Independent Media, several of its editors and its so-called ‘Journalism Intern Investigative Unit’ are being sued for defamation, in the amount of R2-million, by three journalists and a political commentator after the group published a story claiming they – and six others, one of whom was the late Allister Sparks – were “propaganda journalists” involved in a campaign of “collusion, misinformation, defamation and sabotage” against the group and its owner, Dr Iqbal Survé.
Commentator and activist Rhoda Kadalie and journalists Ed Herbst, Terry Bell and Chris Whitfield (himself a former executive editor at the media house) said in their summons, issued in the Western Cape Division on Wednesday [23 November], they were defamed by being called “propaganda journalists” of a “particular generation” who had conducted “spiteful attacks” against Survé. Kadalie, they said, was “a joiner of the white boys club”. [Disclaimer: Editor of The Media Online, Glenda Nevill, was listed as one of the “propaganda journalists”.]
The story, headlined ‘Exposé: The dirty tricks campaign against Independent’, went further, accusing the journalists and Kadalie of being “virulently anti a democratically-elected government”. More, they said these “journalists of a particular generation” were “aligned to or led almost exclusively by individuals, institutions and publications which represented white domination of the media and broader business, and the protection of white privilege at media houses, including Independent”.
Skeletons and propaganda
They accused the journalists of running a “highly orchestrated, well-resourced and strategically planned public relations campaign… designed to destabilise and undermine the reputation of a new black-owned media business and its chairman”. There was a consistent pattern, the investigative interns claimed, and the “alleged skeletons that were consistently raised by these propaganda journalists, surfaced one by one like a tag team after a specific amount of days, as though there was a strict allocation of who writes what and when”.
Whitfield, in response to questions from The Media Online, said he expected Independent would file responding papers and “then we would decide what to do next based on those. Personally, I would like to see it get to court: the issues around the piece – which I believe was a grotesque abuse of the media’s power – and how it even got to be published need to be ventilated”, he said.
Whitfield said the plaintiffs had chosen to include the ‘Intern Investigative Unit in the summons as they had been identified by Independent Newspapers in the Gill Moodie ombud case as being the authors of the piece and so are liable in law for the defamatory content. “We obviously have no interest in claiming damages directly from them, but if they were indeed responsible for the piece it is proper that they are held liable. If not, they will need to make that known as the litigation unfolds. By the way, the ‘unit’ has no legal personality and so it could not be sued in its own name,” he said.
Earlier, another journalist mentioned in the story, Gill Moodie, took her complaint to the press ombudsman, who ruled in her favour, labelling the story “poor journalism” and ordering Independent and all the papers that ran the story to apologise. Indy has since appealed the sanction. And resigned its membership of the Press Council too.
A strong case
Lutfia Vayej, spokesperson for Independent Media, told The Media Online the company had noted reports about the summons served on the company and some of its editors and employees.
“Independent Media welcomes the opportunity to contest the allegations made against the company by the parties and reserve our rights,” she said. “At this time it would not be prudent to comment about the merits of the allegations mentioned in the summons, save to say that we believe we have a strong case.”
But Kara van de Pol of Bowmans, the attorneys representing the journalists, believes the journalists have a case too. “We are confident that our clients have an exceptionally strong case as none of the potential defences to defamation have any application in this matter,” she says.
In the Moodie ombud case, Johan Retief ruled the story was based on assumptions. “A good, solid, scientific approach would have been to search for reasons for the negative reporting both by looking ‘outside’ (which it has done, of course), and by looking ‘inside’ (which is sadly glaring in its total absence). Instead, the team based its conclusions on assumptions – namely, that the critics are all at fault and that there was nothing wrong on the media house’s side,” said Retief.
Ombud ruling ‘mild’
And he added, it then became “all too easy to find words and expressions such as ‘propaganda’, ‘white boys’ club’, the ‘DA in newsrooms’, ‘malicious’, ‘racist’, and whatever other adjectives and adverbs they could find. Such a way out is typical of people who base their conclusions on assumptions”.
Whitfield said he thought the ombud’s ruling was mild given the offences, but said he didn’t think it would have any influence on a court’s proceedings.
Kadalie said the article had descended to a “level of unseemly racial vulgarity and ethnic stereotyping which should have no place in South African journalism. This unethical abuse of media influence cannot be in the public interest”.
Bell said the so-called ‘exposé’ “not only defamed me and others, it also brought journalism into disrepute. And it is only through the courts that we may not only gain some redress, but may also discover how such a travesty came to be produced and published. This would hopefully ensure that such an apparent abuse of the media will not happen again”.
Whitfield, responding to claims in the story that some of the journalists were merely “disgruntled” former employees, said while he wouldn’t “presume to speak for anybody else” he was a “former employee who has become increasingly distressed by what has happened to newspapers I spent years on and to talented people who worked for the company. Whatever I have written about Independent reflects those concerns”.