Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Immoral Press apologies & fact or fiction at the Sunday Times

Dear readers,

          Newspapers in South Africa are notorious for the sickening way they deal with apologies as the country’s former cricket captain Greame “Biff” Smith has just found out - firsthand.       
They can blacken somebody’s name by making a story a lot more scandalous than it actually is. Worse still in this technological age it can be picked up by other publications and blogs and in a flash it is all around the world.
You would think that the South African Press Ombudsman Johan Retief was there to stop this kind of injustice. You would be wrong, he’s actually the kingpin in a window dressing charade designed to give the impression that everything is being done to stop the papers publishing lies about people.
 It’s a cosy arrangement that has the press not only policing itself but judging it as well.
 He’s effectively the judge appointed by the Press Council that is set up and paid for by the media to allegedly keep its house in order.
The Smith case, which I believe is typical of a lot of others, revealed how well or badly the system works depending which side you are on.
In 2003 Graeme Smith was at 22 South Africa’s youngest captain of the Proteas as the South African cricket team is called. Last year he shocked the cricketing world by announcing his retirement after representing his country in 117 test matches 109 of these as captain which is a world record. He was also the skipper for 53 tests wins, another world best. A dogged opening batsman he set numerous other records as a player.
         His nickname Biff is derived from Buffel, the Afrikaans word for Buffalo.
          On March 8 in a front page lead loaded with sensationalism the Sunday Times cleaned bowled Biff’s impressive reputation. The story was splashed across the front page under the huge headlines: Divorce by SMS: How Biff lied to his wife – Friends reveal shocking details of Graeme Smith’s secret plans to end marriage.
          This quoted “friends” of Smith’s wife Morgan Deane as having said that he mistakenly sent her an SMS saying he was filing for divorce and that he had lied because he had previously told her he had arranged for them to have marriage counselling.
          The knife was plunged deeper on Page 2 entitled: Biff lied to his wife about secret divorce plan.
          On Page 20 it belittled him further by naming him its Mampara (South African slang for a fool or idiot) of the Week with the heading: Caught in his own slips.
Readers were told “as fact” that Smith had sent the controversial SMS to his wife by mistake as it was meant for his attorney.      
          The posters proclaimed: Greame Smith’s divorce shame.
          At the time the story appeared he issued this statement: “It is disappointing that certain segments of the media have chosen to publish speculation and accusations as regards the means and manner of our marriage breakdown. It is tempting to respond, however other than to deny the accusations that have been published, I have chosen not to comment.”
         Subsequently when he appealed to Retief for a review he got a typical newspaper friendly response.
          The Ombudsman directed that the Sunday Times had to “apologise to Smith for stating the allegations (that he advised Deane via SMS that he was getting a divorce, that he lied to her and that he had a secret divorce plan) as fact in headlines, in Twitter and in Mampara of the Week and for suggesting without supporting evidence some wrong-doing on Smith’s part by the wording of the posters – thereby unnecessarily harming his dignity and reputation.”
          He ordered the Sunday Times to print a “short apology on the front page immediately below its masthead containing the words ‘apology’ or ‘apologises’ (or something to that effect) and Smith’s name in the headline.”
          For a press ombudsman his ruling was hardly precise.
          He added that there must be a “full apology on Page 2.” The words “Visit www.presscouncil.org.za for the full finding” had to be at the end of the text and the “full apology” had to be on the Sunday Times website “if the offending headlines were published there as well.”
          Surely Retief could have easily established if the headlines were published on the website.
          As it turned out he let the Sunday Times off the hook almost completely by allowing it to publish a minute apology that was a fraction of the size of the original story. There was nothing on Page 2.
whereas the original story was on the left with an even bigger
headline than the SARS one here
          When I asked him why this was he replied: “The idea was to have a kicker on Page 1, referring to the apology on Page 2.”
          So if he had had his way the apology would not have even been on Page 1.
          “However,” he went on, “the newspaper offered to publish the full apology on Page 1 which made text on Page 2 redundant.”
          What about the offending posters? My bet is that there were never any posters announcing the apology.   
          I asked Retief why the Press Council did not make newspapers print apologies in the same position as the original story and with the same prominence.
          It’s hardly surprising that the Council has that covered in favour of the media with a Complaints Procedure that according to Retief “asks for appropriate prominence.”
          Appropriate for whom? An apology that is a fraction the size of the original story with a tiny heading would I am sure not be “appropriate” in Smith’s eyes.
          The word is defined as being “suitable or proper in the circumstances.” Only Retief and the Sunday Times would agree that the apology in this case complied with this definition.
          In this part of his finding which the Sunday Times readers could only see on the Press Council’s website Retief concluded: “By making a decision that the publication of the headlines/Twitter was unjustified, I am not finding that the allegations made against Smith are false. For all I know they may be true. I simply do not have any evidence to either effect, besides, the Press Ombudsman’s office is not a court of law – it is an institution of ethics. My decision is therefore not a judicial, but rather a journalist one.
          “All I’m saying is that, with the information at the newspaper’s disposal at the time of publication, it was not justified in stating the allegations as fact in the headlines and in the Twitter feed.”
          How ethical is it to allow the paper to get away with such a tiny apology. And if he did not know if the allegations were true or false how could Retief possibly say that he knew what information the Sunday Times had at its “disposal at the time of publication.”

          Retief’s full judgement contained some very confusing statements as well as this odd throw away line: “I have on various occasions stated that the mere fact that an allegation has been made does not by default justify a newspaper to publish it – allegations can be baseless, defamatory and they can cause huge unnecessary harm. Be that as it may.”
          “The report consistently ascribes those allegations to ‘friends,’” he continued. “It is clear that the allegations, whether factually correct or not were the views of people.”
          He referred to Section 4.7 of the Press Code that states: “The dignity or reputation of an individual should be overridden only by a legitimate public interest if the facts reported are true or substantially true.”
          Having concluded that the Sunday Times report was based on allegations from an anonymous source he made no ruling about the report itself even though his own findings showed that it should not have been published at all. This was in spite of the fact that he had “little doubt” that it had “done unnecessary harm” to Smith’s “dignity and reputation.”
          Retief’s admission that his decisions are “journalistic ones” explains exactly why the Press Council has a Constitution that is loaded in favour of the newspapers it claims to police.
          Is it a conscience-salving new twist to have the Council’s web address included in the apology which was a cop out for what should have been a punishment of some significance by being in the paper itself?
          The Press Council is a toothless media lap dog that has only one way of punishing transgressing publications and that is to order them to print the kind of pathetic apology the Sunday Times was told to carry.
          By coincidence the African National Congress (ANC) Government has revived its call for a statutory Media Appeals Tribunal that would be able to fine offending papers and perhaps meet out even harsher sanctions.
          A couple of years ago the papers in the Sunday Times group had Thabo Leshilo a veteran journalist and former editor as their own internal Ombudsman or Public Editor as he was called to act as the readers’ representative..
          He was there when the ANC first mooted the idea of a Media Appeals Tribunal. Possibly because of this he advocated in one of his columns that apologies should be on the same page as the original story and just as prominent.
          “This if followed should go a long way to addressing most of the legitimate criticisms of our newspapers and improve their credibility,” he wrote.
          You can imagine how popular that was. So shortly afterwards he disappeared and was replaced in 2011 by another former editor Joe Latakgomo. He too did not last long and was not replaced when he left.
          The hierarchy at that newspaper group evidently decided that the Press Council was more than enough to contend with, without having its own Ombudsman coming up with embarrassing, reader friendly bright ideas.
          In its quest for reader grabbing sensationalism did the Sunday Times overstep the mark again in its very next edition following the one with the Smith apology. On May 24 its front page lead was headed: Trevor Noah’s family tragedy with the subtitled: Yet another female relative killed.

          The story was about the funeral of South African comedian Noah’s 24 year old cousin who was murdered. Noah and the girl were not close, the paper reported as they lived in different provinces, according to his grandmother, but they knew each other.
          The strangest part of the story was that the paper claimed the girl’s relatives had not yet been able to tell Noah about the girl’s death and the Sunday Times had been unable to contact him for comment as he was abroad.
          It got stranger still when Noah tweeted: 
          He followed this with: 
          Then News 24 reported that the Sunday Times Editor Phylicia Oppelt was standing by her paper’s report while at the same time it claimed to have spoken to Noah’s 88 year old grandmother who rubbished the Sunday story as being completely untrue. 

          Even The Times, the daily in the same stable as the Sunday Times was ominously silent on the subject in the following days.

          Now that Noah has really hit the big time by being named the successor to Jon Stewart on the The Daily Show, the American late night TV news satire his name is a huge draw to have in any newspaper headline.
          Could this have been the main motive for the Sunday Times story?
          It will be interesting to see what Retief decides if he gets a complaint about this one.

                                A WEEK LATER ON MAY 31

          Having been quoted earlier as standing by her paper's Noah report of May 24 the Sunday Times Editor Phylicia Oppelt came up with this wishy-washy apology that took up nearly half of Page 4.

        "Clearly we had not delved down into the facts as deeply as we should," she wrote. "On reflection should this story have been offered to readers in the condition that it was? No. 
        "Was it sufficiently weighty to be offered as the main story on our front page? No."
        Nowhere in her long winded explanation of why her paper got it wrong did she mention the one aspect that was the key to getting it right. And that was to get Noah's view before the story was published - one of the basics of good journalism that every cub reporter is taught.
        But when the Sunday Times could not get hold him it couldn't wait to get into print as if this was a world shattering scoop. The result was that Oppelt had egg on her face two weeks running.
        In typical newspaper style the headline for her apology was an innocuous one design to disguise what really happened.
        It would  have been too daring for it to have said something like: Sorry we got our Trevor Noah 'family tragedy' story wrong. Here's how it came about.
          Jon, the Poor Man’s Press Ombudsman, who tells you what the main stream media would rather keep mum about.