What's in a name?

The Citizen was in court this week, having to defend itself against Ekurhuleni metro police chief Robert McBride’s charge of defamation for portraying him as a criminal.

In a series of articles, the newspaper had referred to McBride as a bomber and a cold-blooded multiple murderer, the court heard. This was in reference to the bombing of a bar off Durban’s beachfront in 1986, while McBride was a cadre in Umkhonto weSizwe, the military wing of the then-banned African National Congress.
For this, he received amnesty from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC).

Also, in 1998 McBride was arrested in Mozambique on suspicion of arms trafficking, but charges were withdrawn and he therefore has no criminal record, his lawyer argued.

The case concerns mainly editorial comment by acting editor Martin Williams, and opinion in a column by freelancer Andrew Kenny in September and October 2003.

The alleged intention of these articles was to discredit McBride and prevent him from being appointed to the post of police chief. Now McBride wants to be rewarded R3,6-million to clear his name.

Was the Citizen wrong in publishing these articles? Williams said that at the time he did not see any reason to pass the articles by the newspaper’s lawyers. Had he done so, they may have pointed to defamation laws that prevent such reports from hauling skeletons out of a person’s closet in order to discredit him or her—especially those skeletons laid to rest once and for all. Examples are amnesty granted by the TRC, or a completed prison sentence.

On the other hand, a fair comment piece or newspaper column may mention such events as a matter of fact, or in a balanced debate. So did the articles in question lower McBride in the minds of reasonable readers? That is the question the court will ask in determining whether defamation did indeed take place.

Whether McBride wins or not, what is clear is how carefully media organisations have to maintain the balance between fair comment and undue criticism. It’s not an easy task, but then, neither is defending oneself in court.

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