Thursday, November 24, 2016


Dear Newspaper Readers,
Cape Times News Editor
Lynette Johns
          Was my complaint to the Press Council about being lied to repeatedly the final one that broke Independent Media’s faith in that body’s ability to fairly police its publications?
          As you probably know that’s Iqbal Surve's empire that claims to be the leading newspaper group in the country with titles like the Cape Times, the Cape Argus, The Star in Johannesburg and various others. 
          As a former newspaper investigative journalist living in Cape Town I have a blog to keep me off the streets. So when I got an exclusive I thought the post would make a good story for my local morning daily the Cape Times.
          It was about a doctor (caring doctor) charged by the Health Profession Council with abusing his doctor/patient relationship to enrich himself.
          The Cape Times News Editor, Lynne Johns evidently agreed with me after I sent her an email on 11 July with a link to the post. I told her, “You can take anything off my blog, just credit it. I’m a former Sunday Times investigative journalist so I know a bit about how to do investigations.”
          I followed this with a call the same day to make sure she got the email and I again emphasised that my blog should be credited. This she agreed to, if the story was used.
          In an email she thanked me for giving her the link and said she would pass the story on to one of their reporters.
          After that I got nothing but one broken promise after another.

13 July: The story appeared as the front page lead under the byline of Francesca Villette. I had given her the contact details of the complainant and had sent her affidavits I had received. She too undertook to credit my blog. But nothing appeared and nor was I or my blog mentioned in the brief peace the following day about the hearing being adjourned. There was still room of course for Villette’s email address at the bottom.
14 July: I outlined what had happened in an email to the Editor Aneez Salie. It began, “What has just happened to me is what gives journalists a bad name.” He later claimed he only saw my email on 18 July and he would “meet with those involved tomorrow and revert to you.” This he never did even though he expressed his “sorrow for the inconvenience.”
19 July: When I complaining to Johns on the phoned she said she did not know about any undertaking. Her email response made nonsense of this when she wrote, “Once again thank you for alerting us to the story and sharing your knowledge, we really appreciate it. Unfortunately the subs had to cut the story. This is why the reference to your blog did not make the paper. However, there will be a follow-up and then Francesca will do a sidebar on you, your blog and how you uncovered the story. Please accept my apologies.” I told her it could be months if not years before the case came up again to warrant a follow up story and that it was “ an old tired excuse to blame the subs.”  
20 July: The paper had another chance to put things right, but didn’t. On page four it had a story about how, for the second time in seven months, the Cape Times front page had been chosen among the world’s Top Ten by the Newseum in Washington DC. And as life would have it this was the one with the story I originated splashed across it. The article about this achievement told readers what the story was about but again there was no mention of who had tipped the paper off. In the background at the top of the page was a photograph of President Zuma and Arts and Culture Minister Nathi Mthethwa unveiling the Delville Wood Memorial in France. The story about this was on the inside pages.

24 July: Fed up with the ongoing deceit I complained to the Press Council.
28 July: The Council’s Public Advocate, Latiefa Mobara replied saying that the Cape Times is keen to set the record straight.” She included the paper’s response from Damien Terblanche, its Internal Legal Counsel. He began by explaining, for my benefit, how a newspaper works. His reason for my blog not being mentioned in the Newseum’s story was that it was not “the front page lead that got us the accolade, but the page in its entirety, specifically our masthead picture” showing the unveiling of the memorial. How this prevented my contribution being credited in the part that referred to the front page lead or any of the earlier stories only he knows. “We are surprised and disturbed that Abbott has turned to the Press Ombud when we were still in communication with him,” he went on. He repeated the paper’s offer to do a sidebar about me and my blog when the case came up again. “This is surely more than we would do for anyone else. We request that the Ombud refers Abbott back to us.” She did that and I told her I would accept their offer provided I could be assured that the next time the matter came up I would not be told there was again no room for a sidebar. I explained that I had only complained to her because I got no reply to my last email. I asked her to tell the Cape Times “If it makes an agreement it should stick to it.”
3 November: A report on the resumed hearing appeared on Page 4 of the Cape Times by Johns herself this time. There was another one by her the following day after the case was again adjourned. True to form that promised sidebar never materialised and nothing about me or my blog was mentioned.
Johns telling us about how important 'truth' is at the
Cape Times
4 NovemberI complained to her again.
6 November: This was a Sunday and her email was as though there had never ever been a problem. “Good morning Jon, how are you,” she began. “I can do a sidebar this morning. I have quite a bit of copy left over from last week. Can I call you? Regards, Lynette.” We had a conversation shortly afterwards and she again promised me that illusive sidebar would appear with her story in the following Tuesday’s edition. Guess what, not only was the sidebar invisible but so was the story as well. 

8 November: My email of disgust to her went unanswered. I told her “It looks as though the Cape Times has been pulling my chain.” It ended, “The obvious heading for my next post would be Newspaper Immorality a la Cape Times.
10 November: The surprising twist to the saga was when I told Latiefa what had happened. She disclosed that as Independent Media, the publishers of the Cape Times, had withdrawn from the Press Council they no longer had any jurisdiction over any of its papers. It appears that with 77 complaints against it to the Press Council this year, including some unfavourable findings, Independent Media decided it would be better off dealing with them itself. Heaven for bid that I should tell a lie, but it’s a possibility that my complaint was the one that finally pushed this Group into resigning. It pulled out allegedly to save legal costs because it felt that the Council should never have abolished the waiver clause. This compelled complainants to agree to relinquish their right to take legal action against media owners if they wanted their complaint heard by the Council. And when I Googled this I saw that Jovial Rantao, a former editor of various papers in the Independent Media Group, had been appointed its internal ombudsman to deal with complaints with “immediate effect” from October 21.  Having dealt with ineffective internal newspaper ombudsmen before I didn’t have much faith in this one. But I thought I would test him with my Cape Times experience. Bad idea.

11 & 15 November: I emailed him, but got no reply.
17 November: I tried phoning him at the Group’s Johannesburg head office on the number (011 633 2180) that I had been given for him and the automatic response was that his voice mail had not yet been activated.  On the same day I spoke to Jennifer Johnson in another section of the headquarters and she undertook to get him to contact me. She copied me an email she had sent him asking him to do this. By 24 November I had heard nothing from him.
So that’s a very cost efficient way of getting rid of a complaint with the minimum of effort.
          When he was appointed Rantao was quoted as saying, “Independent Media has always maintained high standards of ethical journalism as guided by the Press Code. My role will be to ensure that our publications continue to adhere to these high standards and that complaints from members of the public are dealt with fairly and efficiently.”
          My experience was a long way from making this Rantao statement a reality.
          Among his many accomplishments he is a former Chairperson of the South African National Editors Forum. Ironically under the heading of “Core Principles” it states “SANEF is founded on high ideals in an industry that, around the world, is often maligned for its lack of integrity.”
          And if you want to know why, you need look no further than the Cape Times.
          Jon, the Poor Man’s Press Ombudsman, who has never been in favour of self policing. Would you value my opinion if I told you that my blog was the best one in the world?

P.S. With the advent of social media information of all kinds gets flashed around the world in an instant, making it more and more difficult for papers to get exclusive news. That’s one of the reasons why so many of them are declining. So it’s very short sighted of papers if they don’t treat people like me in a way that encourages them to keep passing on good stories. In my case at least they got the raw material for their business for free. Most firms would relish this prospect.         

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