THE BIG READ: Comment crossed the line
On June 21, Radio 702's Yusuf Abramjee lodged a complaint with me about a leader article published in The Times.
He complained that the editorial insinuated that he, and/or Radio 702, had a commercial link with Lieutenant-General Mzwandile Petros and/or the SA Police Service.
Abramjee said neither he nor his colleague, Katy Katopodis, or 702, had done any training for Petrus or the Gauteng police for a fee.
Katopodis complained that she had nothing to do with the selection of interview subjects on any of the station's programmes. She dealt only with the news bulletins' content.
Abramjee's and Katopodis's complaints centre on a leader written in response to John Robbie's 702 interview of Petros and The Times journalist Graeme Hosken .
The Times' editor, Phylicia Oppelt, seemed to question the motives of Radio 702 in the allocation of different time slots for Petros and Hosken. At issue was, according to The Times' editorial, the difference of 40 minutes between the Petros and Hosken interviews.
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 next 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 team that had been set up to investigate the "blue light" gang terrorising motorists had been disbanded.
What seems to have been lost in all this was 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 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 police chief. Indeed, it is such a serious matter that it should have been dealt with at national level, and not just by 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.
Radio 702 believes that it followed normal procedure in that it 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 to get clarity for its listeners.
Oppelt believed Hosken should have been interviewed immediately after Petros in order for the same audience to hear 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, Pheladi Gwangwa, points out, 702 subscribes to the code of the Broadcasting Complaints Commission.
Whereas 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 Broadcasting Complaints Commission 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 Petros's interview on the same day and in the same programme, it had complied with the letter and 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 it is 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 Petros.
But it is not the "news" that is the main issue, though 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 in that 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 air 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, do give 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 with 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. It 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 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 she had nothing to do with. 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 not have known that Robbie planned to interview Petros, and could not have influenced that decision, or any follow-up.
Though 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 with whom they interact.
The leader in The Times raises the issue of responsibility. The editor, who has the power of the opinion page, has a responsibility to be careful about the language, tone and prominence of an article or comment, and to make sure that it accurately reflects the facts at hand.
Avusa has its own policies governing what activities its staff can or cannot engage in. It seems to me that, if Primedia chooses to "rent out" its staff for any legitimate purpose, it becomes an ethical issue for it to deal with internally.
The conclusion drawn by The Times that the judgment of the radio station's 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 engages with the police. He denies talking to Robbie about Petros. There does not seem to be any proof that he had done so.
Robbie, in his wisdom, thought it might be a good idea for Petros to meet Oppelt , and suggested that the public editor might facilitate the meeting.
In spite of the meeting, The Times carried the offending leader. It also ran a letter to the editor the next day and Oppelt wrote a column in the Sunday Times.
The question Oppelt has to ask is: what was the motivation for the leader? There seems to be no justification for the attacks on Radio 702, Abramjee, Katopodis and Robbie.
Regarding the response of the Sunday Times, from which Abramjee sought a right of reply of the same prominence as the column by 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.
[Abramjee said that the editor of the Sunday Times did not respond to his request for right of reply.]
The explanation is that the e-mail system of the editor of the Sunday Times had not been set up to send "out-of-office" responses to mail received in the editor's absence.
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".
Though 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 being fair and balanced. This was sadly lacking in the case of The Times.
Journalists, like all humans, have their own views. But, in their roles as information messengers, they must provide authoritative news and comment, and rise above their personal perspectives.