Press ombudsman Johan Retief has ruled on three cases brought to the Press Council by the Democratic Alliance in which the party accuses The New Age newspaper of breaching the Press Code.
In DA vs The New Age, the party complains about three front page stories published by the Gupta-owned newspaper: Zille’s nose grows longer and longer; (story and excerpt were both published on 24 January 2013); ‘Hypocrite’ Zille lambasted by Cosatu, SACP (January 25); and Zille caught out once again (January 28). All the stories related to Zille’s pulling out of Telkom-sponsored The New Age breakfast briefings, and the subsequent response by The New Age, which effectively labelled her actions as hypocritical.
Retief has ordered The New Age to apologise to Zille and the Democratic Alliance for “for not asking them for comment on several important issues contained in two stories that we published earlier this year, and for headlines in one story that unjustifiably made her out to be a liar and a hypocrite”. He said that by neglecting to report her comments, the newspaper “put her and her party at an unfair disadvantage”.
Retief dismissed the entire complaint against the first story, in which the DA said The New Age’s story falsely implied that Zille had lied when she said she was unaware that Telkom had sponsored a breakfast briefing hosted by TNA and the SABC.
“My first consideration is that Zille, at the previous TNA breakfast meeting in 2012, thanked Telkom for its sponsorship,” Retief said, adding that the DA did not dispute this. He said he was not accusing Zille of lying, but that the newspaper could not “be blamed for interpreting her media release the way it did”. In the statement, Zille had written, “I, and other senior DA colleagues, have previously spoken at the (sic) New Age Business Breakfasts, under the assumption that the events were funded by the newspaper and by the members of the public who purchase tickets to attend. Now that it has come to light that the Breakfasts are funded by public money…the DA cannot continue to participate”.
The New Age argued in its submission that it was only after it had released footage of Zille thanking Telkom that Zille clarified her initial media statement. “The fact is that the original media statement did not contain an acknowledgement that Zille had always been aware that Telkom was a sponsor. Instead, it sought to create the impression that this was a new piece of information that had just come to light. It was therefore correct for TNA to interpret Zille’s statements as contradictory and dishonest,” it said.
But Retief found the second and third stories had erred for calling Zille “a hypocrite” in a sub-heading in the third story, and for stating as fact that she was caught out “once again”. He said The New Age’s headlines presented opinions of its sources as fact.
In the second story, the DA complains that the newspaper failed to contact the party for a response to the many “serious” allegations made against it and its leader. It claimed the DA and big media houses were colluding to undermine new entrants such as TNA and to undermine community media in general and community print in particular; the DA was against transformation in the media industry; Zille’s withdrawal from future TNA business briefings was a “publicity stunt” and politically motivated; the Western Cape government was using public funds to buy airtime on local radio stations to promote Zille; she had lied by saying that she did not know that TNA breakfast was funded by Telkom; she had been guilty of hypocrisy and double-speaking; and the DA was jealous of TNA business briefings and that it had been trying to “muzzle” the press.
The ombudsman said The New Age “should have asked her comment on these new allegations. By not doing so, it did put Zille and her party at an unfair disadvantage”. “The neglect to do this is in breach of Art. 1.5 of the Press Code that says: ‘A publication should usually seek the view of the subject of serious critical reportage in advance of publication…’” Retief said.
Regarding the third story, Retief found The New Age report not in breach of the Press Code – “The sources that the story quoted were entitled to their opinions, and TNA was justified in reporting those opinions and it properly attributed these views – but that the headlines were “problematic”.
“The complaint about the headlines is upheld – the second reference to Zille as being a hypocrite and the main headline are in breach of Art. 11.1 of the Press Code that states, ‘Headlines…shall give a reasonable reflection to the contents of the report…in question’.”
Retief said the Press Code requires that “a headline should reasonably reflect the content of the story”. “To state in a headline the opinion of sources as fact, without attributing that statement, amounts to an unreasonable reflection of the content of the story,” he said, adding that these transgressions were “unfounded, unfair and unjustifiable”.
It was for these issues that The New Age was ordered to apologise, on its front page.
The DA’s national spokesman, Mmusi Maimane, said the party was greatly encouraged that media self-regulation in the form of the press ombudsman is working to safeguard press freedom while preventing the abuse of power.
“The Democratic Alliance will not sit back and allow The New Age to print irresponsible stories designed to settle scores and further the newspapers own agenda,” he said.
The full ruling can be read here.