Ron McGregor vs Sunday Times

Complainant: Ron McGregor

Lodges by: Ron McGregor

Article:  Racism hits home on the streets of Rondebosch East

Author of article: Philani Nombembe and Aphiwe De Kler

Date: 20 May 2015

Respondent: Susan Smuts, legal editor of the Sunday Times

Complaint

McGregor is complaining about a story in Sunday Times of 12 April 2015, headlined Racism hits home on the streets of Rondebosch East.

He complains that the reporters were biased against Cape Town and its inhabitants and deliberately created news instead of reporting it. The gist of his complaint is that the journalists acted unprofessionally in that they maliciously portrayed Cape Town and its citizens as racist, privileged, wealthy and exploiters of the poor.

The text

The story, written by journalists Philani Nombembe and Aphiwe De Klerk, was about their recent experience in Rondebosch East (Cape Town), looking for the girl who allegedly tried to join the Islamic State. They got lost, driving in circles, when a so-called coloured man followed them and accused them of contemplating mischief. Suddenly, two armed response vehicles appeared and forced them to stop.

They reported: “The man jumped out of his car and screamed that it was people of ‘your colour’, ‘your nation’ who were breaking into ‘our’ homes and stealing… He said we had ‘no right’ to drive around in the neighbourhood because we are ‘foreign to the area’ and asked the armed response team to call the police to search us and our vehicle because we were black.”

When the Police arrived, they told the man that he had no right to stop the journalists on a public road, “no matter what his suspicions were”. The man then reportedly accused the black policeman of sympathizing with the reporters.

The blurb on the story read: “LAST year we reported on the spike in racist attacks in the southern suburbs of Cape Town. The Wynberg Magistrate’s Court had heard how a white student urinated on a black man. Why? Well, apparently because he was ‘rich’ and because he could. In other cases, those who had been hauled into the dock had spewed expletives at k****rs.”

The complaint in more detail

McGregor complains that the journalists portrayed as fact that Cape Town and its citizens were racist, while this was based on a few isolated incidents.

He refers to the sentence that read, “The suburb was quiet and the gardens outside the properties were beautifully groomed.” He complains that this statement implied that the residents of the area were privileged. This “[a]utomatically implies undeserved privilege, and that the people who enjoy such privilege are wealthy, racist and exploiters of the poor… The remark is inserted purely as an embellishment to the picture that they intend to create.”

As background, he says Rondebosch East is a high crime area and that people live in fear – and were therefore constantly on the look-out for suspicious strangers. “The people who live here are mostly coloured and white. The housebreakers, usually, are black.” He argues that it was not at all surprising that the reporters’ behaviour attracted the attention of a resident.

McGregor says the reporters’ failure to identify themselves triggered the incident that would provide them with some juicy content for a story in the next edition of the newspaper. “[T]hey milked the situation for all it was worth… The Sunday Times then exacerbated the situation by buying into the story and making front page news of it, and using it as further ‘proof’ of the inherent racism of the citizens of Cape Town.”

He concludes that the incident was manufactured. “Reporters should not behave in such a way that they themselves become the creators of news, least of all by deliberately concealing their identities as reporters. This was not an undercover operation that required the reporters to pretend that they were not reporters.”

The newspaper’s reply

Smuts replies that the story concerned the personal experience of two journalists as they went about their business. She denies that the reference to nice gardens had anything to do with racism.

The legal editor says McGregor’s opinion that the journalists should have identified themselves as reporters was just that – his opinion. “In our opinion, their restraint in the face of such provocation was exemplary.”

Smuts takes issue with the assumption that it was acceptable for residents to approach strangers, especially black ones, so aggressively on account of crime experienced in the area. She points out that the police officers who stopped to investigate the incident also found such conduct unacceptable, as did one of the security guards.

She concludes: “Nothing in the story suggests that Cape Town and its residents are per se racist. It merely states that the journalists were experiencing the type of racism that had previously been reported on. It does not state or suggest that this racism had anything to do with Cape Town. Mr McGregor is reading too much into the story.”

More responses

In reply, McGregor largely repeats his complaint, and concludes: “This whole thing could so easily have been avoided. I am alleging that these reporters didn’t even try to avoid it. By their behaviour, they created it. And that is why their conduct was unprofessional. And the Sunday Times should have realized, on receipt of the copy, that the story had been created by the actions of its own reporters. But they didn’t. They made a meal of it, which is why my allegation of unprofessional conduct extends to them as much as to the two reporters who created the story.”

Smuts says McGregor was not there and that he is basing his opinion on experiences which may not be shared by the reporters. Also, the journalists did not go looking for a reason to insert themselves into a story – they went on assignment, got lost and reported on the consequences of that.

My considerations

The first issue is the allegation that the reporters acted unprofessionally.

It depends, of course, on the perspective from which one looks at this matter. Clearly, McGregor and Smuts have different perceptions of this issue.

From my perspective, though: Even if McGregor is correct (for argument’s sake), there is nothing in the Press Code to suggest that the reporters were wrong in opting not to identify themselves as journalists (given the situation in which they found themselves).

As for the reason the journalists chose not to identify themselves, I can only speculate, which I am not willing to do – this office has to work with facts and with reasonable conclusions, and certainly not with speculation.

Yes, the journalists could have avoided the situation – but then again, I was not there and am not in a position to make a judgment on the merits of their behaviour. I am willing to state the following, though: When the journalists got lost, and they were being chased after and shouted at from the outset, I would probably have behaved in the same way.

I believe McGregor indeed reads too much into the statement about the quietness of the suburb and its beautiful gardens. For me, this was just attention to detail, and served to stand in contrast to the despicable behaviour of one of its residents.

Neither the story nor the headline depicted the whole city and its citizens as racist.

Finding

The complaint is dismissed.

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 Appeals Panel, Judge Bernard Ngoepe, fully setting out the grounds of appeal. He can be contacted at Khanyim@ombudsman.org.za.

Johan Retief

Press Ombudsman