The Press Council has said it is unable to consider a complaint by Minster of Communications Minister Dina Pula’s spokesperson, former journalist Wisani Ngobeni, against Sunday Times editor Phylicia Oppelt. Its reasons are intriguing, and worth closer scrutiny, particularly when one keeps in mind the claim that the self-regulatory system is ineffective. And one recalls that the British Press Council collapsed because it never really dealt with the conduct of tabloid journalists.
I am not suggesting that the complaint against Oppelt is of the order of telephone hacking, the saga that destroyed the British system. On the contrary, I believe that she might be questioned for her political judgement, but it is not clear there is a breach of the Press Code of Conduct in her passing on documents to a Democratic Party MP.
The story is replete with irony. Ngobeni is a former Sunday Times senior investigative journalist who would have revelled in the kind of exposés the Sunday Times have had fun with in relation to the Red Shoe Minister, her boyfriend and the departmental cheque book. And it is all tied up with the Minister’s bid to save her job. To do so, she has resorted to some of the most overblown attacks on the Times and its staff, employing the most high-flown and unconvincing rhetoric, for which Ngobeni must hold some responsibility. For example: “This (Sunday Times action) is desperation of the highest order characterized by witch-hunt, misinformation, and manipulation of facts to satisfy the undying desire on the part of the Sunday Times and its handlers to ensure Minister Pule’s downfall by hook or crook”.
The saga starts with a long and rambling letter from Ngobeni to the Press Council. Having read it three or four times, I think I was eventually able to find the nub of his complaint and it was something like this: Oppelt compromised her independence by passing on documents to DA MP Dianne Kohler Barnard to use in questioning the Minister in Parliament. Her job as editor is to publish information, not assist political parties. He also raises an issue around the naming of sources, suggesting that the newspaper failed to protect its source in the Department of Communications, but if there is any substance to this charge, then Ngobeni has managed to hide it behind his convoluted verbiage. And if there is substance, it seems that the complaint would lie with the compromised source, rather than with those who enjoyed and benefited from the alleged outing of a source.
The Press Council’s public advocate Latiefa Mobara, apparently responded this way: “Unfortunately we are unable to deal with this complaint as the issue of unethical conduct by the editor is not covered by the Press Code. This matter can only be dealt with by the publication itself”.
This is puzzling. If an editor is acting in her capacity as editor, which I presume Oppelt was doing in handling Sunday Times documents and dealing with politicians, then surely it is subject to Press Council scrutiny?
The relevant clause of the Press Code (3.1) is as follows: “Conflicts of interest must be avoided, as well as arrangements or practices that could lead to doubt the press’s independence and professionalism”.
Now I am not sure that it is a breach of independence to exchange information with an MP. It would certainly not be the first time that the media worked with someone who has the power to ask parliamentary questions. I think it might be politically careless, but not more than that. But it is at least open to debate whether Oppelt did more than an editor should do. Why did she not just publish the information and thereby put it into the public arena?
Is this not exactly the kind of complex ethical issue in which the Press Council should give guidance? If a Minister and her spokesperson have a gripe, should they not be given the satisfaction that it is properly considered?
*A point of clarity: My fellow media watcher Michelle Solomon points out that the has Press Council apparently said that the complaint is still with the public advocate and has not yet been seen by them. The advocate, however, has to decide whether to dismiss it as outside the council’s ambit, or escalate it to the council. We await the decision.