The Democratic Alliance vs The New Age

Complainant: The Democratic Alliance

Lodged by: Geordin Hill-Lewis

Article: Zille’s nose grows longer and longer; (story and excerpt were both published on 24 January 2013)‘Hypocrite’ Zille lambasted by Cosatu, SACP (January 25); and  Zille caught out once again (January 28).

Author of article: Warren Mabona

Date: 4 May 2013

Respondent: The New Age

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COMPLAINT

The DA complains about three front page stories in The New Age, as well as about an excerpt of an interview that Redi Tlhabi from Radio 702 had conducted with the leader of the DA, Ms Helen Zille. The stories were headlined:

·         Zille’s nose grows longer and longer; (story and excerpt were both published on 24 January 2013);

·         ‘Hypocrite’ Zille lambasted by Cosatu, SACP (January 25); and

·         Zille caught out once again (January 28).

Please note that the stories in dispute were published before the new Press Code came into effect (on 1 February 2013). Therefore, I need to apply the former Code to this complaint, even though the DA used the new Code as it appeared on our website. I am convinced that the DA is not prejudiced by this situation in any way.

The first story

The DA complains that the:

·         story and its headline falsely stated/implied that Zille had lied by saying that she was unaware that Telkom had sponsored a breakfast briefing hosted by TNA and the SABC (on February 2, 2013);

·         excerpt deliberately and misleadingly cut out a material section of what Zille had said; and

·         journalist did not afford its office an opportunity to comment.

The second story

The DA complains that the newspaper failed to contact the party for a response to the many “serious” allegations made against it and its leader.

The third story

The DA complains that the:

·         story did not fully reflect the sequence of events regarding Zille’s receipt of funding from the Gupta family and that the article, as well as the headline and sub-headlines falsely implied that she was (again) guilty of hypocrisy and lying;

·         story did not accurately and fairly reflect the content of the story in the Weekend Argus that it referred to; and

·         newspaper did not ask it for comment.

ANALYSIS

First story; excerpt

The background to this story is that Zille withdrew from the February 2 meeting (in 2013) after she had previously participated in a similar meeting (in 2012) that was also sponsored by Telkom (amongst other sponsors).

The story, written by Warren Mabona, said that Zille had double talked over her participation in TNA’s business briefing. ANC spokesperson Jackson Mthembu reportedly called on Zille to apologise for lying by saying that she did not know that Telkom had sponsored a breakfast briefing hosted by the newspaper and the SABC in 2012 (in which she had participated).

Lying about Telkom’s sponsorship

The headline, of course, referred to Pinocchio, the character whose nose grew longer the more he had lied. The headline was accompanied by a picture of Zille’s face, together with a long “extension” of her “nose”.

The intro to the story read: “The furore over Democratic Alliance leader Helen Zille’s double talk over her participation in The New Age Business Briefing continued yesterday…”

The DA complains that this, as well as the headline, was incorrect – she never said that she did not know that Telkom was to sponsor the event on February 2 (2013). Instead, “she stated that (earlier) she was unaware of the nature of the sponsorships provided by Telkom and by other SOE’s…” (own emphasis).

The party adds that the rest of the article essentially relied on the “information” that Zille had lied by saying that she did not know that Telkom was going to sponsor the meeting. It says that the rest of the story contained criticism against Zille, based on incorrect information.

The DA provided me with a media statement by Zille on 22 January 2013, in which she said that she had assumed that the breakfast events had been funded by the newspaper and by members of the public who purchased tickets to attend. “Now that it has come to light that the Breakfasts are funded by public money via the SOEs to the tune of millions of rand, the DA cannot continue to participate.”

She consequently withdrew from the meeting.

TNA argues that both the headline and the contents of the story were constitutionally protected as fair comment. It says that Clause 3 of the Press Code protects the right of a publication to advocate its own views (read: to comment)

The newspaper outlines four requirements that need to be met in order to establish if comment is fair – statements must be comment or opinion, they must be fair, they must be true, and they must be in the public interest.

It argues:

Comment/opinion

The newspaper says that the headline was “clearly an expression of opinion by TNA”; the content of the story reporter various people’s opinion. It says that the ordinary reader would not have construed the statements as anything other than opinion.

Fair

TNA mentions that comment should be honestly held, and should not be malicious. The newspaper says that the DA has not put forward any evidence to show the opposite. It therefore submits that the comments were fair.

True

The newspaper says the allegation that Zille made inconsistent statements is correct. TNA points out that, in her media statement (on 21 January 2013), she left the impression that she previously thought that the events were funded by the newspaper and by members of the public who bought tickets to attend. However, a video clip of the previous breakfast shows that she was aware that Telkom was a sponsor of that event (in 2012).

TNA states that it was only after it had released the footage that Zille sought to “clarify” her initial media statement by arguing that she had discovered how much money was involved to fund the breakfasts. The newspaper argues: “The fact is that the original media statement did not contain an acknowledgement that Zille had always been aware that Telkom was a sponsor. Instead, it sought to create the impression that this was a new piece of information that had just come to light. It was therefore correct for TNA to interpret Zille’s statements as contradictory and dishonest.”

The newspaper says that the story did not set out the background facts in full – but argues that it would have been an impossible burden and points out that the story should have been interpreted in light of various other related articles in TNA as well as in other publications.

Public interest

TNA says that there should be no argument as to the public interest in this matter.

The DA replies that the newspaper’s response “displays a lack of understanding of the difference between news and opinion, and disregards the Code’s requirement for a clear differentiation between the two”.

In another part of the complaint, which is also relevant here, the DA says that that Zille explained clearly that she was under the impression that Telkom had sponsored the event “in the ordinary sense” – meaning, a contribution to the cost of the event. However, when she learnt that the amount involved was R1-million (far more than the cost of the event), this fundamentally changed her view.

TNA’s response brings two issues to the fore – that of comment in hard news stories, and the question if its reportage was true.

Firstly: The newspaper, through its attorneys, fundamentally misunderstands the Press Code where it relates to comment. (By the way, TNA consistently refers to Section 3 of the – former – Code, which should of course have been Section 7).

Note that the Code deals with requirements for the reporting of hard news in Section 1. These stories may, of course, contain comment by sources – as long as it is clearly presented as such. Publications, on the other hand, are not allowed to comment in hard news stories. In fact, hard news stories should not even contain adjectives or adverbs – they are all comment, which has no place in factual stories.

The same goes for headlines that cover such articles.

The section that TNA refers to deals with comment in columns – which the three stories in dispute were not.

The newspaper’s argument about fair comment therefore falls away.

I also note that the comments (as alleged by TNA) were in fact statements of fact, as interpreted by the journalists. (The headline stated as fact that Zille’s nose grew longer and longer, and in the intro to the story, her “double talk” was also stated as fact – and neither of these were attributed to sources.)

Therefore, I now need to establish how reasonable it was for the newspaper to state as fact that Zille had lied, both in the story and in the headline.

But before I do that, let me ponder for a while on the difference between “interpretation” and “comment”, as these two concepts are quite akin.

This is what I mean: Every journalist needs to interpret information in order to come to a meaningful story, which does not mean that that reporter comments on the matter. The same goes for writers of headlines – they also need to interpret the story to come to a justifiable wording that reasonably reflects the contents of a story, and again this does not boil down to comment.

Therefore, if a journalist interprets information (as s/he should) and states it as fact, the only media ethical question is how justified the reporter was to come to that conclusion. That is why I stated above that I need to determine if the journalist had reasonable cause to come to the conclusion that is in dispute.

Now: My first consideration is that Zille, at the previous TNA breakfast meeting in 2012, thanked Telkom for its sponsorship. The DA did not dispute this.

However, in Zille’s media statement (21 January 2013) she said: “I, and other senior DA colleagues, have previously spoken at the (sic) New Age Business Breakfasts, under the assumption that the events were funded by the newspaper and by the members of the public who purchase tickets to attend. Now that it has come to light that the Breakfasts are funded by public money…the DA cannot continue to participate.”

It is hard to see how this can be reconciled with Zille thanking Telkom for its sponsorship in 2012.

She also wrote: “Now that it has come to light that the Breakfasts are funded by public money via the SOEs to the tune of millions of rand, the DA cannot continue to participate.” In that case, it seems as if it not so much the use of public money that was Zille’s problem, but rather the excessive use thereof.

Be that as it may, TNA took her words seriously (as it should have – words have meanings).

Please note that I am not accusing Zille of lying. “I am merely concluding that the newspaper cannot be blamed for interpreting her media release the way it did,” he said.

Omitting important information

The DA complains that the excerpt deliberately and misleadingly cut out a material section of what Zille had said.

It says that the excerpt omitted to state that:

·         when thanking Telkom at the breakfast, Zille thought that the company had made a contribution towards the cost of the event – she had no idea of the true nature of the sponsorship, namely that Telkom gave TNA R1-million;

·         Zille had raised some key questions relating to Telkom’s sponsorship, pointing out that it had been a mechanism to channel state funds to a company owned by benefactors of Pres Jacob Zuma and the ANC; and

·         the interviewer agreed with these statements by Zille.

The DA says: “In other words, The New Age deliberately cut out a section of the interview where Mrs. Zille explains her mistaken understanding of Telkom’s sponsorship when she attended the breakfast and why she changed her position when the true nature of this sponsorship…came to light.”

TNA disagrees – it says that the excerpt incorporated a substantial portion of Zille’s explanation regarding her position and that there was nothing inaccurate or unbalanced about this text. It also argues that it was entitled to exercise editorial discretion.

The DA replies that the excerpt did not refer to the issue of the extent to which Telkom had sponsored the breakfast. It says that Zille explained clearly that she was under the impression that Telkom had sponsored the event “in the ordinary sense” – a contribution to the cost of the event”. However, when she learnt that the amount involved was R1-million (far more than the cost of the event), this fundamentally changed her view. “This portion of the excerpt is crucial to the context of the article, and we submit its omission constitutes the distortion or suppression of relevant facts.”

This part of the complaint also has no legs to stand on. Given the limited space at the newspaper’s disposal, it in fact did well to highlight exactly the point that the DA complains that was omitted. Consider the following quote, made by Zille and reported in the excerpt: “The critical new fact that you have to take into account is the quantum of the sponsorship. It wasn’t the venue, it wasn’t the food, it was the R1m straight donation. Now that is a completely different set of circumstances…”

This sufficiently summarised the exact issue that the DA says that the excerpt omitted.

No opportunity to comment

The DA complains that the journalist did not afford its office an opportunity to comment and to respond to the criticism levelled against it by the ANC, the ANC Women’s League and the newspaper itself.

TNA says that the excerpt sufficiently portrayed her views on the matter.

The DA replies that the newspaper did not ask Zille about the central issue, which was the allegation that she had lied.

Yes and no. It is true that the question by the interviewer to Zille was not to defend herself about lying. On the other hand, though, the excerpt was mainly about her explanation for withdrawing from the breakfast – which, by implication, was refuting the allegation that she had lied.

Second story

This story was written by Siyabonga Mkhwanazi and Luyolo Mkentane. The article reported on criticism levelled against Zille by various people in response to the first story.

Not asked for comment

The DA summarises some “serious allegations” in this story made against Zille and the party, including that:

·         the DA and big media houses were colluding to undermine new entrants such as TNA and to undermine community media in general and community print in particular;

·         the DA was against transformation in the media industry;

·         her withdrawal from future TNA business briefings was a “publicity stunt” and politically motivated;

·         the Western Cape government was using public funds to buy airtime on local radio stations to promote Zille;

·         she had lied by saying that she did not know that TNA breakfast was funded by Telkom;

·         she had been guilty of hypocrisy and double-speaking; and

·         the DA was jealous of TNA business briefings and that it had been trying to “muzzle” the press.

The DA complains that the newspaper failed to contact the party for a response to these allegations. This, it argues, proved that the story was nothing more than a smear campaign against Zille and itself.

TNA says that this story should be understood within the context of the widespread reportage on this matter, and that Zille’s explanation was well-known at the time of publication (it also refers to the excerpt of her views that it published the day before).

The DA rejects this defence. It says that the newspaper never gave Zille an opportunity to respond to the serious allegations levelled against her and the party.

The newspaper is correct in that Zille’s explanation about her alleged lying was in the public domain at the time. However, the DA’s list (bulleted above) did include some new allegations – some of which were quite serious. TNA should have asked her comment on these new allegations. By not doing so, it did put Zille and her party at an unfair disadvantage.

Third story

This story, headlined Zille caught out once again and also written by Siyabonga Mkhwanazi,  said that Zille “walked into another storm” following a newspaper report (in the Weekend Argus) that she had solicited funding for the DA from the Gupta family (the Guptas owned TNA). Sources accused her of hypocrisy, as on the one had she allegedly accepted a donation by the Guptas, and on the other hand she refused to attend a TNA meeting (that is allegedly mainly funded by the same family). The article included criticism from various people to this effect. (Whether or not these sources were right or wrong is not the issue here.)

The article also referred to two other stories to substantiate the “caught out once again” allegation. These stories were headlined:

·         Zille’s double talk (published in TNA on 22 January 2013), with an arrow that contained the words “1: Zille the hypocrite”; and

·         DA ‘took money from Guptas’ (on January 27, in the Weekend Argus), with another arrow, saying: “Zille the hypocrite: 2”.

In its complaint, the DA discusses what was allegedly wrong with the story on 22 January. I cannot entertain it, though, as the party did not complain about this particular story. The same goes for the content of the story in the Weekend Argus. However, it is indeed important to determine if this story accurately and fairly reflected the one in the Argus (because it used it as a source).

Sequence of events

The intro read: “DA leader Helen Zille walked into another storm yesterday following a media report that she solicited funding for her party from the Gupta family.” The rest of the story explains this statement by quoting several sources.

The DA complains that the story did not fully reflect the sequence of events regarding Zille’s receipt of funding from the Gupta family. It argues that the story and the headlines falsely implied that there was something wrong with the party allegedly having received funding from the Guptas – and that it used this as a basis to portray Zille as being a hypocrite.

The party also says: “It implies that like the ANC, the DA took a sponsorship from the Gupta’s (sic) and channelled public money to them in return – this is why Mrs. Zille is accused of begin a hypocrite.” The DA says that the story made this allegation despite the fact that Zille made it clear (in a story published by the Weekend Argus) that it had never channeled public money to the Guptas.

It adds that the story omitted to state that it has never channeled public money to the Guptas in return for a donation. It says that the criticism that Cope leader Mosiuoa Lekota and UDM leader Bantu Holomisa raised “would also have been rebutted by including this fact”.

The DA also complains that the headline and sub-headlines falsely implied that Zille was guilty of hypocrisy and lying.

TNA says that the:

·         headline and the content were protected as fair comment;

·         context of other related stories should be taken into account;

·         story clearly contained the comment of those who were mentioned (and that its contents were opinion, and not factual); and

·         reference in the story to two other articles was sufficient – it was not obliged to regurgitate every fact in the story in dispute.

The DA replies that the newspaper – again – confused news with comment. “The headline presents as ‘fact’ the opinion that Helen Zille has been ‘caught out again’ and that she is a ‘hypocrite’ on two counts,” it says.

Firstly, here are my considerations about the content of the story:

·         The sources that the story quoted were entitled to their opinions, and TNA was justified in reporting those opinions and it properly attributed these views;

·         The journalist sought Zille’s view, and reported it; and

·         The statement that the story omitted to say that Zille has never channeled public money to the Guptas cannot hold water – her quoted statement that it was wrong when governments abuse their power to channel money to their donor’s private businesses under the guise of sponsorships was sufficient (as it implies exactly what the DA says that the story omitted).

Now, regarding the headlines: I have already decided that TNA was justified in accusing Zille of lying (please see my argument above, which boils down to the conviction that the accusation was not necessarily true), which made the first reference to her as a hypocrite also justifiable (but not necessarily true).

However, the second reference to her as a hypocrite was problematic. This referred to the story in the Weekend Argus, headlined DA ‘took money from the Guptas’. While the story in TNA attributed the allegation of being a hypocrite to some sources (which it was entitled to do – and which the story in the Argus also did), the Zille, the hypocrite was stated as fact. The newspaper was not entitled to do this, as the Press Code requires that a headline should reasonably reflect the content of the story. To state in a headline the opinion of sources as fact, without attributing that statement, amounts to an unreasonable reflection of the content of the story.

Having made a decision on the second Zille, the hypocrite, it follows that the main headline can also not be defended. It read: Zille caught out once again. The “once again” was unfounded, unfair and unjustifiable.

Inaccurate, unfair reflection

The DA complains that the story inaccurately and unfairly reflected the story in the Weekend Argus.

The newspaper does not respond to this part of the complaint.

After studying both texts, I am satisfied that this complaint is without foundation as the gist of the story in the Argus is indeed adequately reflected in TNA’s article.

Not asked for comment

The DA complains that newspaper did not ask it for comment. It singles out a statement by ANC Western Cape leader Marius Fransman that the DA had received a R4-million donation to upgrade the party’s offices and that it should come clean on who provided this funding. It says:  “The New Age failed to contact that (sic) DA media office or Mrs. Zille in order to respond to Mr Fransman’s allegations.” It adds that this also held true regarding the other negative criticisms and allegations levelled against Zille and her party.

TNA says that:

·         its journalist did approach Zille for comment, and states that her reply was, in relevant part, incorporated in the story;

·         it was not required to get comment on every allegation made in the story – “this would be impractical and onerous on the media”; and

·         Zille was given a right of reply to the crux of what the story was about.

Again: Fransman’s allegation, and those of other sources, begged for comment.

FINDING

First story; excerpt

This part of the complaint is dismissed in its entirety.

Second story

Not asked for comment

TNA should have asked Zille or her office for comment on some newly made and serious allegations, such as that:

·         the DA and big media houses were colluding to undermine new entrants such as TNA and to undermine community media in general and community print in particular;

·         the DA was against transformation in the media industry;

·         her withdrawal from future TNA business briefings was a “publicity stunt” and politically motivated;

·         the Western Cape government was using public funds to buy airtime on local radio stations to promote Zille;

·         she had been guilty of hypocrisy and double-speaking; and

·         the DA was jealous of TNA business briefings and that it had been trying to “muzzle” the press.

The neglect to do this is in breach of Art. 1.5 of the Press Code that says: “A publication should usually seek the view of the subject of serious critical reportage in advance of publication…”

Third story

Sequence of events

The complaint regarding the story is dismissed.

The complaint about the headlines is upheld – the second reference to Zille as being a hypocrite and the main headline are in breach of Art. 11.1 of the Press Code that states: “Headlines…shall give a reasonable reflection to the contents of the report…in question.”

Inaccurate, unfair reflection

This part of the complaint is dismissed.

Not asked for comment

TNA should have asked Zille or her party about the statement by an ANC official that her party had received a R4-million donation to upgrade its offices and that it should come clean on who provided this funding.

This neglect is in breach of Art. 1.5 of the Press Code.

SANCTION

The New Age is directed to apologise to the DA for:

·         not asking it or its leader for comment on several important issues contained in the second and the third stories that the party complained about (and in this process putting her and her party at an unfair disadvantage); and

·         unjustifiable headlines in the third story that stated as fact, instead of an attributed opinion, that she was a hypocrite.

 

The newspaper is directed to publish Zille’s or the DA’s comment on the following matters (that is, if she or her party wants to comment), namely that:

·         the DA and big media houses were colluding to undermine new entrants such as TNA and to undermine community media in general and community print in particular;

·         the DA was against transformation in the media industry;

·         her withdrawal from future TNA business briefings was a “publicity stunt” and politically motivated;

·         the Western Cape government was using public funds to buy airtime on local radio stations to promote Zille;

·         she had been guilty of hypocrisy and double-speaking;

·         the DA was jealous of TNA business briefings and that it had been trying to “muzzle” the press; and

·         that the DA allegedly received a R4-million donation to upgrade its offices and that it should come clean on who provided this funding.

This text should form a second story (not exceeding 400 words) that should be published inside the paper, and should be approved by Zille’s media team as well as by this office.

The newspaper is directed to publish at least the first five paragraphs of the text below on its front page – with a headline that contains the words “apology” or “apologises”, and “Zille” or “DA”. If this story runs over to an inside page, it should be published next to Zille’s or the DA’s comments as outlined above.

Beginning of text

The New Age apologises to the DA and its leader, Mrs Helen Zille, for not asking them for comment on several important issues contained in two stories that we published earlier this year, and for headlines in one story that unjustifiably made her out to be a liar and a hypocrite.

The DA’s media team lodged a complaint with the Press Ombudsman about three stories about Zille’s withdrawal from our breakfast meeting that was partly sponsored by Telkom.

The background to these stories was that Zille withdrew from our February 2 breakfast meeting (in 2013) because of Telkom’s sponsorship of that event. However, she also participated in a similar one (in 2012). The stories were headlined: Zille’s nose grows longer and longer (published on 24 January), ‘Hypocrite’ Zille lambasted by Cosatu, SACP (the next day), and Zille caught out once again (January 28) – with two sub-headlines that both referred to her as a hypocrite.

Press Ombudsman Johan Retief directed us to publish Zille’s comments on several issues of material importance (see the story on page…). He said that, by neglecting to report her comments, we put her and her party “at an unfair disadvantage”.

He also found that we erred for calling her a hypocrite (in a sub-heading in the third story), and for stating as fact that she was caught out “once again”. We erred because in the headlines we presented opinions of our sources as fact.

Retief said that we were not entitled to do this, as the Press Code requires that a headline should reasonably reflect the content of the story. “To state in a headline the opinion of sources as fact, without attributing that statement, amounts to an unreasonable reflection of the content of the story,” he said, and added that these transgressions were unfounded, unfair and unjustifiable – hence our apology.

Regarding the first story, the Ombudsman dismissed in its entirety the complaint that our story and headline falsely stated/implied that Zille had lied by saying that she was unaware that Telkom had sponsored a breakfast briefing hosted by TNA and the SABC.

Retief said: “My first consideration is that Zille, at the previous TNA breakfast meeting in 2012, thanked Telkom for its sponsorship. The DA did not dispute this.

“However, in Zille’s media statement (21 January 2013) she said: ‘I, and other senior DA colleagues, have previously spoken at the (sic) New Age Business Breakfasts, under the assumption that the events were funded by the newspaper and by the members of the public who purchase tickets to attend. Now that it has come to light that the Breakfasts are funded by public money…the DA cannot continue to participate’.

“It is hard to see how this can be reconciled with Zille thanking Telkom for its sponsorship in 2012.”

Retief said that we merely took her words seriously (as we should have – words have meanings), and added that he was not accusing Zille of lying. “I am merely concluding that the newspaper cannot be blamed for interpreting her media release the way it did,” he said.

He also dismissed other parts of the complaint, including that an excerpt of a radio interview with Zille deliberately and misleadingly cut out a material section of what she had said.

Visit www.presscouncil.org.za for the full finding.

End of text

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 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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