The Democratic Alliance vs. Independent Newspapers
Ruling by the Press Ombudsman
28 January 2015
This ruling is based on the written submissions of Ms Phumzile van Damme, national spokesperson for the Democratic Alliance (DA), and those of Abigail Oliver, on behalf of Independent Newspapers.
The DA is complaining that two prominent journalists of Independent Newspapers (Group Executive Editor Karima Brown and Group Editor of Opinion and Analysis Vukani Mde) attended the 103rd birthday celebrations of the African National Congress (ANC) on 10 January 2015 in the ANC's attire - saying that this compromised their independence and impartiality.
The DA argues as follows:
This also appears to be in contravention of the Press Code, which states in its preamble:
"As journalists, we commit ourselves to the highest standards of excellence, to maintain credibility and keep the trust of our readers. This means always striving for truth, avoiding unnecessary harm, reflecting a multiplicity of voices in our coverage of events, showing a special concern for children and other vulnerable groups, and acting independently."
In other words, it is incumbent upon journalists to show, through their actions, not just their words, that they are independent. Vukani Mde and Karima Brown appear to have breached the Code through actions that suggest they are fervent supporters of the ANC.
Furthermore, section 3.1 of the Press Code states that:
"The press shall not allow commercial, political, personal or other non- professional considerations to influence or slant reporting. Conflicts of interest must be avoided, as well as arrangements or practices that could lead audiences to doubt the press's independence and professionalism."
The public debates that have taken place on social media and mainstream media would suggest that the actions of Mde and Brown have led audiences to doubt their independence and their professionalism.
Media and in particular print journalists (as the Fourth Estate) are expected to remain impartial and independent; journalists should therefore maintain the standards of independence expected of them.
Response by Independent Newspapers
Oliver says that the rules and procedures of this office provide only for the adjudication of complaints relating to publication.
In this regard, she mentions (amongst other things) that:
The preamble to the Press Code stipulates that complaints shall be mediated and adjudicated within the "shortest possible time after the publication of the matter giving rise to the complaint";
Section 1.3 of the Complaints Procedures states that a "complaint shall be made as soon as possible, but not later than 20 working days after the date of publicationgiving rise to the complaint"; and
Section 1.4 of the Complaints Procedures provides that "the Public Advocate shall be entitled to request from the complainant a copy of the material publishedgiving rise to the complaint".
She argues: "Complaints must be made against a publication. No provision exists for complaints against publishers or journalists in matters not relating to publications or published material."
Oliver adds that Brown and Mde attended the celebrations in their personal capacities, not as journalists. She also states that, to the best of her knowledge, neither journalist has reported on the rally.
She concludes that the complaint falls outside the jurisdiction of this office and should therefore be dismissed.
The Public Advocate has dismissed the complaint along the same lines as argued by Oliver, saying:
I am in receipt of a complaint you lodged with the Press Council against Independent journalists Karima Brown and Vukani Mde for wearing ANC regalia to the ANC's birthday rally earlier this month.
I am unable to accept your complaint as our mandate is to assist members of the public with complaints about published content in newspapers and magazines that subscribe to the Press Code. Your letter has not demonstrated a breach of the Press Code in relation to any material published in Independent Newspapers in the last 20 working days.
Furthermore, your complaint refers to a philosophical debate on objectivity and independence and I am not convinced that the Press Council is the correct forum for such a debate.
In terms of the Press Council's complaints procedures, you may...request the Ombudsman to adjudicate the complaint...
Best regards, Latiefa
While I agree with the Public Advocate in many ways, as explained below, I do need to entertain this complaint - it is rather important, as it is about to set a precedent.
This is why:
Up to now I have not received, let alone entertained, any complaint dealing with a journalist's behaviour - neither has this office ever done so (to the best of my knowledge).
This is the question: Does this office have any jurisdiction over journalists' conduct?
This is an important question, as the South African Press Code has indeed quite recently been adapted to increasingly cover behaviour prior to publication.
Allow me to quote a few examples to this effect. Section 1 (note!) is about the gathering of information (prior to publication) and it reads:
1.1 News should be obtained legally, honestly and fairly, unless public interest dictates otherwise.
1.3 Press representatives shall identify themselves as such, unless public interest or their safety dictates otherwise.
This is vital, in that it presupposes that a journalist's conduct (prior to publication) does have ethical implications and therefore is covered by the Code.
This is supported by various other sections of the Code, such as:
2.5 A publication shall seek the views of the subject of critical reportage in advance of publication.
3.1 The press shall not allow commercial, political, personal or other non-professional considerations to influence or slant reporting. Conflicts of interest must be avoided, as well as arrangements or practices that could lead audiences to doubt the press's independence and professionalism.
3.2 Journalists shall not accept a bribe, gift or any other benefit where this is intended or likely to influence coverage.
There are other such instances in the Code - including its all-important Preamble.
I now need to interpret the Code in this regard.
Firstly, there has to be a distinction between journalists' professional and their personal lives (behaviour). They are citizens of the country as well, and have an equal right to enjoy the benefits of our democracy.
While the conduct of journalists prior to publication is covered by the Code, as demonstrated above, the litmus test is whether such behaviour has led to the publication of any text or picture resulting from the relevant conduct.
In other words: What a journalist does in his or her private or personal capacity has nothing to do with this office or with the Press Code if such conduct does not result in the publication of journalistic content. If a journalist misbehaves, it is at most a matter between the publication and the reporter.
The golden mean seems to be the following: If a journalist's behaviour leads to the publication of whatever, the conduct in question (prior to publication, as implied in the examples in the Code that I have outlined above) may come under scrutiny.
Otherwise, this office has no jurisdiction over it.
As I have no evidence that the journalists attended the celebrations in their professional capacity, or that they have reported or commented on the issue, my only conclusion can be that the reporters' choice of dress is indeed none of this office's business.
Therefore, I am keeping my opinion on this matter to myself.
The message to journalists is: Your personal conduct has nothing to do with this office; but if your behaviour is followed by publication, it certainly may have.
The compliant is dismissed.
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 [email protected].
Issued by the Press Council, January 28 2015
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