The Norwood Community Police Forum vs The Star

Compliant: The Norwood Community Police Forum

Lodged by: Duncan Barker

Article: Drop case and you’ll get stolen car back’ – Businessman puzzled by request after ‘gang’ as police grab Golf GTI

Author of article: Angelique Serrao

Date: 13 January 2011

Respondent: The Star

COMPLAINT
The Norwood Community Police Forum (NCPF) complains about a front page story in The Star, published on September 1, 2010 and headlined ‘Drop case and you’ll get stolen car back’ – Businessman puzzled by request after ‘gang’ as police grab Golf GTI.
Barker complains that:
  • the story alleges corruption at the police station without any proof;
  • the NCPF was not contacted for comment;
  • Col Hlakotsa (from the Norwoord police station) has been miss-represented;
  • the story is largely based on hearsay; and
  • the headline is intended to do harm.
ANALYSIS
The story, written by Angelique Serrao, is about a hijacking of a Johannesburg businessman – allegedly by the police or by people posing as police. This (unnamed) businessman reportedly said that a policeman at Norwood police station asked him if he would “drop the charges” if he got his car back. While police spokesperson Captain Philip Maganedisa reportedly said that he was sure that this was the work of the Blue Light Gang, the businessman was convinced that police officers were involved in the crime.
We shall now consider the merits of the complaint:
Alleged (unfounded) corruption at the Police Station
Parts of the story that may be interpreted as corruption include statements to the effect that:
  • the hijacking of a businessman was “allegedly” the work of police, or people posing as police;
  • while at Norwood police station, the businessman was asked by a police officer to “drop the charges” in order to get his car back;
  • people in a marked police car and the hijacked car signalled each other with their sirens, after which the marked (police) car drove off and stopped the traffic; and
  • the businessman was convinced that police officers were involved in the crime.
Barker complains that the allegation that there was corruption at the Norwood station is untruthful and says that he wants an explanation and proof of this. He also says that Serrao created an unsubstantiated link between criminals and the Norwood station to substantiate her claim that Hlakotsa and the station were involved in the Blue Light Gang.
The Star says that the story:
  • does not use the word “corruption” at all;
  • makes it clear from the very start that a businessman was hijacked “allegedly by police, or people posing as police” (emphasis added); and
  • merely relays the testimony of a witness.
The newspaper adds that it is not its business to prove corruption – it says that is the police’s job.
Firstly, on the word “corruption”: It is true that the word itself is not used in the story. However, the substance of the allegations boils down to exactly that.
However, it is important to note that the story does not state “corruption” as a fact, but as an allegation; and that this allegation is not made by The Star, but by its source.
Secondly, on the link between the station/Hlakotsa and the Blue Light Gang: The story does not mention Hlakotsa at all – it talks about “a senior superintendent” who spoke (anonymously) over the phone. Also: It should again be noted that the “link” between criminals and the station comes from the mouth of the businessman – the newspaper does not present this as a fact, but as its source’s opinion. The newspaper was merely doing its duty to report what its source told the journalist.
Not contacted for comment
Barker complains that The Star never contacted the NCPF “as the official community representatives at the station”. Serrao, he says, based all her information on the testimony of a traumatized victim of a criminal act. “She did not approach us to see whether we could assist in uncovering what transpired in order to shed some balanced reporting on this situation.” He adds that it is common knowledge that the police communicate to the press through their communication officer. He also says that, although the story mentions Maganedisa, Serrao does not say that she discussed the insinuations that have been printed with him. He adds that the story does not contain a statement from the SAPS “to provide another viewpoint”.
The Star argues that it is not standard practice to contact a community police forum when a crime takes place. The newspaper says that Serrao spoke to the official police spokesperson for the area, quoted the spokesperson of the Norwood police station and later consulted provincial spokesperson Capt Slabbert about the alleged crimes.
Regarding Maganedisa, the newspaper says that Serrao spoke to him early in the morning about the victim’s allegations; she then called him again in the afternoon for comment, which gave him time to look into the allegations. The Star says that Maganedisa told Serrao that the case was being transferred to the provincial department because of the allegation of police involvement and that he could not comment any more until the matter has been investigated further. The newspaper also notes that Maganedisa is quoted in the article.
Some considerations:
  • The newspaper is correct in that it is not standard journalistic practice to ask a police forum for comment when a crime takes place;
  • If Serrao did speak to the official police spokesperson for the area, she never mentioned that fact in the story;
  • The story also does not mention Maganedisa’s statement that he could not comment any further until the case has been investigated further;
  • The fact that Serrao “later” contacted Slabbert is irrelevant to both the story and the complaint; and
  • Barker is not correct that there is no statement from the SAPS to provide another viewpoint – the story is indeed balanced by the reference to Maganedisa, who is quoted as saying that he was sure that this was the work of the Blue Light Gang (and therefore not of the police).
Therefore: Even though Barker may be correct that the newspaper may have gained some insight by the forum’s input (which it did not seek), Serrao was under no obligation to do so.
The facts that Serrao neglected to state that Maganedisa could not comment any further (which would have brought more balance to the story) and that she also spoke to the official police spokesperson for the area are unfortunate, but these omissions are not serious enough to constitute a breach of the Press Code.
Hlakotsa miss-represented
Barker says that Hlakotsa has been “horribly miss-represented” in the story. He asks why Hlakotsa would ask the complainant to drop the case. “What does he stand to gain from that?” Barker adds that Hlakotsa is not corrupt, nor does he stand for sub-standard policing. “If Ms Serrao had bothered to discuss this with us and him she would come to this understanding as well.”
The Star argues that the story does not mention Hlakotsa at all and that, due to police protocol, he is in any case not allowed to speak to the media. The newspaper adds that Barker himself said that it is common knowledge that the police communicate to the press through their communication officer.
The newspaper’s argument is convincing. I am not going to speculate why Hlakotsa allegedly asked the businessman to drop the case if he got his car back – I am not even sure if it was him on the line in the first place. The statement that a senior superintendent asked the businessman that question is the latter’s testimony; the newspaper was squarely within its rights to report on that.
Hearsay
Barker complains that, apart from the testimony of the victim, the rest of the story was based on hearsay.
The newspaper does not respond to this allegation.
It need not have done so.
One definition of “hearsay” reads like this: “Hearsay is information gathered by one person from another concerning some event, condition, or thing of which the first person had no direct experience.”
The first 23 paragraphs of the story as well as the last two sentences report what the victim of the hijacking had to say. In the only two other paragraphs Maganedisa is quoted. Clearly, there is no hearsay in the story at all.
The headline
The headline reads as follows: ‘Drop case and you’ll get stolen car back’.
Barker says the intention of this headline is to cause as much damage as possible.
The Star argues that the headline is a direct quote (it is indicated as such), and that it reflects what the victim felt.
This argument is also convincing. The quote in question is quite a startling one and it is deserving of a headline.
FINDING
Alleged (unfounded) corruption at the Police Station
The story does not state either corruption at the Norwood police station or a link between criminals and that station as a fact – these allegations are made by the newspaper’s source. This part of the complaint is dismissed.
Not contacted for comment
The newspaper was under no obligation to ask the police forum for comment. This part of the complaint is dismissed.
Hlakotsa miss-represented
The story does not mention Hlakotsa; and the police communicate to the press through its communication officer. This part of the complaint is dismissed.
Hearsay
The story is not based on hearsay at all, but on the testimony of the newspaper’s source. This part of the complaint is dismissed.
The headline
The headline is a direct quote, the content of which is deserving of a headline. This part of the complaint is dismissed.
SANCTION
There is no sanction. The newspaper is free to publish (a summary of) this finding. If so, please add the following sentence at the end of the text: “Visit www.presscouncil.org.za (rulings, 2011) for the full finding.”
APPEAL
Please note that our Complaints Procedures lay down that within seven days of receipt of this decision, anyone of the parties 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 reached at khanyim@ombudsman.org.za.
Johan Retief
Deputy Press Ombudsman

 

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