Deputy ombudsman Johan Retief told editors at a South African National Editors’ Forum meeting in Johannesburg last weekend that complaints lodged with the Press Council could more than double this year, in comparison to figures in 2009 and 2010.
“The rise in complaints is mainly due to two factors: The exposure the office got/gets from the ANC’s threat regarding a statutory Media Appeals Tribunal, as well as a deliberate attempt to raise our public profile. (The latter should increase even more if our plans come off the ground.),” Retief told TheMediaOnline.
In a report to the members of Sanef, Retief said the Press Council received 150 complaints in 2009, and 213 in 2010. He said that if complaints continued at the rate they’re being lodged, the Council could expect around 270 by the end of this year.
“We had a huge backlog a year and a half ago; this backlog has now been all but worked away. Of course, there is little we can do to prevent mistakes, but we keep on visiting media houses and journalism schools to try and impress the importance of ethical journalism upon reporters/students. We are ‘effective’ in the sense that we handle complaints relatively speedily,” Retief said.
He said complaints were being lodged from a broad spectrum of people = from premiers and ministers to ‘ordinary’ people.
With the rise in the number of complaints, capacity within the Press Council could become a problem. “As the complaints increase, our capacity is stretched to the limit. There is a proposal to do something about this matter. However, this has not been decided yet,” said Retief.
The office presently has an ombudsman (Joe Thloloe) and a deputy ombudsman (Johan Retief). They – the investigators – have to be senior journalists. “We live by the Press Code. Personally, I also apply the principal of maximising truth, minimising harm, and acting independently. Common sense also helps,” Retief said.
The Press Council investigates complaints about print media, while the Broadcasting Complaints Commission looks at radio and television. “Complaints against newspapers by far exceeds those against magazines (a very few indeed). I think the BCCSA, which deals with radio and TV, receives much more complaints than we do,” he said.
The Press Council earlier this year conducted a series of hearings around South Africa that allowed interested parties to make submissions as part of the process of reviewing its system.
Since then, said Retief, the Press Council has appointed a task team that will report back to the Council on June 23.
“The Council will then send a report to its five constituent bodies, as well as to Print Media South Africa. The outcome will be decided by their response, as well as the response of the PC. I think it is safe to say that there will be (meaningful) changes, yes.”
In a nutshell, though, what were some of the main themes that emerged from the hearings? “Probably sanctions. Many people want us to impose fines on publications. But there were also many other inputs that were valuable such as those regarding children, independence, etc.”