Russell Bell vs Daily Voice

Complainant: Russell Bell

Lodged by: Russell Bell

Article: School of tik – Voice busts pupils smoking drugs (front-page headline), and Smoked out (page 2)

Author of article: Megan Baadjies

Date: 8 September 2015

Respondent: Daily Voice

Complaint

Bell is complaining about a story and its headlines in the Daily Voice of 28 July 2015, headlined School of tik – Voice busts pupils smoking drugs (front-page headline), and Smoked out (page 2).

He complains that the:

·         front-page headline did not reasonably reflect the content of the story (as the only mention of tik is in the second paragraph – “The Daily Voice is in possession of photographs showing learners from Salt River High School smoking what is believed to be tik”); and

·         newspaper did not exercise care when reporting on children.

Bell says the school is a community institution serving families all over greater Cape Town who cannot afford to enroll their children in the more affluent schools. It prides itself on producing good academic results. “The school has suffered great reputational loss and harm because of the article and especially the headline. Parents and learners who know that we are not a so-called ‘School of tik’ are upset because they have been tarnished in the publishing of the report as well.”

The text

The story, written by Megan Baadjies, said that the images of young students smoking drugs at school had sparked off a probe by education bosses. “The Daily Voice is in possession of photographs showing learners from Salt River High School smoking what is believed to be tik.”

The journalist reported that five learners could be seen in a series of photographs standing behind a wall on the playground smoking a substance from a black pipe. “In another picture, two learners are peeping around the corner of a wall as if they are on the lookout. Meanwhile, the other three learners are busy with the unknown substance.”

Baadjies also claimed it was clear from the images that the learners had taken turns inhaling from the pipe. The smoking was reportedly confirmed by an unnamed source.

The arguments

Sylvester says the newspaper is in possession of pictures illustrating students smoking what is purported to be tik, from a black pipe. The photographer, Leon Knipe, avers that this was not the first time he spotted students of the school smoking a substance.

The deputy editor says the headline was a true reflection of the story and “that [it]is reasonably believed that the learners were smoking what appears to be [tik]” – based on the pictures, as well as on the interviews with Bell, a teacher, and members of the Woodstock Community Policing Forum – who confirmed a “huge drug problem at Salt River High School, especially tik”.

He regards drug use during school hours as extremely disconcerting and news reports on the topic as being in the public interest.

Sylvester says Baadjies visited the school to interview Bell. He argues that the principal has not yet come forward with a different explanation and “the school has yet to explain what the students are doing in the photograph during first interval…”

He also claims that the newspaper has indeed exercised exceptional care in considering the children. “The safety of other students is at risk as a result of some students engaging in drug use. [Tik] is known for its disasterous side effects; a well known side effect is violent behaviour… the school [should]be a safe environment for students and not a danger zone.”

The deputy editor adds that the photographer took care not to identify the children in the pictures, and says that even Bell could not immediately tell who they were.

Sylvester says the photographer could not identify any side effects associated with heroine or mandrax, hence the reporter used the words “believed to be tik”.

Sylvester submits the reporter’s account of her interview with Bell:

Baadjies says she identified herself as a journalist, and showed the principal the pictures of some learners smoking what appeared to be an illegal substance. Bell allegedly told her that, although drugs were not tolerated at the school, they had experienced several instances where learners had been caught with illegal substances in their possession. “He said they were either smoking or dealing in drugs on the school premises. I got the impression that he wasn’t too surprised by what he saw on the pictures. He told me when learners are caught with drugs their parents are contacted and they are referred to a local drug centre near the school.”

She also states that deputy chairman of the Woodstock Community Policing Forum Rafiqa Booley had told her that they had a huge problem with tik, especially at Salt River High School.

The reporter concludes, “The information and awareness of the general public of the issue at hand warranted a story. For the protection of the children the learners’ faces were blurred (in the pictures).”

This is Knipe’s account of the incident:

He says it was first interval, and he could clearly see the learners were smoking something out of a pipe. He then shot images from a relative’s premises. He attests that he saw this many times before, saying that he reported this to a teacher – who told him they knew about the learners smoking a substance at that spot. He adds Bell told him they knew that learners were doing drugs behind the school. “He said several learners were already sent home because they smelled like dagga. He said they don’t tolerate drugs on the school but had to let some of the safety officers go because they could not afford to pay them.”

Bell replies that:

·         the evidence presented in the newspaper’s response was not reflected in the original story and the reader did not have the benefit of this information; and

·         the information presented by Knipe was not part of the published story and can best be regarded as hearsay and guessing – and no clear evidence was presented that “the drug smoked was tik”.

Analysis

It seems to me that the use of drugs at the school is not in question, as Bell has had the chance to refute the allegation after the response by the newspaper (as cited above), but did not do so. Also, all the newspaper’s arguments point in the same direction, namely that drugs had been used. This, to my mind, renders the journalism reasonable.

The only remaining issues are the kind of drug, and whether Daily Voice was justified in stating tik use as a fact in its headline.

Given the testimony of the deputy chairman of the Woodstock Community Policing Forum, it probably was reasonable to assume that the substance was tik. However, that was still an assumption (as it could have been dagga, or another kind of substance) – presented in the front-page headline as fact.

This is contrary to the Press Code that says a headline should reasonably reflect the content of a story. A newspaper is not justified to state an allegation as fact in a headline.

Judge Phillip Levinsohn has ruled in a 2013 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. (I have asked him personally if this interpretation was correct, to which he replied in the affirmative.)

I also take into account that tik is a far more dangerous substance than dagga, which means that there is a possibility that the headline could have caused the school some unnecessary harm.

I appreciate the fact that the newspaper did blur the faces of the children, and believe it was indeed in the public interest to report the matter.

Finding

The complaint is dismissed, save for the statement of fact that the drug used at the school was tik. This is in breach of Section 10.1 of the Press Code that says, “Headlines…shall give a reasonable reflection of the contents of the report…in question.”

Seriousness of breaches

Under the headline Hierarchy of sanctions, Section 8 of our Complaints Procedures distinguishes between minor breaches (Tier 1), serious breaches (Tier 2) and serious misconduct (Tier 3).

The statement of fact in the front-page headline that tik was involved is a Tier 2 offence.

Sanction

Daily Voice is reprimanded for stating an assumption as fact in its front-page headline, and directed to publish a summary of this finding on page 2. If the headline appeared on its website, the text should be published there as well.

The newspaper is asked to prepare the text, which should be approved by me and should end with the sentence, “Visit www.presscouncil.org.za for the full finding.”

The headline should reflect the content of the text. A heading such as “Matter of Fact”, or something similar, is not acceptable.

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