Independent Newspapers ordered to apologise over ‘dirty tricks exposé’

Iqbal Surve.
Iqbal Surve.

Johannesburg - The press ombudsman has directed Independent Newspapers to apologise to journalist Gill Moodie over a controversial article carried in several dailies earlier this year.

Moodie lodged a complaint with the ombudsman over a story published on 23-24 August 2016 headlined ‘Exposé: The dirty tricks campaign against Independent'.

The story - carried in titles such as the Cape Times and The Star - was labelled an investigation into the alleged “collusion, misinformation, defamation and sabotage against Independent Media, its executive chairman [Iqbal Survé] and associated companies”.

The story was bylined by the ‘Journalism Intern Investigative Unit of Independent Media’ and accused several journalists, including Moodie, of being part of a white, propaganda scheme that sought to negatively report on Independent, Survé and Sekunjalo.

But in response to Moodie’s complaint, the press ombudsman has directed Independent Newspapers to apologise to her across all its dailies after it found the piece to be in breach of reporting the “news truthfully, accurately and fairly”, failing to seek the views of Moodie prior to publication, and failing to exercise care and consideration in matters involving reputation.

Article a “disgrace” to journalism

Moodie’s complaints about the article included falsely labelling her as a “propaganda journalist”, commentary in the piece that “violated” accurate and fair reporting, the failure by Independent to seek her comment prior to publication; allowing commercial, political and personal considerations to slant reporting, and not distinguishing between fact and opinion.

“My integrity, professionalism and independence are at the heart of my career and these sweeping and defamatory statements are unjustified, malicious and extremely damaging,” said Moodie in the complaint.

“The views presented are clearly inspired by malice, cannot be an honestly held opinion and, even if they were, are not presented in a manner that it ‘appears clearly to be comment’.

“[This] piece of work is a disgrace to our profession and breaches the 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,” said Moodie in the complaint.

Independent’s response

Damien Terblanche of Independent Newspapers responded to Moodie’s complaints by explaining what prompted the publisher to mandate a “team of independent researchers” to investigate the claims made against the company and Survé.

“He [Terblanche] submits the team found that there was an unprecedented attack against Independent Media, Survé and the Sekunjalo group, when compared to other media houses, their related companies and their chief executives – and that various ostensibly unrelated publications would publish articles about them in an apparently orchestrated manner,” said press ombudsman Johan Retief in a statement.

The ombudsman goes on to say that Terblanche said the team based its findings on all relevant articles published in other media over a three year period and on information provided to the team by anonymous sources within the DA and from social media.

Based on 368 articles, Terblanche said the team concluded that it appeared to them that “certain journalists worked in concert with each other” and all these "journalists could be grouped together - not only by their race, but also by their journalistic background, experience and style”.

Moodie was among this group of journalists and Terblanche went on to say that the piece constituted  an opinion expressed by the team.

“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,” said Terblanche in the response.

“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 added.

Terblanche went on to deny that the article was motivated by the publisher’s commercial, personal and non-professional interests, that the team was motivated by malice and that the article failed to distinguish between fact and opinion.

Press ombudsman ruling

Taking the arguments into consideration, press ombudsman Johan Retief then found issues with Independent's article.

“The team 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,” said Retief.

“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.

“Hence, it 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,” Retief said.

Retief’s analysis further came to the conclusion that “because the team...investigated the matter and tried to reach conclusions based on its analysts...the text cannot be classified as comment”.

“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,” said Retief.

Retief further found that Independent failed to ask Moodie for comment.

But Retief said that “complaints that Independent Newspapers has allowed commercial, political, personal or other non-professional considerations to influence or slant its reporting, and that a conflict of interest was evident, are both dismissed”.

Independent Newspapers has subsequently been sanctioned with having committed a tier 2 offence,  and directed to apologise to Moodie in writing in the media house's papers.

Independent also have seven working days to appeal the decision.

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