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.
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.
Following is the text of the statement of sanction the ombudsman has ruled Sapa must distribute to its subscribers:
Ä “Sapa is directed to apologise to the PA and to send out the following text:
Ä Sapa circulated a story in December 2013 in which we inaccurately and unfairly depicted the newly formed Cape-based political party the Patriotic Alliance as a body that “consisted of gangsters”, causing it unnecessary harm.
The party lodged a complaint with the Press Ombudsman Johan Retief, who said the PA clearly stated that it rather wanted to eradicate gangsterism.
“The description of the PA as 'consisting of gangsters' therefore goes against a central conviction of the party and therefore it could only have caused it huge unnecessary harm. This was both inaccurate and unfair,” he said.
Retief stated that, based on the information at his disposal, he could accept that some members or supporters of the PA were gangsters.
“However, that probably goes for some other parties as well. The point is that nowhere does the PA encourage gangsters to join its ranks 'because they are gangsters'. Moreover, the fact that some of its leadership are convicted criminals does in itself not mean that they are or were gangsters.”
He added that, although the PA was often described in the media as “a party of gangsters” this should not serve as an excuse to perpetuate this description. Even the insertion of the word “reportedly”, which was edited out, would not have sufficiently rectified the matter.
“The danger of this kind of reporting is that if one repeats a false statement often enough it becomes the truth in the eyes of the public,” Retief said.
We regret any unnecessary harm that this description may have caused the PA.
Visit www.presscouncil.org.za for the full finding.