Renette du Plessis vs Beeld

Complainant: Renette du Plessis

Article: Hervormde Kerk eis sy geboue terug.

Date: 17 December 2012

Respondent: Beeld

Complaint

Ms Renette du Plessis complains about a page 5 story in Beeld on 31 July 2012 and headlined Hervormde Kerk eis sy geboue terug.

She complains that the:

·         statement that the Hervormde Kerk (HK) has decided to take legal steps against the Hervormde Kerk Vereniging (HKV – a section of the HK that broke away from the HK) pertaining to church properties was factually incorrect;

·         headline was misleading; and

·         journalist did not obtain the views of the other side in the church dispute.

Although the story was published in Afrikaans, the complaint was lodged in English; I therefore make this finding in the latter language.

The story did not mention Du Plessis, but because she was a prominent figure in the HKV I entertained the complaint as she was personally involved in the story.

Analysis

The story, written by Neels Jackson, reported that the HK had decided to institute legal proceedings for the return of its properties after three congregations had broken away from the main body of the church. These congregations reportedly transferred their assets to various Christian organisations.

Already decided to litigate

The intro to the story said that the HK had “decided to take legal action” to get its properties back.

Du Plessis denies that the church took a decision to litigate. She argues that the story could not have been correct as the HK still had to decide on 3 August 2012.

Beeld states that it obtained the information from Dr Wouter van Wyk, the church’s secretary for communication.

In an email, dated 9 October 2012 and addressed to Jackson, van Wyk confirmed that he told the reporter on July 30 that the church would not accept the alienation of property and that a litigation team had been given the green light to take legal action when necessary. “Your report…was therefore indeed correct,” he told Jackson.

Du Plessis takes issue with this response and points out that, based on her information, no decision to take legal steps could have been made before August 3.

A member of the litigation committee, Mr Joël Fourie, then informed me that the HK had already decided in 2011 to establish a litigation committee, with the authority to take necessary legal action as and when it saw fit. “We immediately started with preparations with a view to litigation,” he said.

He explained that, before the HK could take formal (legal) steps, the HKV issued a summons on the church, after which the HKV’s advocate told the HK that it would be meaningless for the church to start litigation. The HK then obtained legal advice on what the effect of the summons would be on the church’s intention to litigate. In the meantime the question arose if it would not have been better to arbitrate the matter – a decision that would have been taken on August 3. (The eventual decision was to litigate.)

Dreyer subsequently confirmed Fourie’s testimony.

So this is the situation: The HK foresaw the possibility of litigation, planned for it, and has decided to take the HKV to court if and when necessary – but that did not mean that the church had already instigated legal action, as the story suggested. On the contrary, at the time of the publication of the story in dispute (July 31) there still was a possibility that the matter would not go to court at all – that decision would only have been taken on August 3.

It is one thing to have received the green light to litigate, and quite another to have instigated legal action. This makes it technically inaccurate to state on July 31 that the HK had already decided to take the HKV to court.

I take into account that this premature reportage was unlikely to influence the HK’s decision on August 3, and therefore I do not think that it caused anybody unnecessary harm. This will reflect in the sanction below.

Misleading headline

Du Plessis complains that the headline indicated that the church had already decided to take the HKV to court and had already instituted proceedings to claim the properties back.

Beeld denies that the word “eis” (“claims”) in the headline carried this meaning. It says that the word does not necessarily mean litigation – it can also refer to a decision to litigate that has been taken.

Du Plessis links the word “eis” in the headline to the intro that refers to “regstappe” (legal action). “The first sentence… refers to the fact that a decision had already been taken to initiate ‘regstappe’. That means a court case. The last sentence states that lawyers had already been given instructions to act as such. That refers to a court case and (to) nothing else.”

I take into account that a headline should reasonably reflect the content of the story – which it did, in this case. Like Du Plessis, I am reading the headline in conjunction with the intro, and I am convinced that the ordinary reader would have done the same. So: If the content of the story was inaccurate, it follows that the headline would then follow suit.

Not asked for comment

Du Plessis complains that the report was factually incorrect “because Mr Jackson did not obtain the views of the other side in the church dispute, and only publishes information provided to him by the church, whose side he has taken, without verifying the true facts”.

Jackson says that he did listen to the other side (the HK in this instance). He argues that three congregations broke away from the church and that they took steps to transfer properties to independent organisations. “I wanted to know if the church (the other side) was going to accept this situation.” He adds that this was his angle to the story, and that it was therefore not necessary to ask the HKV for comment.

The reporter also says that previously he had good relations with the complainant’s husband, Adv Roelof du Plessis (who manages the HKV’s legal affairs). He explains that he was under the impression that the advocate would have kept him informed of any developments from its side. He argues that he was not aware that the HKV would take legal action, which is why he did not ask it for comment. “When I did hear about it, I reported it.”

Jackson also takes issue with the allegations that he only publishes information provided to him by the HK and that he has taken sides for the latter and against the HKV. He provided me with nine stories between March 8 and October 31 in which he quoted the chairman of the steedsHervormers.

Beeld’s argument on this issue is convincing. Also, I have no reason to believe that Jackson has “taken sides”, which I think is an insult to him that he does not deserve.

Finding

Already decided to litigate

The final decision to litigate or not was taken on August 3, which made the reportage inaccurate. This is in breach of Art. 1.1 of the Press Code that states: “The press shall be obliged to report news…accurately…”

Misleading headline

As the headline reflected the content of the story correctly, it follows that the headline as also incorrect and therefore in breach of Art. 1.1 of the Code.

Not asked for comment

This part of the complaint is dismissed.

Sanction

Beeld is cautioned for publishing inaccurate information at the time of publication, even though the story proved to be correct at a later stage. The newspaper is directed to report this decision on page 5 and to provide this office with the text prior to publication.

Appeal

Please note that our Complaints Procedures lay down that within seven days of receipt of this decision, either party may apply for leave to appeal to the Chairperson of the SA Press Appeals Panel, Judge Ralph Zulman, fully setting out the grounds of appeal. He can be contacted at Khanyim@ombudsman.org.za.

Johan Retief

Deputy Press Ombudsman

 

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