University of Venda vs Sowetan

Complainant: University of Venda

Lodged by: Takalani Dzaga

Article: Higher Education in Crisis – CEO

Author of article:  Bongekile Macupe

Date: 30 October 2013

Respondent: Sowetan

Complaint

The story that led to the complaint was headlined Higher Education in Crisis – CEO, published in Sowetan on 17 October 2013. Univen complained that its response to the story in the form of a letter to the editor, headlined FirstRand CEO ‘off mark’ (October 23, page 5), omitted important information.

Analysis

The story, written by education journalist Bongekile Macupe, reported that FirstRand chief executive Sizwe Nxasana said that previously disadvantaged universities (including Univen) were producing unemployable third-class graduates. Nxasana also reportedly emphasised the need for more government investment to improve quality education.

Univen Vice-Chancellor and Principal Prof Peter Mbati responded to Sowetan (dated October 18), outlining the following (I am only citing the more important issues):

  • Whilst appreciating Nxasana’s concerns about the state of higher education in South Africa, his views had been “somewhat of a broad brush unsubstantiated statement”;
  • Government had recently spent hundreds of millions of Rands in infrastructure development on Univen’s campus, complemented by funding from the private sector and money generated by the University – in the past financial year alone, infrastructure development amounted to R337M;
  • Pass rates had been increasing and were on par with national standards;
  • Univen’s research output had grown exponentially and significantly – measured by publications in accredited journals, this had improved by more than 700% in the past six years;
  • The National Research Foundation had recently granted Univen two additional research chairs;
  • Recent proof of its support had been Bankseta’s and the South African Institute of Chartered Accountants’ support of R64M to train chartered accountants;
  • The Construction Seta had invested more than R20M towards the establishment of a Construction Technology Programme at Univen;
  • In the past financial year alone, the allocation from the National Student Financial Aid Scheme of South Africa had increased by 40%+ and assisted more than 7 000 students;
  • Univen had received an unqualified audit for the last few years;
  • The issue of employability of graduates had not been unique to Univen;
  • Univen had played a meaningful role in the community it was serving, contributing towards the economic development of Limpopo and the nation and creating future leaders that had been taking up their rightful positions in the workplace (nationally and internationally);
  • Univen has produced great alumni who held positions of influence in many spheres of both government and the private sector; many others had been successful entrepreneurs in their own right; and
  • All was not doom and gloom at “previously disadvantaged universities”.

Sowetan then published (part of) Mbati’s response, merely saying that he had “hit back”, that Nxasana’s statement was “unsubstantial”, and that Univen had produced alumni who held powerful positions both in the private and the public sector.

Univen then complained that the newspaper omitted material information provided by Mbati.

First things first:

·         Sowetan had the right to publish the initial story which merely reported Nxasana’s views;

·         Accordingly, Univen correctly did not complain about the publication of his views;

·         Because Nxasana was speaking at a public event, and the journalist merely reported what the former had said, the publication was under no obligation to ask for Univen’s response; and

·         The newspaper published (part of) Mbati’s letter – of its own accord, without intervention by this office, which in itself is commendable.

This means that this office was not asked to adjudicate on either the initial story or on the question if Sowetan in the first place should have given him a right of reply after the publication of its story.

Therefore, my one and only question boils down to this: Did Sowetan breach the Press Code by the way that it had reported Mbati’s response? In other words: Once Sowetan has decided to publish Mbati’s response, it was obliged to keep its reporting on this matter within the boundaries of the Press Code.

My observations in this regard are:

  • I do not blame the newspaper for not publishing Mbati’s full response, as it is an accepted journalistic practice to pick out the more important issues and omit the less significant ones – especially if the content of a letter is quite comprehensive such as the one in question;
  • However, equally so it is an accepted practice not to leave out material information – in fact, this is more than an “accepted practice”, as the Press Code requires fairness and balance;
  • From my summary of Mbati’s letter and the newspaper’s reportage thereof, I:
    • conclude that Sowetan did omit material information;
    • am convinced that the actual reporting of the Mbati’s letter created the unfair impression that the words that Sowetan reported were the only ones that flowed from his pen, which resulted in lack of context; and
    • note that the newspaper’s text was not qualified by words such as “amongst other things, he said…” – which merely served to strengthen the (unfair and inaccurate) perception mentioned above.

That was not fair to either Mbati or Univen and it amounted to causing them some unnecessary harm as it created a false impression of his response. (For more context to this statement, see the finding and the sanction below.)

Finding

Sowetan is in breach of the following Sections of the Press Code:

  • 2.1: “The press shall take care to report news …fairly”; and
  • 2.2: “News shall be presented in context and in a balanced manner, without any intentional or negligent departure from the facts whether by…material omissions or summarization.”

Sanction

Sowetan is directed to:

  • apologise to Univen for omitting material information from Mbati’s response, causing them some unnecessary harm; and
  • publish the:
    • gist of Mbati’s response to the newspaper (the more important ones that it omitted); and
    • text below on page 5.

Beginning of text

Sowetan apologises to the University of Venda for omitting material information from a response by Vice-Chancellor Prof Peter Mbati to a story headlined Higher Education in Crisis – CEO (published on 17 October), the omission of which caused them some unnecessary harm.

The story, written by education journalist Bongekile Macupe, reported FirstRand chief executive Sizwe Nxasana’s views that previously disadvantaged universities (including Univen) were producing unemployable third-class graduates, and that government should invest more in quality education.

Mbati responded via aletter to us, the content of which we partly reported – saying that he had “hit back”, that Nxasana’s statement was “unsubstantial”, and that Univen had produced alumni who held powerful positions both in the private and the public sector.

The University then complained to the Press Ombudsman that we have omitted material information from Mbati’s response.

The Ombudsman, Johan Retief, said: “I do not blame the newspaper for not publishing Mbati’s full response, as it is an accepted journalistic practice to pick out the more important issues and omit the less significant ones – especially if the content of a letter is quite comprehensive such as the one in question…However, equally so it is an accepted practice not to leave out material information – in fact, this is more than an ‘accepted practice’, as the Press Code requires fairness and balance…”

He then found that the complaint was justified, and added: “That was not fair to either Mbati or Univen and it amounted to causing them some unnecessary harm as it created a false impression of his response,” Retief said.

The more important elements of Mbati’s response that we omitted to publish were:

  • He appreciated Nxasana’s concerns about the state of higher education in SA;
  • Government had recently spent hundreds of millions of Rands in infrastructure development on Univen’s campus, complemented by funding from the private sector and money generated by the University – in the past financial year alone, infrastructure development amounted to R337M;
  • Pass rates were increasing and were on par with national standards, and Univen’s research output had grown exponentially and significantly;
  • Univen had recently been granted two additional research chairs and had received support of R64M to train chartered accountants;
  • The Construction Seta had invested more than R20M towards the establishment of a Construction Technology Programme at Univen; and
  • The issue of employability of graduates had not been unique to Univen.

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

End of text

Appeal

Our Complaints Procedures lay down that within seven working 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