Umgungundlovu District Municipality vs The Times

Complainant: Umgungundlovu Districk Municipality

Lodged by: Mr T Khuzwayo, Municipal manager

Article: No cash for basic services, R11m for car hire

Date: 15 August 2012

Respondent: The Times

Complaint

The UDM complains about a story in The Times on 15 June 2012 and headlined No cash for basic services, R11m for car hire.

The municipality complains that the:
  • allegation that staff members had to bring their own toilet paper to work was reported out of context;
  • journalist failed to indicate direct quotations from a speech or written reply, resulting in “no distinction between facts, opinion and rumours”;
  • journalist failed to verify any of the information with the municipality;
  • story disregarded the dignity and reputation of the municipality, the mayor and the municipal manager;
  • story suppressed and distorted relevant facts;
  • story linked three unrelated issues, thereby creating the wrong impression about financial spending; and
  • headline and caption were sensationalistic and did not reasonably reflect the content of the story.
Analysis

The story, written by Thando Mgaga, was about the UDM spending more than R11 million of ratepayers’ money on the hiring of cars over a period of approximately five years, while it allegedly failed to provide proper service delivery to the public. It was based on a question-and-answer session in Parliament.

Bringing own toilet paper to work

The sentence in dispute reads: “At the time municipal staff complained that there was no money to buy stationery… and that they were forced to bring their own toilet paper to work because the municipality could not afford to provide it.”

The UDM complains that this statement was out of context as the journalist omitted to mention that this had happened under the previous administration.

The Times denies that the sentence was out of context and argues that the words:

  • “at the time” pointed to the previous administration; and
  • “was once” in the caption referred to the same period.

The caption states: “A KwaZulu-Natal municipality that was once so cash-strapped that its employees had to bring their own toilet paper to work has spent more than R11-million on luxury car hire over the past five years.” (emphasis added)

The UDM replies that the fact that it was at some point cash-strapped or that its employees had to bring their own toilet paper was not mentioned in Parliament – as such the latter reference was out of context and was brought in to intentionally sensationalise the story.

These are my considerations:
  • The journalist could have reported on the toilet paper issue, even though it was not mentioned in the Parliamentary debate – reporters often bring in facts to put matters into perspective;
  • The fact that members of staff somewhere in the past had to bring their own toilet paper to work is not in dispute – which makes the reportage accurate; and
  • The sentence in dispute was preceded by a reference to “since 2008” – clearly, this sentence refers back to that year.

Let’s read the sentence in dispute carefully. The newspaper is correct – the phrase “at the time” can only refer to “since 2008”, when the mayor started to hire Mercedes E-class vehicles.

Even though the story did not mention that the UDM had been under a different administration at the time of the toilet paper issue (and it would have been better if it did), the fact that it linked it to a period of four years ago should have been enough for the ordinary reader to have understood the situation correctly.

Failing to indicate direct quotations

The story quoted DA caucus leader Sizwe Mchunu regarding some expenditures; and it made some statements that were not directly attributed to sources.

The UDM complains that the journalist failed to indicate direct quotations from a speech or written reply of Mchunu. It states: “As a result, there is no distinction between facts, opinion and rumours” in the story. It also complains that it is not clear to whom certain statements were attributed.

The newspaper argues that a proper reading of the story does not allow for such an interpretation. It says that it was clear that “the reply” mentioned in the second sentence referred Dube’s written reply, and states that Mchunu’s comments clearly were quotations from the former’s written reply. “In the circumstances, we deny that there is no distinction between facts, opinion and rumours as alleged.”

The UDM responds that the sentences in dispute were incorrectly punctuated as the quotations were not closed at the end of sentences. It also says that one can assume that the words in inverted commas came from Mchunu, but also that these could have been the views of a random spectator or even of the journalist herself.

Firstly, it is normal journalistic practice not to use inverted commas at the end of paragraphs when the following sentence comes from the same source, and to close the quote only at the very end of the quotation.

One also needs to look at what preceded the sentences in inverted commas, as well as how they were ended off. It started by saying that Mchunu quoted an MEC’s written reply. Then the quotation read: “The reply further reveals…” This indicated that the same person was speaking (Mchunu). At the end of the quotation, the words “Mchunu said” appeared.

There is only one person to whom the words in inverted commas can be ascribed to, and that is Mchunu.

As for the unattributed sentences: The UDM merely complains that it is unclear where the information comes from, and not about the accuracy of these statements. I therefore accept that they were accurate, in which case the story did not have to attribute them to a source.

Failing to verify

The UDM complains that the journalist failed to verify any of the information with the municipality, despite the fact that he knew what the municipal manager’s contact details were, and despite some “serious publicity” and the ethical and legal ramifications of the report.

The Times says that the story was based on a Parliamentary reply to a question from the DA, and argues that it had no reason to doubt the accuracy of the report (as the information was provided by a senior government official). The newspaper adds: “…and we obtained the government’s views on the subject matter in the reply”.

This is normal journalistic practice. When doing Parliamentary reporting, like court reporting, the press normally does not ask people for comment – unless, of course, a statement is highly controversial and newsworthy. I am therefore not going to blame the newspaper for not getting the UDM’s comments.

Disregarding dignity, reputation

The UDM says that the journalist disregarded the dignity and the reputation of the:

  • municipality by failing to obtain its views – a reputation that it “worked so hard to rebuild”;
  • mayor by stating that he used luxury vehicles while members of staff allegedly had no toilet paper or equipment; and
  • municipal manager by portraying the municipality as one that was not only historically mismanaged, but also as one that continued to be mismanaged.

The Times denies these allegations and states that the story was truthful, accurate, based on facts and in the public interest.

The UDM replies that readers would have formed an adverse opinion of the institution and that its dignity, as well as that of the mayor, was (unnecessarily) harmed as a direct result of how the story was written.

On each of the three bullets referred to above:

  • I have already ruled that The Times was under no obligation to ask the UDM for comment – which leads me to the conclusion that this part of the complaint has no legs to stand on;
  • I have also decided that the reference to toilet paper can reasonably be interpreted as dating back to some four years ago, and that this issue actually happened; and
  • The story did not state it as fact that the UDM continued to be mismanaged, but attributed it to a source.

Relevant facts suppressed, distorted

The UDM complains that relevant facts that were in the public domain were suppressed and distorted, such as budget allocations and the municipality’s service delivery track record. The municipality says that this was due to subjective reportage.

The Times denies this.

In later correspondence, the municipality says that the journalist neglected to report positive facts and deliberately put it in a negative light. For example:

  • The UDM has since 2007 achieved four consecutive unqualified audit reports;
  • 91% of its citizens have access to water and 80% to sanitation;
  • The UDM has attracted a R138 million grant from the Dutch Government;
  • It enjoys a Blue Drop Status as a water services provider; and
  • It is financially stable and even has reserves in investment accounts.

This information indeed sounds good and perhaps needs to be reported. However, the purpose of the story was not to highlight the improvement that apparently took place under the present UDM’s administration – if it was, it would have been necessary to make some comparisons and to focus the improvements. However, the story was written to highlight the issue of luxury car hire expenditure against the background of some financial problems, even if those problems occurred some time ago. The newspaper was therefore under no obligation to report all these positives mentioned above.

Linking unrelated issues

The UDM complains that the journalist linked three unrelated issues (cash for basic services, staff complaints and the hire of vehicles), creating the impression that the municipality used money allocated for basic services to hire vehicles. It says: “The manner in which this was done amounts to an indirect expression of the journalist’s own opinions and a criticism of the Municipality.”

The Times says that Art. 8.1 of the Press Code allows for comment and criticism, and states that it complied with this section.

The newspaper’s argument is irrelevant, as Art. 8.1 is about comment (such as in an editorial or a column), while the story in dispute is hard news.

However, the complaint is without substance. The three “unrelated” issues are not really unrelated, as they all form part of the UDM’s administration. There is nothing wrong in mentioning all three matters.

Headline, caption

The headline reads: No cash for basic services, R11m for car hire. The caption states: “A KwaZulu-Natal municipality that was once so cash-strapped that its employees had to bring their own toilet paper to work has spent more than R11-million on luxury car hire over the past five years.”

The UDM complains that these were sensationalistic and did not reasonably reflect the content of the story. It also notes that, while the story is about a Parliamentary debate, the caption is about something else and therefore it does not reflect the content of the story.

The Times denies this and argues: “The article is cantered around how much money was used by the complainant and his opinion on how the money should have been utilized.”

Firstly, the headline: The “R11m for care hire” is not in dispute and it merely reflected what the story says (as required by the Press Code).

However, it inaccurately and unfairly presented the “no cash for basic services” as fact, not as an opinion (which can be ascribed to Mchunu).

There was nothing wrong with the caption, as it was accurate and merely reflected what the story said. The fact that the improved situation at the UDM was not contained in the caption surely is not the writer of the caption’s fault.

Finding

The first part of the headline is in breach of Art. 1.1 of the Press Code that states: “The press shall be obliged to report news…accurately and fairly.”

The rest of the complaint is dismissed.
Sanction

The Times is cautioned for inaccurately and unfairly stating in its headline an opinion as fact.

The newspaper is directed to publish a summary of this finding (not the full ruling) and the sanction. After setting the context, the story should start with what the newspaper got wrong. After that, it is free to elaborate on the parts of the complaint that were dismissed.

The newspaper should furnish our office with the text prior to publication. Please add to the text: “Visit www.presscouncil.org.za (rulings, 2012) for the full finding.”

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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