Press Ombudsman rebukes Sapa, orders apology

2014-02-18 16:55
(Photo: file, Sapa)

(Photo: file, Sapa)

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Johannesburg - The Sapa news agency has been ordered to apologise by the Press Ombudsman, for the first time in well over 20 years, for inaccurately and unfairly reporting that a newly formed political party headed by a convicted criminal "consisted of gangsters".

The Sapa news report, in December 2013, was about prison authorities cancelling parole from jail for Rashied Staggie, former Hard Livings gang leader on the Cape Flats, because he joined the newly formed Patriotic Alliance political party headed by convicted criminal Gayton McKenzie.

The PA lodged a complaint with the ombudsman in January when it became aware of the report, claiming the statement "of fact" in the story that it was a party that "consisted of gangsters" was inaccurate and damaging.

Sapa pointed out that McKenzie was on record in a previous MetroFM radio interview as saying that gangsters were joining his party, and also: "They can call me a gangster. They can call us a gangster party. But they'll see me at the polls."

Sapa, however, conceded the reporting error of stating as fact that the party consisted of gangsters.

Given the long delay since the original news report, which would make a simple correction useless, Sapa offered to carry a fresh news story drawn from an interview with McKenzie in which he would be provided a comprehensive opportunity to state his views - including any criticism he wanted to put on record regarding Sapa's reporting - and say more about his political party, what it stood for, and who its members were.

After a further delay, Sapa was advised through the ombudsman's public advocate's mediatory office that the offer had been accepted.

Editorial control

But the PA demanded in addition to have full editorial control over the interview report and also that it be prominently based on an apology from Sapa.

Sapa refused to relinquish editorial control and pointed out the initial complaint from the PA had been focused on correcting inaccurate and unfair facts, not an apology.

The PA in response decided to flout the public advocate's accepted intermediary role and sent a long, aggressively worded e-mail directly to Sapa's editor Mark van der Velden, accusing the news agency of "trying to weasel" out of an apology, and threatening to force an ombudsman's formal ruling on the complaint if Sapa did not bow to the party's demands.

"It was clear to me then that the PA was not so much interested in correcting fine-point facts for the public record, but rather in extracting a grovelling apology it could exploit repeatedly on electioneering platforms," said Van der Velden.

"We also took strong exception to the abusive and threatening tone of the PA's approach. We were thus quite happy to leave it to a formal ruling by the ombudsman.

"The matter has been thoroughly aired; the facts are available for members of the public to form their own opinions.

"It is significant that the ombudsman has decided to leave the possibility of a separate Sapa story about the PA entirely to our discretion.

"As far as I can establish, this is the first time in well over 20 years we have been found to have contravened the Press Code of Conduct.

"We will not appeal against the ruling. It was inaccurate and unfair to use the phrase 'consisted of gangsters', in referring to McKenzie's party. For that we apologise, as instructed," Van der Velden said.

Read more on:    sapa  |  rashied staggie  |  politics  |  media

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