The Office of the Premier (Mpumalanga) vs Lowvelder

Complainant: The Office of the Premier (Mpumalanga)

Lodged by: Jacob Rabodila

Article: A scary picture of an imminent meltdown in M’langa’s finances (page 16, 17 and 18). The last page has its own headline, namely Province of the rising corruption.

Author of article: Christopher de Wet

Date: 22 July 2012

Respondent: Lowvelder

This ruling is based on the written submissions of Mr Jacob Rabodila, Director-General in the Office of the Premier of the Mpumalanga Provincial Government, and the Lowvelder newspaper as well as on an informal hearing that was held in Nelspruit on 13 July 2012. The Premier’s office was represented by Rabodila, Mr Junior Mbatha, Ms Janet Bezuidenhout, Mr Marinus Venter and Mr Lomeus Saayman; Marius Bakkes and Christopher de Wet appeared for the newspaper.
 
Complaint
The Office of the Premier complains about a story in the Lowvelder 25 November 2011 under the headline A scary picture of an imminent meltdown in M’langa’s finances (page 16, 17 and 18). The last page has its own headline, namely Province of the rising corruption.
The office complains that the story deliberately created the false impression that the Premier was directly involved (together with most members of the Executive Council) in corrupt activities.
The details of this complaint follow below.
Analysis
The story, written by Christopher de Wet, said that findings by the provincial DA’s research team and the Lowvelder’s own investigation of annual reports by the Auditor General “paint a scary picture of a province approaching a financial meltdown”. De Wet wrote that damning evidence of gross mismanagement and maladministration were published, but were “hidden away” in hundreds of pages of portfolio committee reports. After saying that Mpumalanga was probably one of the country’s best examples of how a ruling administration used “corruption, collusion and cohesion” to squander R3.5 billion collectively or nearly 20% of its annual budget in one financial year, the journalist cited some examples to justify this statement. The story broke up this amount into sub-headings such as tender corruption and cases of fraud; irregular and unauthorized spending; wasteful expenditure; and accruals, negligence and claims against departments.
De Wet added that during a two-year period, since premier Mr David Mabuza had taken over, more than R7 billion had been lost because of wasteful, irregular or unauthorized expenditure.” It also said that the provincial government had been committing “daylight robbery”.
At the hearing, it became clear that De Wet:
  • greatly misunderstood the figures that he had been reporting on; and
  • uncritically took over data provided to him by the DA.
The reporter admitted to that.
Misunderstanding data
In working with the data, De Wet essentially made five mistakes:
  • He consistently confused the accrued total of “wrongful” expenditure over a period of several years with figures pertinent to one financial year.
These are the facts (most figures are rounded off):
Department                Story       Real figure for 1 financial year     Difference
Health
R7 M
         
R7 M
Public Works
R358 M
R353 M
R5 M
Cogta
Health
R101 M
R15 M
R86 M
Education
R664 M
         
R664 M
Agriculture
R103 M
R1 M
R102 M
Health
R256 M
R79 M
R177 M
Social Development
R1 M
R0,13 M
R0,87 M
Total
R1,63 B
R558.13 M
R1.042 B
 These wrong figures consequently led to the wrong percentage where the story stated that nearly 20% of the annual budget was “squandered”. According to the calculations of the premier’s office, fruitless and wasteful expenditure rather made out approximately 0.03% of the total budget.
 
The total amount that the story misrepresented is indeed mind-boggling.
 
Note: The story said that the Department of Co-operative Governance and Traditional Affairs (Cogta) had wasted R6.9 million. The newspaper did publish the correct amount that Cogta’s MEC admitted to, namely R836 000 (three days after the publication of the story in dispute).
  • He equated fruitless, wasteful, irregular and unauthorized expenditure with each other, while a clear distinction should be drawn between these matters.
For example, if a department should have obtained three quotes for a vehicle, but only asked for two, this can be construed as “irregular” expenditure. However, the total amount spent cannot be described as “wasteful” as the vehicle was obtained.
One glaring example of this unjustified equalisation was where the story stated that R140 million of spending by the Department of Education was “wasted” – while this expenditure was in fact an overpayment to teachers, based on a national directive.
  • He incorrectly concluded that these expenditures boiled down to corruption – which could not be based on the documentation that he provided me with.
  • He (once) confused the AG’s report with the Annual Financial Statement of the Department of Health.
  • He (once) mixed up provincial with local government.
All of this resulted in a skew picture of reality.
Uncritically taking over DA data
The story said that the Provincial Government has wasted R3.5 billion in one financial year and a total of R7 billion since Premier Mabuza took over. De Wet got this figure from an investigation that the DA had launched – without verifying if these amount were correct or not.
The premier’s office said that this amount should have been R8.14 M.
Corruption
By getting his figures severely wrong, and on top of that accusing the Provincial Government of corruption (based on wrong figures as well as on a wrong interpretation of these figures), De Wet has undoubtedly caused the provincial government and the individuals that he mentioned some serious and unnecessary harm.
The reporter should have been much more circumspect not only with his calculations, but indeed also with his conclusions (read: corruption).
Note that the preamble to the Press Code clearly states that such harm should be avoided “to maintain credibility and keep the trust of…readers”.
I am glad that I am not in the shoes of the people that the story wrongly accused of corruption – the amount of harm to their integrity and reputation is in fact incalculable.
Harm – deliberate?
The only remaining question now is if the journalist deliberately caused this harm.
Both in his complaint and at the meeting Rabodila stated that De Wet’s reportage amounted to a deliberate and therefore malicious misrepresentation of facts.
While I can understand Rabodila’s position, I do not think that De Wet deliberately misrepresented facts – the mistakes that he made were too consistent for that, and the insights that he gained at the meeting seemed genuine to me.
After the meeting he also told me that he has learnt more about media ethics in two hours than he did in one year at college; he also assured me that he understood much better how he should handle such reports in future and promised to be much more circumspect and careful.
I am satisfied that De Wet has learnt from this experience and will indeed do better next time – which is what my office is all about (to further ethical journalism).
Finding
The reportage is in breach of the following articles of the Press Code:
  • Art. 1.1: “The press shall be obliged to report news truthfully, accurately and fairly”;
  • Art. 1.2: “News shall be presented in context and in a balanced manner, without any intentional or negligent departure from the facts whether by distortion…(and) misrepresentation…”;
  • Art. 1.4: “Where there is reason to doubt the accuracy of a report and it is practicable to verify the accuracy thereof, it shall be verified…”; and
  • Art. 3.1: “The press shall not allow…political…considerations to influence or slant reporting…”
The complaint about deliberate misleading reportage is dismissed.
Sanction
Lowvelder is directed to:
  • unreservedly apologise to the Mpumalanga Provincial Government in general and to some individuals mentioned in the story in particular for wrongfully accusing them of corruption;
  • use the word “apology” or “apologises” in the headline of the story;
  • publish a kicker on its front page (to be published prominently, above the fold); and
  • publish the text (below) inside.
Kicker’s headline:
Apology to Mpumalanga Provincial Government
Text of kicker:
Lowvelder unreservedly apologises to the Mpumalanga Provincial Government in general and to some individuals mentioned in the story in particular for wrongfully accusing them of corruption and for painting a skew picture of its financial affairs – in which process some serious and unnecessary harm were done to their integrity and reputation. Story on page…
Beginning of text for the inside story:
Lowvelder unreservedly apologises to the Mpumalanga Provincial Government in general and to most individuals mentioned in the story in particular for wrongfully accusing them of corruption and for painting a skew picture of its financial affairs.
This comes after the Office of the Premier complained about a story on 25 November 2011 under the headline A scary picture of an imminent meltdown in M’langa’s finances.
Director-General in the Office of the Premier Mr Jacob Rabodila complained that the story deliberately created the false impression that the Premier had been directly involved (together with most members of the Executive Council) in “corrupt activities”.
The story, written by Christopher de Wet, said that annual reports by the Auditor General “paint a scary picture of a province approaching a financial meltdown”. Damning evidence of gross mismanagement and maladministration were hidden away in hundreds of pages of portfolio committee reports, he wrote.
The story also said: “Mpumalanga is probably one of the country’s best examples of how a ruling administration uses ‘corruption, collusion and cohesion’ to squander R3,5 billion collectively, or nearly 20 per cent of its annual budget in one financial year. During a two-year period, since premier Mr David Mabuza has taken over, more than R7 billion has been lost because of wasteful, irregular or unauthorized expenditure.” It added that the government was committing “daylight robbery”.
Deputy Press Ombudsman Johan Retief found that De Wet had made five serious errors while reporting on financial data. The reporter namely:
  • consistently confused the accrued total of “wrongful” expenditure over a period of several years with figures pertinent to one financial year;
  • equated fruitless, wasteful, irregular and unauthorized expenditure with each other, while a clear distinction should be drawn between these issues – in total he misrepresented an amount of more than R1 billion;
  • incorrectly concluded that these “wrongful” expenditures boiled down to corruption;
  • confused the AG’s report with the Annual Financial Statement of the Department of Health; and
  • mixed up provincial with local government.
Retief said that this reportage has skewed reality which has undoubtedly caused the government and individuals mentioned in the story some serious and unnecessary harm. “I am glad that I am not in the shoes of the people that the story wrongly accused of corruption – the amount of harm to their integrity and reputation is in fact incalculable,” he wrote. He called the total amount that the story misrepresented “mind-boggling”.
He referred to the Preamble of the Press Code which states that the press should avoid causing unnecessary harm (to maintain credibility and keep readers’ trust), and also found that we were in breach of four articles of the Press Code.
While he upheld the complaint, Retief said that he did not believe that De Wet’s reportage amounted to a deliberate and therefore malicious misrepresentation – “…the mistakes that he (De Wet) made were too consistent for that, and the insights that he gained at the meeting seemed genuine to me.”
Retief said that he was satisfied that De Wet has learnt from this experience and that he will indeed do better next time – “which is what my office is all about (to further ethical journalism)”.
Visit www.presscouncil.org.za (rulings, 2012) for the full finding.
  • Lowvelder unreservedly apologises to the Mpumalanga Government in general, as well as to Premier David Mabuza, Rabodila, Dr Clifford Mkasi, Mr Norman Mokoena, Ms Dikeledi Mahlangu, Mr Madala Masuku, Ms Reginah Mhaule, Ms Candith Mashego-Dlamini and Mr Vusi Shongwe.
End of text
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 contacted at Khanyim@ombudsman.org.za.
Johan Retief
Deputy Press Ombudsman