The Democratic Alliance vs The Star

Complainant: The Democratic Alliance

Lodged by: Gavin Davis, Executive Director of Communications

Article: Zille doesn’t want a black DA – Coetzee

Date: 10 December 2012

Respondent: The Star

Complaint

The DA complains about two stories in The Star on 16 October 2012 and headlined Zille doesn’t want a black DA – Coetzee. The strapline on the front page said: Sources say Ryan Coetzee (picture), a former Democratic Alliance strategist, left the party when he realised that Helen Zille was not committed to transformation and to attracting black leaders to its ranks. The sources went on to say that Zille’s “refugee” remarks had also made Coetzee’s job difficult.

The two stories were headlined:

·         Zille blamed for lack of change – Six DA sources say strategist left as DA leader not committed to transformation (Star Africa); and

·         DA spoilers stir up dirt about planner’s exit for UK – Coetzee and Zille deny claims made anonymously that he left because of party strategy (The Star).

The DA complains that the:

·         allegations in the story were based entirely on anonymous sources, that they appeared to have been colluding to create a “false story”, and that the newspaper should have corroborated its information; and

·         headline did not reflect the story.

Analysis

The stories, both written by Piet Rampedi, are about the departure of strategist Ryan Coetzee from the DA. The article quotes Coetzee as denying that he left the party because of any unhappiness. Most of the stories focus on information from unnamed sources who reportedly said that Coetzee had left the party because he had been unhappy with its direction. Party leader Helen Zille’s comments in the story support those of Coetzee.

Unnamed sources

The DA says that Zille and Coetzee spoke on the record and argues that their comments carried the appropriate weight – unlike the unnamed sources who appeared to be colluding to create a “false story”. It adds: “The newspaper has provided no evidence – either in the newspaper article or in its submission – that the information was verified or that it attempted to do so.” It argues that the Press Code states that the press shall avoid the use of anonymous sources and that information obtained in such a way should be corroborated.

The Star says that the reporter spoke to at least eight regional, provincial and national DA leaders. It states that these people all represented the DA in Parliament and/or in the DA caucuses. “These included three MPs, two Gauteng regional representatives and a provincial leader.” It adds that in the current political environment “the issue was so sensitive that we had to protect our sources”.

The newspaper argues: “The fact that the DA has denied the story does not mean that their version is the correct one. Our story…included information about surveys the party had commissioned…and since these surveys were not made public nor given to the media, but used for internal discussion, we satisfied ourselves that our sources all knew about the surveys. This could only mean they were part of the inner circle. We believe that content of the surveys further corroborated the premise of our story.”

The Star adds that its editor was aware of the names of the sources, and states that it did not believe that its sources colluded with one another.

It also claims that the complaint bordered on intimidation and says that the DA was trying to silence the newspaper.

Firstly, I note that the DA emphasised the part of the Press Code where it says that the press should avoid the use of anonymous sources – but it did not do the same with the rest of that article that states “unless there is no other way to handle a story”. While the press should avoid the use of anonymous sources as far as it can, the Code does not prohibit this practice.

The newspaper has chosen to present information from unnamed sources to gainsay the on-the-record statements of a former DA strategist. That was an editorial choice. The newspaper can argue that in the absence of anonymity there was no other way to handle the story as sources feared reprisal if their identities were disclosed.

The fact that Rampedi informed his editor of the sources’ identities is important. This shows that the newspaper did not use these sources willy-nilly.

On corroboration: Please note that the Code does not say that information gained from anonymous sources should be “verified” – it states that it should be “corroborated”.

There is a subtle difference between these two concepts. “Verification” means to establish the truth; “corroboration” merely means to confirm or support a statement. A lie can therefore be corroborated (but not verified – one cannot establish the truth of something that is not true), which means that if all the sources have lied the newspaper has corroborated its information (because it used six sources), as prescribed by the Code.

This means that The Star did not have to establish the veracity of the sources’ information. It also implies that I have not decided that the allegations were true; my decision is a journalistic one which merely states that the newspaper was justified in publishing its information. As long as the story presented the allegations as allegations and not as fact, and ascribed the allegations to sources, it has not breached the Code. Which is precisely what it has done.

Moreover, I believe that the sources were sufficiently independent of each other as they came from different (regional, provincial and national) levels.

Lastly, The Star claims that the DA was attempting to intimidate and silence the newspaper. The newspaper had no grounds for making such an extravagant claim. The DA was entitled to complain in terms of the Press Code.

Misleading headline

The front page headline was presented an allegation as fact. It also contradicted Coetzee’s denial of the information that the sources had given to the newspaper.

The Star concedes that the headline was incorrect and says that it would consider an apology.

An apology would indeed be appropriate, as the words Zille doesn’t want a black DA – Coetzee have certainly caused her, Coetzee and the DA unnecessary harm, the effect of which we should not underestimate.

Finding

Unnamed sources

This part of the complaint is dismissed.

Misleading headline

The headline did not reflect the contents of the story. This is in breach of Art. 11.1 of the Press Code that states: “Headlines…shall give a reasonable reflection of the contents of the report…in question.” It also breached Art. 1.1 of the Code that states: “The press shall be obliged to report news truthfully, accurately and fairly.”

Sanction

The Star is directed to correct the headline and to apologise to the DA for causing it unnecessary harm. The apology and correction must be given due prominence. As the offending headline was published on the front page, I am directing the newspaper to publish this text also on the front page. The newspaper should furnish 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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