Stats SA and newspapers settle bitter battle

Statistics South Africa (Stats SA) and the Star newspaper have settled a ”bitter battle” over an article which claimed that a multimillion-rand survey was bungled, the Press Ombudsman announced on Thursday.

Stats SA twice took out adverts in other newspapers to fight the Star and, after the last advert, the paper sent a letter of demand that Stats SA retract it, said Joe Thloloe.

”Our first prize every time is to get the parties to resolve their differences amicably,” said Thloloe.

”This time it went right up to the brink, where a settlement between the parties was reached in the offices of the ombudsman just before the start of a hearing,” he said.

The settlement requires the publication of a ”statement” on page three of all editions of the Star, Pretoria News and the Mercury, in which the newspapers acknowledge and express their regret for the ”inconvenience and embarrassment” the story caused Stats SA and the Statistics Council.

”I presume the newspapers will publish tomorrow [Friday],” said Thloloe.

The statement, headlined ”Settlement between the Star and Stats SA” details the complaint, the arguments raised by both parties and the way in which the matter was resolved.

According to the statement, the article in dispute, headlined ”R600m state survey bungle — Stats body says error-ridden data cannot be used to set future policy”, was published by the three newspapers on January 8 2008.

Editorials based on the article also appeared in some publications owned by Independent Newspapers.

The headline claimed the Statistics Council, which oversees statistics produced by Stats SA, stated in a report that the 2007 community survey data was ”error-ridden” and could not be used to determine future government policy.

”Stats SA complained to the press ombudsman that this content contravened various provisions of the press code, inter alia because in its view the articles, headlines and editorials included inaccuracies and distortions.

”The Star argued that it had a right to publish the concerns that the Statistics Council had expressed, as these emanated from an official document, and dealt with matters of public interest.

”The Star acknowledges, however, that the Statistics Council did not make the statements attributed to it in the headlines and the first paragraph of the article.”

The statement notes that the Star afforded Stats SA a right of reply to the article, and that this was published the next day.

While Stats SA had accepted the Star‘s right to publish the council’s remarks, it had pointed out that these were cautionary notes and typical of international best practice in relation to the normal limitations associated with producing statistical data.

It held that there was no justification in portraying the remarks as a statement or the implication that the survey was ”error-ridden”, ”unreliable” and could not ”be used to set future policy”.

The statement concludes with the admission: ”The inaccurate headlines to the story caused Stats SA and the Stats Council inconvenience and embarrassment. This is regretted by the Star and the Pretoria News, and the Mercury”. – Sapa

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