The press ombud has ordered Independent Media to apologise to journalist Gill Moodie after she submitted a complaint about a story at least six of its titles published, titled ‘Exposé: The dirty tricks campaign against Independent’.
In the story, the so-called Journalism Intern Investigative Unit of Independent Media (an anonymous grouping), labelled a number of journalists (including the editor of The Media Online) of being “propaganda journalists”, planted by the Democratic Alliance, who were members of the “white boys’ club”. The story claimed to be an “exposé of the collusion, misinformation, defamation and sabotage against Independent Media, its executive chairman and associated companies, and all its employees, based on research conducted by the Journalism Intern Investigative Unit of Independent Media”.
Moodie, in her complaint to the Ombud, said the piece violated the tenets of truthful, accurate and fair reporting. She said the interns failed to give her the right to comment even though the story was presented as reportage and that Independent Media “allowed commercial, political, personal or other non-professional considerations to influence or slant reporting” and that it did not distinguish between fact and opinion.
“It is presented as a journalistic expose yet it is a castle made of sand, light on facts and heavy on opinion, supposition, insinuation and unbridled insults presented in the frame of alleged investigative journalism,” Moodie wrote.
The story claimed to present a “staggering” picture of negative reporting against Independent, Survé and Sekunjalo. It said other media houses hadn’t been reported on in such a fashion, and accused the journalists of being part of a largely white, orchestrated propaganda scheme whose goal was the protection of white privilege at media houses.
But Moodie, who questioned why the interns’ names had been attached to the story, called the piece a “disgrace to our profession” that had breached the press code “so flagrantly that I find it difficult to believe it was authored by professional journalists. I believe the breaches are severe enough to be considered a Tier Three: Serious Offence and to attract the full sanction that the Code provides for such a level of offence”.
But Independent Media’s Danie Terblanche said the company had been subjected to a “barrage of severe attacks in the media” and that the “severity” of these attacks had prompted the publisher to mandate a team of independent researchers to investigate claims made against the company and its chairperson, Dr Iqbal Surve. He said the team based its findings on articles published in other media over the period of three years, that it had been given information by anonymous sources within the DA and from other media houses, and it had checked out social media comment. The interns drew the conclusion that certain journalists worked in concert with each other and that they could all be grouped together not just by race, but by journalistic background, experience and style.
‘Journalists of a particular generation’
They referred to their targets as “journalists of a particular generation”. The journalists named were Ed Herbst, Glenda Nevill, Alec Hogg, Gill Moodie, Terry Bell, James Myburgh, Donwald Pressly, Chris Whitfield, Ann Crotty, Marianne Thamm, Allister Sparks and Rhoda Kadalie.
Terblanche defended the story as being an opinion expressed by the team based on facts discovered during the course of their research. “It is submitted that, where the article expresses comment on the facts, the test is therefore not how the reasonable person would have interpreted the facts, but whether a commentator could reasonably have held the opinions expressed. When facts are listed upon which comment is based, it is not required that the views of others be sought. Getting comment or response from another party is only required in cases of factual reportage,” he wrote.
Terblanche said the text could be classified as comment and that it was fair. He said the allegations were true and that the comments were in the public interest. He denied the story was motivated by the publisher’s commercial, personal and non-professional interests or that it allowed these interests to influence the slant of the reporting. He said the team was an “ independent group of persons who had been commissioned by the company to conduct research and then to express opinions regarding the research. He denied it was motivated by malice or failed to distinguish between fact and opinion. He said the article clearly stated where it referred to data and when it expressed opinions or deductions made on the facts/data.
But Ombud Johan Retief disagreed. In his comprehensive analysis, he said Independent had, during its investigation, obtained data that had led to certain conclusions. But, he said, the “glaring problem with the investigative team’s conclusions, though, is that the members clearly did not analyse the data from all perspectives”.
He explained the team had “started off by gathering statistical information (the number of articles written; how many were negative; comparing them to others; etc.). So far, so good. Once that was done, the unit set out to analyse the situation, trying to find reasons for those statistics. Great again.
“But that is also where they have gone astray.”
“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”.
Retief said 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”, he wrote.
In addition, “Because the team (note its name: “Journalism Intern Investigative Unit of Independent Media”) investigated the matter and tried to reach conclusions based on its analysis (even with the shortcoming as described above), the text cannot be classified as comment and therefore be protected by Section 7 of the Code of Ethics and Conduct. Its conclusions, based on its investigation, was indeed news”.
And he went further: “But more needs to be said. I also note that Independent Newspapers did not provide a shred of evidence to substantiate its allegations against Moodie – except, of course, the fact that she has committed the ultimate crime by having been critical of the media house.
“If the investigative team did exercise “care and consideration” as to her reputation, as required by Section 3.3 of the Code of Ethics and Conduct, they certainly did nothing to demonstrate that. Instead, they attacked her integrity, professionalism and independence – which, was extremely damaging to her professional reputation.”
Retief said while he believed that the team’s “investigation” was unscientific, “I am not willing to ascribe it to ‘commercial, political, personal or other non-professional considerations’. I have learnt long ago that it is not appropriate to accuse journalists of such motives when one can ascribe their efforts merely to poor journalism”.
Ultimately, the ombud found the text was in breach of the sections of the Code of Ethics and Conduct:
- 1: “The media shall take care to report news truthfully, accurately and fairly”;
- 8: “The media shall seek the views of the subject of critical reportage in advance of publication …”; and
- 3: “The media shall exercise care and consideration in matters involving … reputation.”
But he dismissed the complaints that Independent had allowed commercial, political, personal or other non-professional considerations to influence or slant its reporting, and that a conflict of interest was evident.
He ordered that all newspapers that carried the story – including Cape Times, The Star, Cape Argus, Pretoria News, Daily News and IOL – apologise unreservedly to Moodie.
Want to continue this conversation on The Media Online platforms? Comment on Twitter @MediaTMO or on our Facebook page. Send us your suggestions, comments, contributions or tip-offs via e-mail to email@example.com.