Virgill Gericke vs George Herald

Complainant: Virgill Gericke

Lodged by: Virgill Gericke

Article: ‘Eenoog’-uitlating onder vergrootglas

Author of article: Christo Vermaak

Date: 21 April 2014

Respondent: George Herald

COMPLAINT

Gericke is complaining about a page 4 story published in the George Herald on 3 April 2014, headlined ‘Eenoog’-uitlating onder vergrootglas.

He complains that the journalist:

  • got the chronology of events at a council meeting wrong, resulting in him being placed in a bad light;
  • omitted to state material information;
  • incorrectly stated that Kritzinger had apologized to him; and
  • in general only reports on the DA (and not on the opposition), showing his bias towards that party.

THE TEXT

The story, written by Christo Vermaak, stated that DA councilor Iona Kritzinger had to apologise to Council for asking Gericke where his other eye was (he has the use of only one eye) and for stating that she had never been in prison. She reportedly reacted to the following statement by Gericke in connection with the many deaths on the N2 in their vicinity: “You – the DA – have blood on its hands.” Kritzinger initially refused to apologise, and was ordered to leave the meeting (DA chief whip Flip de Swardt was asked to escort her and accost her for her behaviour). However, tempers were still flaring after she had returned and apologised. Gericke then reportedly charged at Kritzinger, while two ANC members had to restrain him. She replied: “You are a man of God – but God does not keep himself busy with rubbish.” The meeting was then adjourned for some ten minutes.

(Gericke is the President of the Local Concerned Residents and serves on the Council as a proportional member, in alliance with the ANC – forming the opposition to the ruling party, the DA).

ANALYSIS

Wrong chronology

Gericke complains that Vermaak got the chronology of several events at the council meeting wrong, resulting in him (Gericke) being placed in a bad light.

He says that:

  • his remark about blood on the DA’s hands was made after Kritzinger had asked him where his other eye was, and not before (as the story suggested) – this is important, as the report portrayed him as the instigator or culprit in this matter;
  • at the stage when Kritzinger said that she had never been to prison, he had not yet begun to speak – still, Vermaak wrote that she uttered those words at a later stage;
  • it was not true that he “stormed” at Kritzinger and that she consequently called him a rubbish – she first called him such, upon which he reacted;
  • the story inaccurately stated that the meeting was adjourned after she called him a rubbish – while the meeting first adjourned and she used that word after it was re-convened; and
  • his statement to ACDP member Johan du Toit (“you are as corrupt as they are”) was made only after he asked Du Toit why he did not speak to Kritzinger (rather than to Gericke) as he (Gericke) did not instigate the incident. Vermaak neglected to report this information – instead, “he poses the impression that I was responsible for the disruption in council”.

The newspaper provided me with a transcript of the incident at the council meeting.

I asked Gericke if he agreed that the content of this document was correct. He replied that the verbatim record “did not reflect everything that has happened in council”.

I note that he did not disagree with the sequence of events as reflected in the transcript, but only said that it omitted some information. Therefore, I am going ahead to test his complaint and the story against the verbatim record. I’ll do it in the same sequence as outlined above:

  • Gericke is not correct – he first made the remark about blood on the DA’s hands; only afterwards did Kritzinger refer to his one eye (as reflected in the story);
  • According to the verbatim record, Gericke is also incorrect about the stage when Kritzinger said that she had never been to prison;
  • The transcript does not reflect Kritzinger calling Gericke a “rubbish”. However, from his reaction (he said six times: “I am not your rubbish!”) it is reasonably clear at what stage Kritzinger might have uttered those words. My problem, though, is that the transcript does not record the incident when Gericke allegedly “stormed” Kritzinger. This means that I cannot come to a responsible decision on this specific matter;
  • If my conclusion is correct as to when Kritzinger might have called Gericke a rubbish, the latter’s complaint is again without grounds – the meeting was adjourned after the “rubbish” remark (as stated in the story); and
  • The conversation between Gericke and Du Toit took place after the meeting was adjourned, and as such was not reflected in the transcript. Therefore, I have no way of knowing if this part of his complaint has any grounds.

 

 

Material information omitted

Gericke says that, while the (DA) speaker asked Kritzinger to withdraw her statement, she nevertheless allowed her to interrupt him (the Rules of Order state that the speaker “had to remove the councilor”). He complains that Vermaak omitted this fact “and [that the speaker]did not control the situation as required in terms of the law”.

Vermaak’s main task was to report what had transpired at the council meeting; I certainly do not expect from him a comprehensive interpretation of what had happened.

Apology by Kritzinger

The story said that, upon Kritzinger’s return to the meeting, she apologized to council, officials and Gericke.

The latter denies that she apologized to him.

The verbatim transcript records Kritzinger as saying: “Madam Speaker, thank you for the opportunity. I hereby apologise to the chair, colleagues and personnel for my remarks.”

Therefore, I accept that Vermaak incorrectly reported that Kritzinger had apologized to Gericke. This may seem like an innocent mistake – but if I were in Gericke’s shoes, I would have felt differently. Given the fact that his dignity was tarnished, and (according to the transcript) Kritzinger did not apologise to him, I see this error by the reporter in a serious light.

Reporting only on the DA

Gericke complains that Vermaak only reports on the DA (and not on the opposition), showing his bias towards that party.

The decision on what to publish and what not, is solely in the hands of the editor, and I dare not interfere in that process.

FINDING

Wrong chronology

Three parts of this complaint are dismissed; there is no finding on the remaining two sections (as outlined above).

Material information omitted

This part of the complaint is dismissed.

Apology by Kritzinger

The story incorrectly stated that Kritzinger apologized to Gericke himself. This is in breach of Section 2.1 of the Press Code that states: “The press shall take care to report news … accurately …”

Reporting only on the DA

This part of the complaint is dismissed.

SANCTION

George Herald is severely reprimanded for inaccurately stating that Kritzinger apologized to Gericke.

The newspaper is directed to publish a summary of this finding as well as the sanction in an appropriately prominent manner on page 4. The newspaper should furnish our office with the text prior to publication. The text should end with the following words: “Visit www.presscouncil.org.za for the full finding.”

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 for the appeal. He can be contacted at Khanyim@ombudsman.org.za.

Johan Retief

Press Ombudsman