Savita Mbuli vs Sunday Sun

Complainant: Savita Mbuli

Lodged by: Savita Mbuli

Article: Savita smokes peace pipe with Vuyo’s dad

Author of article: Bongani Mdakane

Date: 21 February 2015

Respondent: Johan Vos, assistant editor of the Sunday Sun

This ruling is based on the written submissions of Ms Savita Mbuli and those of Johan Vos, assistant editor of the Sunday Sun newspaper, as well as on a hearing that was held on 17 February 2015 in Johannesburg.

Mbuli represented herself; Sunday Sun publisher Jeremy Gordin, editor Prince Chauke, journalist Bongani Mdakane and Vos appeared for the newspaper. The members of the Panel of Adjudicators who assisted the Ombudsman were Moshoeshoe Monare (press representative) and Peter Mann (public representative)

Complaint

Mbuli, the widow of the late TV presenter Vuyo Mbuli, is complaining about an article published in Sunday Sun of 11 January 2015, headlined Savita smokes peace pipe with Vuyo’s dad.

She complains that the:

  • report contained several incorrect and misleading statements (details below);
  • journalist did not speak to her – yet the report gave that impression; and
  • information was not verified with her or the Mbuli family, that it was based on opinion/allegations and not on facts, that it was therefore unbalanced and inaccurate, and that the journalist did not report that the information had not been verified.

The text

The report, written by Bongani Mdakane, said that Mbuli had smoked a peace pipe with her late husband’s family. According to a source, Bab’ Jimmy (her father-in-law) called her to his house to deal with their differences. The newspaper also reported that she and her children had attended Bab’ Jimmy’s funeral.

Analysis

Mbuli complains that the report incorrectly/misleadingly stated the following:

  • Bab’ Jimmy had called her to his house to deal with their differences, and that he told her she should know, before he died, that he had forgiven her for her “dramatic antics”.

Mbuli says she has been going to Bab’ Jimmy’s house since 1995 as and when she wanted – even after her husband’s death. The only time she was “called” to that house after her husband’s death was by her mother-in-law, who wanted to be taken to a doctor.

Vos replies that Mdakane spoke to three mourners who attended Bab’ Jimmy’s funeral, that they confirmed his information that Bab’ Jimmy had called Mbuli to his house, “and their quotations are indicated in the story”.

  • She was “so happy”, and Vuyo’s kids Siphosihle and Sithenkose were “excited” – she believed her life would be better after being accepted back into the family.

Mbuli complains that the first two statements are untrue. She adds that the journalist assumed the power to divorce her from her family and report her as an outsider; he also assumed that her life was bad at the time of publication.

  • She was driving a “Range Rover Evoke”, and her children were travelling in a black Audi A4.

Vos admits that the name of the Range Rover “Evoke” was misspelt, as it should have read “Range Rover Evoque”. However, he says Mdakane maintains that Mbuli did travel in a Range Rover Evoque. “The journalist was right behind them travelling in his car.”

  • She used to cry all the time, saying she did not know what to do to get close to Vuyo’s family.

Mbuli says this statement is not only untrue, but the story also contradicts itself on this issue as it reports that she was seen hugging and kissing family members.

  • She and the kids were seen praying at the grave after Bab’ Jimmy had been laid to rest.

Mbuli complains that this is a fabrication and argues that Mdakane’s “imaginative writing skills have gone too far” – she and her kids left early to visit other family graves.

Vos replies that Mdakane witnessed Mbuli and her kids praying at the grave.

No communication

The article reports, “Savita says: ‘I came here to bid the father of my husband farewell. He has been a great person in my life and his passing is a sad loss for us. He wanted the best for me and Vuyo.’”

Mbuli complains that the journalist never spoke to her – yet the report gave that impression. “I never spoke to Sunday Sun by voice, text or any other form. I was never contacted by [a]Sunday Sun journalist and what is attributed to me in the article I never said. This is [a]gross distortion…”

Vos says Mdakane attended the funeral and spoke to Mbuli. “He can even describe that [she]was wearing a black dress and her children were also wearing black clothing. Bongani also described Mbuli and her children wearing sunglasses.”

No verification; consequences

Mbuli complains that the journalist did not verify the information with the Mbuli family or with her, and that it was based on opinion/allegations and not on facts – resulting in an unbalanced and inaccurate report. She adds that the journalist did not report that his information had not been verified.

The panel’s considerations

The main issue is whether or not Mdakane interviewed Mbuli. Secondly and to a lesser extent, whether or not he attended the funeral.

At the hearing Mdakane insisted that he did both; Mbuli was adamant that the reporter was lying.

Regrettably, this turned the hearing into an investigative forum. In the absence of an admission from either side, it was left to the panel to decide who was telling the truth – because somebody was lying.

Honesty

The Ombudsman and his panel are deeply uncomfortable with this role. We are not an investigative body with the power to subpoena witnesses or conduct investigations. We expect those who appear before us to be truthful. It is deeply disturbing that, self-evidently, in this matter the opposing versions meant that someone was being untruthful.

Honesty is fundamental to the media freedom that the voluntary system of independent co-regulation – by means of the Press Council and the Press Ombudsman − has been created to serve.

The system of mediation and arbitration of the Press Council of South Africa depends on it being used honestly by both complainant and defendant. We exist primarily to implement the South African Press Code – not to decide which of two parties is telling the truth.

It will be evident that we approached this task with displeasure. In deciding who was telling the truth, Mbuli or Mdakane, we had no alternative but to rely on a balance of probabilities and the relative credibility of the parties.

Interview?

Questioned by the panel, Mdakane said he had put the allegation to Mbuli that she had cried all the time. At first he insisted that he had only interviewed her once. However, the panel pointed out that, according to his notes / draft story, he only interviewed the person who made this claim after he had interviewed Mbuli – so he could not have known about it when he interviewed her.

He then changed his version, saying he had gone back to ask her about it in a second interview.

Sadly, this was not the last time the reporter contradicted himself.

Notes? Verification?

We asked Mdakane to produce the notebook containing his notes of the interviews for his report, including the notes of his interview with Mbuli.

His notebook contained few, if any, “raw” notes, i.e. notes taken as the interviews happened. Instead, it contained a handwritten draft of his report on the funeral. According to this draft he had interviewed four people, including Mbuli.

The first was a member of the church, who allegedly told Mdakane how Mbuli had been called to the house by her father-in-law to deal with their differences and to be told that she had been forgiven for her “dramatic antics”.

Then, the draft story – the reporter’s “notes” – refers to his alleged interview with Mbuli and records that she told him she had come to bid farewell to the father of her husband; that he was a great person in her life; that his passing was a sad loss; and that he had wanted the best for her and her deceased husband, Vuyo.

Next, according to his draft/notes he interviewed somebody else Mbuli, who told him how she used to cry all the time, saying she did not know how to get close to Vuyo’s family.

Finally, he interviewed another source who said that Mbuli believed her life would get better now that she had been accepted back into the family.

Gordin told the panel that most of his reporters now relied on cellphone recordings rather than notebooks. The panel agreed that his view might be correct. However, nothing prevented Mdakane from producing a cellphone recording of any of his interviews.

Chauke asked if the panel really expected Mdakane to produce notes of his interviews. We did.

Even though Mdakane told the panel he had taken notes, he failed to produce credible evidence to this effect. He could not substantiate his claim that he took notes of the alleged interview.

At the end, Gordin conceded that there were indeed no notes of the “interview”, and that Mdakane therefore also did not verify statements in the story about Mbuli with her, as required by the Press Code.

We appreciate this honesty.

Affidavit

At the hearing, Sunday Sun produced an affidavit in support of Mdakane’s claims that he had been at the funeral. However, this document − attested to by Mr Mzwakhe Mbuli, a son of the deceased − merely states that he (Mbuli) had attended the church service for his father. It makes no mention of the presence of Mdakane, nor does it say that Mzwakhe Mbuli attended the burial at the cemetery – merely that he remained at the church until the end of the “funeral service”.

The affidavit has to be dismissed as evidence that Mdakane either attended the funeral or interviewed Mbuli.

Mdakane changed his testimony on Mzwakhe Mbuli’s attendance as well – first, he told the panel that the latter only attended the church service and did not go to the cemetery; later, he said that Mbuli was also at the graveyard.

Attire

Mdakane was then questioned about what Mbuli and her two children were wearing at the funeral and when he allegedly interviewed her. He first said they were dressed in black, and then he amplified this by saying Mbuli was wearing a black dress and a hat, and described what the children were wearing.

Mbuli showed the panel a photograph of her and her son taken at the funeral. Most notably, she had carried a large white parasol, shading herself from the sun. She also pointed out that her son was wearing a white shirt and not a black one, as claimed by Mdakane.

The reporter was also asked what the church minister officiating at the burial was wearing. He claimed the priest was wearing a black robe with a purple vestment.
Mbuli disputed this, saying that the Methodist minister had worn red and white.

Particulars

We also discussed the following statements in the report, all denied by Mbuli:

  • The late Mr Jimmy Mbuli “called her” to his home;
  • Her children were “excited” that the issues between her and the Mbuli family were laid to rest;
  • She used to “cry all the time”;
  • She “believed her life will better after being accepted back into the family”;
  • She and her children were seen praying at the grave after Mr Jimmy Mbuli had been laid to rest; and
  • She was driving in a “Range Rover Evoke” and her children were in an “Audi A4”.

The panel takes into consideration that the first four statements were all attributed to sources. Mdakane was justified in reporting those statements – but then, again, he should have verified them with Mbuli (which he did not).

The statement that she and her children were praying at Mr Jimmy Mbuli’s grave after he had been laid to rest was inaccurate. (Mbuli’s testimony that she had left the ceremony at the cemetery early and that she and her children in fact prayed at her late husband’s grave was credible). The references to a “Range Rover Evoke” and an “Audi A4” were also not correct.

Conclusion

Based on these inconsistencies, the panel does not believe that Mdakane interviewed Mbuli. This is an extremely serious matter, as the report included a direct quote by Mbuli, as if he had spoken to her.

If anything is worse than plagiarism, this is it.

Sadly, Mdakane has violated the following sentence in the Preamble to the Press Code:

As journalists, we commit ourselves to the highest standards of excellence, to maintain credibility and keep the trust of our readers.”

When read as a whole, the report also unnecessarily portrayed Mbuli in a negative light (as someone with “dramatic antics” who had to be “forgiven”).

Mbuli held to her view that Mdakane had not interviewed her, even when Gordin put it to her that it would have very serious consequences for Mdakane if he was found to be untruthful.

We urge the newspaper to take corrective steps to ensure that reporting of this kind will never happen again, and to take up the matter with the reporter.

Finding

The report falsely created the impression that the reporter had interviewed Mbuli. This is in breach of the following sections of the Press Code:

  • 2.1: “The press shall take care to report news truthfully, accurately and fairly”; and
  • 2.2 “News shall be presented in context and in a balanced manner, without any intentional or negligent departure from the facts whether by distortion…”

By neglecting to ask Mbuli for comment on the statements made about her, the reporter has placed Sunday Sun in breach of Sect. 2.5 of the Code that says: “A publication shall seek the views of the subject of critical reportage in advance of publication… If the publication is unable to obtain such a comment, this shall be stated in the report.”

The statement that Mbuli and her children were seen praying at Mr Jimmy Mbuli’s grave after he had been laid to rest, and the references to the vehicles were inaccurate and in breach of Section 2.1 of the Code.

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 false impression that Mdakane had interviewed Mbuli prior to publication is a Tier 3 offence.

His neglect to ask Mbuli for comment on the statements made about her, as well as the unfair portrayal of her as a troublesome person are Tier 2 offences.

The statement that Mbuli and her children were seen praying at Mr Jimmy Mbuli’s grave after he had been laid to rest, and the references to the vehicles are Tier 1 offences.

Sanction

Sunday Sun is directed to publish on:

  • its front page a kicker with the words “apology” or “apologises”, and Mbuli’s surname, together with the page on which the text itself will be published;
  • any page between 2 and 5 a summary of this finding, which should include an unconditional apology to Mbuli for:
    • unnecessarily portraying her in a negative light;
    • not asking her for comment on statements made about her in the story; and
    • falsely creating the impression that the reporter had interviewed the subject of his story.

The headline should make it clear that the newspaper apologises to Mbuli.

The newspaper should prepare this text, which should be approved both by the panel and by Mbuli. If there is any dispute about the wording, the panel will make the final decision.

The text should end with the words: “Visit www.presscouncil.org.za for the full finding.”

Please note:

Section 5.5 of the Complaints Procedures reads: “At the conclusion of a hearing, and after a Panel has reached a decision, both parties shall be entitled to address the Panel, personally or in writing, on sanctions and where appropriate mitigation.”

Either party may do so within three working days of receipt of this decision. Please note that this is not an application for leave to appeal – that is a separate process, as explained below.

Appeal

Our Complaints Procedures lay down that within seven days of receipt of this decision, any of the parties 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 reached at khanyim@ombudsman.org.za.

Moshoeshoe Monare (press representative)

Peter Mann (public representative)

Johan Retief (press ombudsman)

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