Press ombudsman rejects Roberts complaint

The press ombudsman has dismissed a complaint from author Ronald Suresh Roberts over a story the Weekender wrote on accusations of plagiarism levelled at him by another author.

In the November 17 issue last year, the article headlined “Authors in Plagiarism War” discussed allegations that Roberts had plagiarised work from Anthony Brink’s Lying and Thieving in his biography of President Thabo Mbeki, titled Fit to Govern: The Native Intelligence of Thabo Mbeki.

Roberts complained that: there were factual errors in the main story and that the newspaper had not given him the chance to respond; a graphic accompanying the story carried Brink’s allegations, but not Robert’s responses; and that the newspaper’s poster, “Suresh Roberts Caught Cribbing”, elevated Brink’s allegations to the status of fact.

Brink alleged that Roberts had “cut and pasted” sections on HIV/Aids from his work.

The panel heard that Weekender editor Peter Bruce emailed 10 samples of the alleged plagiarism to Roberts the day before publication, and used five of the examples in an accompanying graphic.

Roberts did not know the graphic deadline, so his responses arrived late, and were not included in the graphic. Some were, however, included in the copy.

The ombudsman found that the only inaccuracy was that Brink said he did not introduce lawyer Christine Qunta and Roberts, as reported.
Brink said he suggested to Roberts that he should use Qunta’s legal services. The panel found this to be a “minor mistake that did not reflect badly on Roberts”.

The panel found that the only omission was the newspaper not seeking Roberts’s comment on “Brilliant, fucking brilliant” comments attributed by Brink to Roberts after showing Roberts his work on HIV/Aids.

The two outstanding questions then were whether the accusations of plagiarism and Roberts’s responses to these were reported accurately, fairly and in a balanced manner, and whether the poster accompanying the article elevated allegations into fact.

Bruce had argued that “the [press] code makes no provision for comment to be carried with equal status, in as many words or any other quantitative test. Comment was invited, obtained and published.”

But the panel found that “if his [Roberts] side of the story had been at the top or near the top of the main story, it would have counterbalanced the graphic, but its position so far down does not strike the panel as being fair”.

The panel did not make a finding on the whether the phrase “Roberts picks up the theme in FTG [Fit to Govern]” confirms Brink’s allegation.

The panel found that the Weekender‘s offer of 800 words to respond to the allegation in a later edition was fair in the circumstances.

Roberts had said: “Why he [Peter Bruce] thinks that, having given up the bulk of my last Friday in order to answer detailed queries which he then ignored, I would now repeat the exercise, is beyond me.

“At this stage, the horse having bolted, and Bruce having written his extremely damaging story, the only issue is that of the relevant apologies and corrections.”

Roberts had argued that Brink’s Just Say Yes, Mr President manuscript was a work in progress—a “moveable feast”—that could be changed to support the allegations of plagiarism.

But the panel said Roberts had not shown earlier versions of the manuscript to back this up, which they would have found convincing.

Roberts did not confront the issues of “cutting where Brink cut, using identical ellipses and making the same transcription errors”.

“In the absence of that evidence we find the Weekender‘s belief that Roberts was a plagiarist reasonable,” the statement said.

“The panel unanimously finds that the Weekender is not in breach of the South African Press Code and the complaint is dismissed.”

Roberts has seven days to appeal the finding.—Sapa