complains that the statement in the story that she had appointed a cabinet dominated by white men was incorrect and misleading. Correspondingly, she also complains about the sub-headline.

The text

The story, written by Siyabonga Mkhwanazi, said that Zille had again come under fire from the ANC for appointing a provincial cabinet dominated by white men. ANC chief whip in the provincial legislature Pierre Uys reportedly said the re-appointment of eight former cabinet members was an indication that Zille was not interested in serving the interests of the poor. Mpofu dismissed the accusations as “hot air”, and continued: “It is disappointing that it appears that the ANC is going to continue playing the race card during our government’s second term of office despite this agenda clearly not winning them any votes in the province.”

Analysis

White male dominated cabinet

Zille complains that the opening paragraph of the story was incorrect and misleading. This stated that she had “again come under fire from the ANC for appointing a provincial cabinet dominated by white men”.

Mpofu explains that the new cabinet consists of four white males, three coloured males, two blacks (1 male and 1 female) and two white females (including Zille). He argues: “In other words it is clear that white males are not in the majority in the new Cabinet.” The spokesperson adds that readers were left with the impression that Zille was criticized for being racist.

The newspaper says it is a “true” fact that the cabinet’s demographic composition is dominated by white males. “If one has regard to proper representation, based on racial and gender demographics, the majority…consist of white males.”

The news editor adds that The New Age asked Mpofu for his views on Uys’s statement prior to publication and argues that he then had the chance to refute the allegation of a white male dominated cabinet – but he neglected to do so. Instead, Mpofu described the criticism as “hot air”, which was correctly reported (together with his other comments).

Moyo argues: “The article addresses the ANC’s criticism of white male domination. Even if it is found…that it is not an objective fact that the Cabinet’s demographic composition is dominated by white males, we submit that any reader of the article will understand the article to deal with the ANC’s criticism and the Complainant’s reply thereto.”

He also notes that Zille does not complain about the main headline (Zille under fire over cabinet) as she herself admitted that she had faced criticism from the ANC.

The newspaper concludes: “Even in the unlikely event that it might leave an impression that [Zille’s] composition of her Cabinet is dominated by white males, the article is a true and fair reflection of the criticism levied against [her], which criticism is the essential element of the article.”

My considerations

The newspaper’s response to the complaint is rather interesting. On the one hand the news editor states it to be a “true” fact that the cabinet’s demographic composition is dominated by white males; yet he also argues that the story merely addresses the ANC’s criticism.

The question is whether the story stated as fact that the cabinet was white male dominated, or merely presented this as criticism by the ANC? From a media ethical perspective, this makes a world of difference.

Having considered this issue for quite some time, I submit that this is not an either-or situation, but rather an and-and one. It is both – the statement in dispute can be interpreted as ANC criticism, but also as a statement of fact.

This is why:

·         If not fact, but criticism alone, why were the words in question not placed in inverted commas?

·         By the newspaper’s own admission it believes the ANC’s criticism to be a “true” fact.

I therefore believe that it was reasonable to read the text as presenting a fact, which would be in breach of the Press Code because, as far as I am concerned, it is not a fact that the cabinet is white male dominated – four out of 11 can hardly “dominate”. Conversely, if looking at the cabinet demographically, a statement that it was “male” dominated (not “white male”) would have been closer to the truth.

(If it was merely ANC criticism, there would have been no problem: the ANC has the freedom to voice its views – right or wrong – and the press has the same freedom to report those opinions, as opinions.)

Having decided that the reporting was not accurate or fair, it follows that I also believe there are undertones in the text suggesting racism on Zille’s part, and that consequently the reputations of the premier and her government (as she did not complain in her personal capacity) have suffered some serious, unnecessary harm in this process.

Moyo’s reference to comment given by Mpofu is irrelevant, as this was not part of the complaint.

The sub-headline

The sub-headline read: ANC blasts majority white male composition but Premier dismisses criticism as hot air.

Zille complains that this headline merely perpetuated the false and misleading opening paragraph in the story, with the same dire consequences.

The newspaper argues that any reasonable reader, when reading the headline and sub-heading (even without reading the story itself) will know that the article deals with the ANC’s criticism of the composition of Zille’s cabinet.

Moyo adds that the heading, sub-headline and the contents of the story should be evaluated “holistically”. “We strongly disagree that the article leaves readers with the impression that [Zille] is racist and only employs ‘white males to senior positions’. This interpretation is, with all due respect, farfetched and opportunistic.”

The New Age concludes that the story did not cause Zille any harm, “alternatively unnecessary harm”. The publication calls the complaint frivolous and an attempt to intimidate it.

My considerations

The part of the sub-headline which is in dispute reads: ANC blasts majority white male composition…

I note that the word “dominated” (in the first sentence of the story) suddenly became “majority”. Clearly, it was simply not true that Zille’s cabinet consisted of a majority of white males.

But yet again, the question is whether it was clear to reasonable readers that the phrase “majority white male composition” was portrayed as fact, or as (the ANC’s) opinion.

If it was the latter, I should have expected the newspaper to have placed the words in question in inverted commas:

ANC blasts ‘majority white male composition’…

As it stands, however, my first (and lasting) impression is that The New Age conveyed this phrase as fact.

Secondly, I do not buy the newspaper’s argument of looking at the sub-headline “holistically”. Judge Phillip Levinsohn has recently (in 2013) said in a Supreme Court case in Swaziland: “Many readers of newspapers simply glance at the bold headings only and then move on. The impression implanted in the mind of the reader by such blaring headlines is likely to be both deep and lasting. Most readers do not read the whole story…”

From this, it is fair to say that headlines should stand on their own and be interpreted as such.

Therefore, I submit that the sub-headline portrayed the “majority white male composition” of Zille’s cabinet as fact (like the text did, which was patently untrue), instead of presenting it as the ANC’s opinion.

I come to the same conclusion about suggested racism in the sub-headline as I did in the previous section.

Finding

White male dominated cabinet

The words in dispute can be interpreted as portraying a “fact”, which is in breach of Section 2.1of the Press Code that states: “The press shall take care to report news truthfully, accurately and fairly.”

The sub-headline

Because the sub-heading reflected the story (which inaccurately and unfairly stated a view as fact), it is also in breach of Section 2.1 of the Press Code.

Sanction

The New Age is directed to apologise to Zille and her provincial government for:

·         stating as fact in the text and in the sub-headline that her cabinet was comprised of a majority of white males;

·         suggesting undertones of racism on Zille’s part in this process; and

·         causing some serious, unnecessary harm to her and her government’s reputations in this process.

The newspaper is asked to:

·         publish an apology on page 2, with a front page kicker that refers to Zille and the apology;

·         provide this office with this text prior to publication; and

·         end the text with the words: “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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