Sunday, December 30, 2018


Dear Newspaper readers,

          South Africa’s Press Ombudsman Johan Retief has shown once again what a bad idea it is to have the press policing itself.
          Tucked away in the one corner of Page 5 of the Sunday Times of December 16 was a tiny story headed Press Council RULING Apology to Collins Letsoalo.
          This was a retraction of everything it published in its June 24 issue under the heading “Pay it back, AG tells Prasa’s 350% boss.” It apologised to Collins, the former acting CEO of South Africa’s Passenger Rail Agency (Prasa) for “falsely, misleadingly and unfairly stating, both in the story and in the headlines, that the auditor-general had issued a special report on the matter and ordered Letsoalo to pay back the money to Prasa.”
          The office of the AG has categorically denied that it issued any such “special report,” it went on.
          “We apologise to Letsoalo for creating the false, misleading and unfair impression that he had obtained money to which he was not entitled, thereby unnecessarily tarnishing his dignity and reputation.”
          It ended by telling us that Letsoalo had complained to the Press Ombudsman who had found in his favour and that readers could find the full story on the Press Council’s website.
          This brief apology gave readers, who had not been following the story very little idea of what it was all about. Any other flaky report like this would be quite unacceptable elsewhere in the paper.
The little apology is on the right if you can see it
          The original story that carried the lies was a page lead yet, as so often happens, the Ombudsman lets papers get away with apologies which are given nothing like the same prominence as the stories that cause the damage to people’s reputations. It’s clear that they are being allowed to make them as inconspicuous as possible so that as few people as possible see that their paper cannot be trusted.
The original story
In this case Retief’s conclusion that the reporter, who did the story was a liar, was conveniently not published in the paper but left on the Ombudsman’s website for readers to go and find it for themselves.
The same applied to Retief’s very damning remarks.
Like: “Need I say what immense damage such reporting does to the credibility of the South African media in general, and the Sunday Times in particular.”
And: “I have hardly, if indeed ever, seen such misleading, unfair and untrue statements in a headline.” And, as the Ombudsman, he has been dealing with complaints like this for 10 years, although he recent resigned and will leave his position in the New Year.
The name of Caiphus Kgosana, the reporter responsible for damaging the Sunday Times’ reputation so badly, was not even mentioned in the apology that appeared in the paper.
The background to the story is that after Letsoalo was appointed acting CEO of Prasa the Sunday Times dubbed him the 350% boss for increasing his annual salary from R1.7 million to R5.9 million. The Board decided to dismiss him after the story appeared, although he was subsequently vindicated by a judge who ruled that he was entitled to the increase as it was in line with what his predecessor was getting.
The judge’s decision was made before the controversial story appeared and Letsoalo claimed that Kgosana agreed to quote the judgement to give balance to any report he wrote. But this never happened.
Dealing with the claim in the Sunday Times story that the Auditor-general had issued a special report in which he ordered Letsoalo to pay back the increase, Retief stated that the AG’s office had denied ever issuing such a report or telling Prasa that the increase had to be repaid.
He wrote that he had given the paper ample time to “provide me with the special report that Kgosana says he has seen and from which he has quoted so lavishly.
“I have no other explanation for Kgosana’s inability/refusal to provide me with this document than one of the following alternatives:
·      Either there is no such document, in which case the journalist has deliberately misled the public, his own  newspaper, and this office; or
·      He has accepted the existence of a forged document as a real one, without proper verification.
     “I am highly suspicious of Kgosana’s failure to provide me with the report.”
          He believed the first alternative was the most likely one.
          “This can only mean one thing,” he added. “The journalist has deliberately misled all and sundry.”
          Retief ruled that the apology the paper had to print should be on Page 3 which was the same page where the original story appeared. 
          He also decided that due to the “seriousness of the matter” the Sunday Times had to carry a so called kicker on its front page that had to include the word apology and Letsoalo’s name “referring to the text on Page 3” – Ha! Ha!
But the Sunday Times didn’t regard it with the same seriousness. It ignored this directive and put the apology on Page 5, presumably on the basis that it was less likely to be seen the further into the paper it was placed. In any case the front page kicker was so innocuous it would not have alerted many people to the existence of the apology.
Letsoalo has threatened to sue the Sunday Times, Prasa and its former executives for R20-million for loss of income and defamation. 
Newspapers would be less likely to behave badly like this if they knew they would have to publish an apology just as prominently as the original story, at the very least. That’s what should happen automatically if proper justice was to prevail instead of these token wishy -washy, penalties that are the inevitable result of an industry that has got away for years with a system of judging itself.
Retief told me that he always directed a publication where to publish the apology, “even determining that the word ‘apology’ be published in the headline.
“It depended on the seriousness of the transgression. Normally I direct a newspaper to publish on the same page. In some instances I have gone to page one even though the transgression was not on that page. A few times I have taken a whole page.”
  Inexplicably he told me he did not know what I meant when I asked him this: “Why is it that you allowed a newspaper like the Sunday Times, which is not an on-line publication, to merely refer its readers to your website for the most damning part of your ruling in this particular case?”
          In a supplementary question to the one above I asked if it was his normal practice to allow newspaper apologies to carry just a small part of his ruling in print and then refer readers to the Press Council’s website?
          He merely answered: “I always ask a newspaper to publish the sanction – this is normal practice.”
          He assured me that as soon as his office reopened after the Christmas recess the Sunday Times would be told to repeat the Letsoalo apology, this time on page 3. As far as I know this never happened.
You would think our lying reporter would be in for the high jump, especially as the SundayTimes has been forced to carry a rash of whole page, record setting apologies in the last couple of years.
As recently as Oct 2018 the Sunday Times carried a screed by media
 strategist Chris Vick to try and convince us that it had reformed. This
was part of it, but the tall stories keep getting printed

         You would be wrong. The week after the apology appeared Caiphus Kgosana’s name was the first of two in the byline for the papers’ front page lead story, as if nothing had happened.
But this is nothing new. It took ages for it to get rid of its long time ‘ace’ investigative reporter Mzilikazi wa Afrika for mixing fiction with fact. And then it continued to employ Jim Jones as a freelance writer in its business section (Business Times) for eight years after it knew he was a thief.
Jon, the Poorman’s Press Ombudsman who worked on the Sunday Times in the days when its fairy tales were true (goldilocks and big business).

P.S. Before I had seen his tweet I sent Kgosana an email telling him briefly what I intending writing and I invited him to make any comments he wished on the Ombudsman’s damning report. I also asked him how current this Linkedin profile was and he never replied although I got a read report.
If this is correct is he the right person to be teaching
journalism at a university?
Note:The Press Ombudsman comes under the Press Council that has been established by the media industry to police it with the aim of maintaining a high standard of ethics. It only has the power to make rulings involving its member publications and it can’t order any of its members to pay damages. Aggrieved parties, who believe this is what they deserve, have to go to the supreme court for that.

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