South Africa

Avusa Public Editor’s body blow to Oppelt: lessons learnt?

By Khadija Patel 12 July 2012

On Wednesday, Avusa’s Public Editor ruled that Phylicia Oppelt, editor of the Avusa-owned daily The Times, had crossed a line in her scathing column against Talk Radio 702 bigwigs Yusuf Abramjee and Katy Katopodis. And yet some critical questions remain unanswered. By KHADIJA PATEL.

It all began with a sensational story in The Times, alleging that a special team that had been set up to investigate the “blue light” gang, which was hijacking motorists in Gauteng, had been disbanded suddenly. These were serious allegations – a police unit that was said to have made considerable progress against the gang appeared to have fallen victim to yet more realpolitik at the South African Police Services (SAPS). Radio 702 got hold of the story, called Gauteng Police Commissioner General Mzwandile Petros to comment on the article, and after he angrily refuted the claims it made, they allowed the writer of the article, Graeme Hoskens, a chance to give his side of the story. 

The 40-minute interlude between the interviews, however, rankled with The Times editor Phylicia Oppelt. In a column for the Sunday Times later that week, she complained of John Robbie’s interviewing techniques during his conversation with Petros, and then went on to lay into Yusuf Abramjee, head of news and current affairs for the Primedia group (to which 702, of course, belongs) and Katy Katopodis, editor-in-chief of the group’s Eyewitness News arm. 

“It leads me to wonder what exactly transpired between Abramjee and Petros, and how decisions are made at 702,” she wrote.

“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 R22,800 for advice from Katy Katopodis, Eyewitness News group editor-in-chief, and Abramjee.

“Clearly, at 702 there is nothing wrong with stepping across professional boundaries.” 

Katopodis contended that her name had been dragged into the matter needlessly, arguing that she had nothing to do with the programming decision to give Petros the opportunity, on John Robbie’s morning programme, to respond to The Times story. Abramjee 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”.  He told Public Editor Joe Latakgomo that neither he, nor Katopodis, nor 702 had done any training for Petros or the Gauteng police for a fee.

 On Wednesday, The Times published Latakgomo’s findings. 

“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,” he ruled. 

William Bird, Director of Media Monitoring Africa, explains, “He’s found against The Times editor who failed to substantiate the claims she made in her column. It sounds perfectly reasonable – they (Oppelt and The Sunday Times) made a mistake, and the Public Editor has shown exactly what this mistake was.”

Oppelt has refused to comment on Latakgomo’s findings. “I have no statement to make,” she said in e-mail correspondence with Daily Maverick. 

Abramjee is more willing to comment.  “I welcome the ruling of the Avusa Public Editor,” he says, adding, “He was very thorough in both his investigation and in reporting his findings.” (Disclosure: Abramjee is this reporter’s uncle.) 

Katopodis also welcomes the ruling, and notes that The Times published Latakgomo’s findings. “I do appreciate that they’ve published his report in full,” she says. 

Abramjee is careful to stress: “We went to the Public Editor as a matter of principle.”

Principles or not, the incident started off a a discussion on yet more dodgy dealings from the South African police, and quickly denigrated into a bitter exchange of words between senior members of opposing media houses. Petros, when he spoke to Sipho Hlongwane, pointed out that he had been ensnared in a vicious media war. “I just don’t want this thing to centre around me, but the people must receive correct information. Unfortunately I have become stuck in the middle of a media feud,” he said. 

“I’m surprised at how quickly this has become a discussion about how each is treating the other rather than the integrity of the story that started it off,” Wadim Schreiner, Managing Director of Media Tenor, remarks. “The manner in which this became a personal issue is very, very disturbing.” 

Professor Anton Harber, Caxton Professor of Journalism and Media Studies and director of the Journalism and Media Studies Programme at Wits University, believes both sides of the fracas were guilty of hysterics. 

“I think both parties, Yusuf (Abramjee) and Phylicia (Oppelt) went a little overboard,” he says. 

Bird echoes this view. “Editors generally steer clear of criticising their colleagues,” he points out. “Usually, even if editors think poorly of each other, they wouldn’t go public with their grievances. You don’t often get media taking on each other.”

Harber, however, believes that this incident actually holds some promise for South African media. “I think it’s quite good when different media keep an eye on each other,” he says.

“There isn’t enough media criticism. It’s healthy for various media outlets to scrutinise each other.”

Bird nonetheless feels that in the current context in South Africa, such animosity may not reflect promisingly on media. “In the context of great scrutiny on the media, particularly from the ruling party and the general perception that the media is not doing well, you’d hope that they could talk this through rather than using the little space they do have to have a punch-up,” he says. 

Schreiner is critical of the lack of avenues for more tangible redress in South African media. 

“There isn’t any recourse available to anyone who is found to have been wronged by the media,” he says. “I’m not of the opinion that printing an apology or a retraction suffices when you have been found to have made a mistake.” 

Abramjee, however, is satisfied with the vindication offered by Latakgomo’s findings.

“The Public Editor has indicated that he will request for certain sections of his findings to be published in the Sunday Times this week. After that, I will regard the matter as closed,” he says. 

“I hope that as an industry we can learn from this and move on,” Katopodis adds. 

Abramjee also believes there is an opportunity to learn from this sorry saga. “There are lessons to be learned here for South African media,” he says. 

And while there may be numerous lessons to be learned from this drama, not least by both sides of the fracas, Harber is perturbed by these lines from Latakgomo: “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.” 

Harber points out that Oppelt’s offending piece was a column – a piece of journalism that is meant to convey the opinion of the writer. “That last line is bizarre,” Harber says. “A column is a personal opinion, and yes, the opinions they offer must be able to hold up to basic scrutiny. But a column is personal opinion and often journalists do offer us their opinions.”

Both Bird and Schreiner point out the long shadow of Chris Vick in Oppelt’s column, particularly in the lines in which she was found to have proffered an unsubstantiated opinion. They believe that this incident proves the need for rigorous debate into the ethical underpinnings of the media in South Africa, but Harber believes that in addition to a debate on the professional obligations of journalists, Primedia must urgently address what he describes as “Abramjee’s dual role as news-reporter and news-maker.”

What still needs to be resolved, however, is the report into the closing down of the so-called task force on blue light hijackings in Johannesburg. Graeme Hoskens, The Times journalist who broke the story in a spectacular front page splash last month, could not be reached for comment. “At the bottom of it all, the story was powerful. The story and the allegations it made were very powerful,” Bird says.  

The bluster, however, has inhibited understanding of whether the alleged blue-light task-force was disbanded, or if indeed it ever existed at all. “What seems to have been lost in all this was the fact that an issue of national importance was being reported on,” Latakgomo writes in his report, adding that the allegations raised in Hosken’s article were significant enough to warrant even the president’s attention. “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,” he says. 

Will we ever know?

Latakgomo is certainly aware of the scrutiny this brings to The Times’ editorial integrity: “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.” 

As Schreiner puts it, “As a reader, I’m looking at this (Public Editor’s) report and thinking, ‘So what?’” Between Oppelt’s column, and the ensuing brouhaha, the real victims in this story will always be the readers, who depend on the media to make sense of the world and its attendant politics for them.” Yet it is likely they will never learn the full truth. DM

Read more:

  • ‘Blue light’ probe: Media wars, conspiracy theory, and the incredible vanishing task team in Daily Maverick  

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