South Africa’s press ombudsman has ordered Rapport newspaper to apologise to Oscar Pistorius for publishing incorrect information when it reported he had bought an “expensive and speedy” Audi R8. The story said Pistorius was accompanied by a “beautiful woman” (insinuating she may have been his girlfriend) who turned out to be his cousin. The story also said Pistorius had behaved in a manner that was “brash” and “demanding” at the dealership.
The Pistorius family and its spokeswoman, Anneliese Burgess, complained to the ombudsman that the newspaper had inaccurately reported Pistorius’ visit to the Audi dealership in question and failed to verify information given to them. They also said the “headlines, photograph and structure” of the story were misleading, particularly where the online version of the story was concerned.
Burgess’ said Rapport main story “made her out as having deliberately lied to the reporter and that the journalist published this In essence, the family said, “This sensational reporting does not serve the interests of the South African public, does not serve the course of justice nor allow for Oscar Pistorius to enjoy a fair trial”.
Pistorius is accused of killing his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp on Valentine’s Day this year, and will stand trial for murder in March 2014.
Rapport, in its submission, said the reporter, Jacques Steenkamp, had verified the information received with two employees and that the initial source had got the information from somebody at the dealership. It said because Pistorius was “rightly” under intense scrutiny, his visits (two in all) to the showroom was newsworthy and in addition, he has “a history of fast cars and reckless behaviour”. Rapport said its information was confirmed except for the model of the vehicle (which was not an Audi R8), whether or not he was accompanied by bodyguards and his “demeanour” at the dealership.
Rapport said it didn’t want to mislead its readers, and said it would publish a correction together with an apology if it were shown that its facts were incorrect. But Pistorius’ lawyers rejected the offer, calling it “disingenuous” as the “heart of the article” related to the “model of the vehicle, Pistorius’s demeanour at the dealership, and whether or not he was accompanied by bodyguards”.
Lawyers ramsaywebber said the reporting would have a “serious detrimental effect” on Pistorius’s trial.
“Normally, this office does not engage in investigations – its central question is if the newspaper was justified in its reportage at the time of publication,” Retief said. “However, I have made an exception in this case in the same spirit than that of the publication (that asked me to investigate and offered to publish a correction and apology, if necessary), which is to serve the public.”
To that end, he said, he asked Burgess to provide him with evidence, which she did but asked it only be used to support his ruling and is not made public.
Retief agreed not to disclose information “save to say that I am satisfied that Pistorius did not buy an Audi R8, and that it was a used sedan which cost far less than R1.5-million (which, according to the story, was what the cheapest version of an Audi R8 cost). I am not an expert when it comes to cars, but I strongly suspect that the model that Pistorius bought would probably not be capable of reaching a speed of 317 km/h.”
Retief said he believed the “sub-text of the story in dispute was indeed to portray the message that Pistorius had been “at it” again (read: reckless behaviour – speed and money and the “story itself provided the context: ‘high octane lifestyle of weapons and sports cars…; and that the newspaper itself, in its reply to the complaint, states that “Pistorius’s visit to the showroom was newsworthy as he had had “a history of fast cars and reckless behaviour”.
He said he had to weight up two opposing matters in order to make a ruling:
- How justified was the newspaper in reporting all of these allegations in the way it did?; and
- How fair was this reportage to Pistorius?
Reief found Rapport was justified in publishing the allegations as allegations because of the information at its disposal at the time of publication and the circumstances surrounding the reporter’s newsgathering.
“However, I also think that the reportage about Pistorius was unfair to him as the main allegation certainly proved to be false. This, retrospectively, put some question marks behind the credibility of the information provided to Steenkamp by his sources,” he said.
“On this basis I am willing to accept the word of Burgess’s source above those of the newspaper with regards to the rest of the matters in contention (bodyguards, woman, conduct) – as stated before.
“This means that, ultimately, I am left with a conclusion that may look contradictory, but in fact is not – the publication of the allegations was justified at the time of going to press, which later proved to have been false and therefore unfair to Pistorius.
“In other words: The report was misleading – but not deliberately so.”
Retief dismissed Burgess’ complaint that she had “deliberately lied” to the newspaper. “The story did not state or imply that she had deliberately lied – it merely reported what actually happened. I therefore do not believe that the reportage caused Burgess unnecessary harm.”
Retief said Rapport did not ignore relevant information. But he said the allegations that he’d bought an R8, his behavior and the fact that he was accompanied by a “beautiful woman” was in breach of Sect. 2.1 of the Press Code that says: “The press shall take care to report news…fairly.”
He also found that the headlines; photograph, story’s structure was unfair to Pistorius and in breach of Section 2.1 of the Press Code.
In terms on the online version of the story, Retief found the headline “did not reflect the content of the story as it stated an allegation as fact, neither was it fair to Pistorius. This is in breach of the following sections of the Press Code:
- 10.1 that says: “Headlines…shall give a reasonable reflection of the contents of the report…in question”; and
- 2.1: “The press shall take care to report news…accurately and fairly”.
As such, Rapport has been order to publish an apology via a kicker on the front page that contains the word “apologises” or “apology”, with a reference to the story on page three, the text of which Retief stipulated in his finding.
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