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Avusa Public Editor ruling

Mzwandile Petros,Yusuf Abramjee,John Robbie,Katy Katopodis,Phylicia Oppelt,Joe Latakgomo
Opinion

AVUSA PUBLIC EDITOR: The Times crossed the line


On June 21, Radio 702’s Yusuf Abramjee lodged a complaint with me over a leader article published in The Times newspaper.

He complained that the editorial insinuated that he, and/or Radio 702 had a commercial link with Lt-General Mzwandile Petros and/or the South African Police Service.

Abramjee states that neither he, nor his colleague Katy Katopodis, or 702 had done any training for Lt- General Petros or the Gauteng police at a fee.

Katopodis complained that she had nothing to do with the selection of interview subjects on any of the station’s programmes, and only dealt with the news bulletins content.

Both Abramjee and Katopodis’s complaints centre on a leader written in response to 702’s interview of Mzwandile Petros and the Times journalist, Graham Hoskins by John Robbie.

The Editor of The Times, Phylicia Oppelt, seemed to question the motives of Radio 702 in the allocation of different time slots to air their views by Petros and Hoskins.  At issue is, according to The Times editorial, the difference of 40 minutes between the interview with Petros and Hoskins’ interview.

Oppelt further commented on this matter in a column in The Sunday Times. Several letters to the editor were published in support of her views the following week. 

Radio 702’s point of view is that it is normal for interviews to be arranged with subjects of news items in the print media.  Allegations had been made that a special task team that had been set up to investigate the “Blue Light” gang that was terrorising motorists had been disbanded.

What seems to have been lost in all this bluster is the fact that an issue of national importance was being reported on.  Serious allegations were being made – that a police unit which, by all accounts, seems to have made considerable strides in dealing with the scourge of the “blue light gang” which hijacked motorists on the highways in Gauteng had been disbanded.

The Times reported:

A Pretoria policeman yesterday said they were told to "take out" police officers working with the gangs.

"We were given these orders and then 48 hours later we were shut down. We were told to take two days off and then report back to our units."

He said there was something "sinister" about the new orders.

"It is clear we were doing our job just a little too well. We were about to carry out several raids, which were going to net the kingpins, including police officers.”

If this were indeed the case, The Times was correct in seeking clarification from the Gauteng SAPS chief.

Indeed, it is such a serious matter it should have been dealt with at national level, and not just with the police, and even the President would need to intervene.  It was just as important, and relevant, for Radio 702 to do a follow-up.

They believe that they followed normal procedure, in that they interviewed Petros on the matter, and when he denied the content of the article in The Times, sought to interview the author of the article in order to get clarity for their listeners.

The Editor of The Times believes the journalist should have been interviewed immediately after Lt-Gen Petros in order for the same audience to have heard both sides of the story. The Times argues that the South African Press Code requires the Press to report "news truthfully, accurately and fairly," and for news to be "presented in context and in a balanced manner, without any intentional or negligent departure from the facts whether by distortion, exaggeration or misrepresentation, material omissions, or summarisation".

On the face of it, this seems reasonable.   However, as 702’s station manager points out in a response to the allegations contained in the leader, 702 subscribes to the Broadcasting Complaints Commission which makes provision for the handling of such matters.

While the Press Code requires that "news shall be presented in context and in a balanced manner, without any intentional or negligent departure from the facts ... ", the BCCSA requires broadcasters to, "in presenting a programme in which a controversial issue of public importance is discussed ... make reasonable efforts to fairly present opposing points of view either in the same programme or in a subsequent programme forming part of the same series... presented within a reasonable period of time of the original broadcast and within substantially the same time slot".

Radio 702 argues that by getting Hosken's response to Lt- General Petros's interview on the same day and in the same programme, they had complied with both the letter and the spirit of the commission's Code of Conduct.

It is not normal for the station to have a journalist who wrote an article on which they are doing a follow-up to be on standby to rebut any allegations made in response to such an article. It does not seem reasonable to have expected the journalist’s response immediately after the interview with Lt-Gen Petros. But it is not the “news” that is the main issue, although the interviews themselves were important. It is the opinions expressed on how Radio 702 dealt with the matter that are in contention.

Radio is different from print, as it allows immediate rebuttal and comment from listeners or subjects of discussion.  Sometimes, listeners who feel aggrieved over what has been said about them call in even as a discussion is on the air, and they are put on to respond or make their own point.  In this sense, this provides radio with a better form of right of reply. The spontaneity of live radio makes it difficult to anticipate what an interview subject will say.

The longer periods between newspaper issues, however, does provide a publication the opportunity to get the “other side”.

This, I believe, is generally accepted.  But expressing an opinion does not provide an aggrieved party the same opportunity to respond in the same issue, on the same page, with the same prominence. That is why opinion can cause more harm than a simple inaccuracy in a news report.

It is in this context that The Times leader has to be viewed. The newspaper (for the leader is the newspaper’s position on an issue) makes certain allegations and insinuations. The leader states: “What is astounding is the audacity of omission, the grandstanding and the style of journalism practised by 702. It leads me to wonder what exactly transpired between Abramjee and Petros, and how decisions are made at 702.

It is a well-known fact that the station's owner, Primedia, "rents out" senior staff to educate others on how to deal with the media. Previous clients include the SAPS, which in 2010 paid R22800 for advice from Katy Katopodis, Eyewitness News group editor-in-chief, and Abramjee. Clearly, at 702 there is nothing wrong with stepping across professional boundaries.”

Katopodis points out that her name had been dragged into a matter with which she had nothing to do.  Her role is to manage the news items that are broadcast in the news slots, and she has no idea what content other programmes plan.  She would therefore not have known that John Robbie planned to interview Petros, and could not have influenced that decision, or any follow-up.

While I have not been asked to rule on the accuracy of the content of the original report, it is important to make a broad statement in regard to accuracy. Accuracy is undoubtedly the major essential in all journalism.  It is so in both reports and in comment and opinion.

Any media organisation knows that how people judge the organisation and its news products will be determined by the accuracy and reliability of its news products.

But above all, journalists must always be fair and honest in their reporting and dealings with those they interact with.

The leader in The Times raises the issue of responsibility. The editor, like any journalist but more so editors who have the power of the opinion page, has a responsibility to examine their publication’s motives and to be careful about the language, tone and prominence of an article or comment and make sure it accurately reflects the facts at hand.

Avusa has its own policies which govern what activities their staff can engage in or not. It seems to me that if Primedia choose to “rent out” its staff for any legitimate purpose, it becomes an ethical issue for them to deal with internally. The conclusion drawn by The Times that the judgement of their staff had been influenced by having conducted (disputed) media training for financial gain has no grounds.

Abramjee points out that he sits on various committees and in these roles, engages the SAPS.  He denies talking to John Robbie about Mzwandile Petros. There does not seem to be any proof that he had done so.

John Robbie, in his wisdom, thought it might be a good idea for Petros to meet with The Times editor, and suggested the Public Editor might be able to facilitate such a meeting. Robbie called me to enquire whether this was within my mandate.  Petros called me to explore this, and such a meeting was arranged.

In spite of the meeting, The Times carried the offending leader – and a letter to the editor the following day plus a column in The Sunday Times

The question that the Editor of The Times has to ask is what the motivation for the leader was. There seems to be no justification for the attacks on Radio 702, and on the persons of Yusuf Abramjee, Katy Katopodis and John Robbie. 

Regarding the response of The Sunday Times, from whom Abramjee sought right of reply of the same prominence as the column by Phylicia Oppelt, the newspaper erred in not giving such right “in the next issue” but instead publishing a series of letters praising Oppelt and further condemning Radio 702. The explanation is that the editor of The Sunday Times’ e-mail should have sent an out-of-office response to Abramjee – which Abramjee says did not happen. This is clearly not acceptable.

The Sunday Times did, however, assure Abramjee in subsequent correspondence that his response would be published “in the next edition.”

While both these newspapers have the right to exercise their editorial freedom to publish content about any subject, they have to be honest and fair, and base their content on sound evidence, and that there are good editorial reasons for publishing.  Bias and imbalance in columns and leaders can create distortions, as the current case has shown. Being impartial means not being prejudiced, and to be fair and balanced. This was sadly lacking in the case of The Times.

Journalists, like all human beings, have their own views.  But in their roles as information messengers, they must provide authoritative news and comment, and rise above their own personal perspectives.

-Ends-

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