Anant Singh vs. Sunday Times


Fri, Mar 16, 2018

Ruling by the Press Ombud

16 March 2018

 

PARTICULARS

 

Complainant

 

 

Anant Singh

 

 

Lodged by

 

 

Himself

 

Date of article

 

 

25 February 2018

 

Headline

 

 

Movie mogul seeks R1m from beyond grave

 

Page

 

 

Different pages in different editions

 

 

Authors of article

 

 

Tania Broughton and Suthentira Govender

 

 

 

Respondent

 

 

Susan Smuts, managing editor

Complaint                                            

Singh complains that the headline and the article were malicious, defamatory, insulting, false and unfair in that:

·         they were written in a sensational manner (with special reference to the use of the words in the headline “seeks R1m from the grave”, and “trying to recover R1-million from a dead man” in the article);

·         the journalists reported selectively by not reflecting his response and that of the City of Durban, and merely quoted from court documents;

·         the impression was created that his buying of the old Natal Command site was questionable (details below); and

·         the journalist reported on a different matter as the one about which she had interviewed him.

He concludes that the reportage has unnecessarily tarnished his dignity and reputation.

The text

The article said that movie mogul Anant Singh has gone to court to recover legal fees of R1-million after a protracted legal battle with late businessman Sunny Gayadin over the old Natal Command site (once used by the military) in Durban.

Singh reportedly negotiated a deal to buy the land from the city for R15-million in 2003 to build a R7.5-billion film studio complex on that site.  However, Gayadin challenged the purchase; the matter ended in the Constitutional Court, with Singh winning the case.

The journalists quoted the DoD as saying, “The site was handed over to the city in 2009. However, the appropriate disposal procedures were not followed. The disposal…is therefore not authorised and could not be executed…”

Singh reportedly said he was “very concerned and surprised” by this statement, adding it seemed that the DoD did not appreciate the economic impact that the project would have on the city.

The arguments

Singh says the facts are as follows:

·         It is true that Rinaldo Investments (Pty) Ltd (his company) is seeking to recover legal costs awarded to it by the courts; however, the process of recovery against Giant Concerts (Gayadin and his wife’s closed corporation) began immediately after the Constitutional Court had ratified the transaction in 2012 and the courts had approved the costs claimed in 2013 and 2014;

·         Govender interviewed him comprehensively about the Durban Film City Project; however, a week later Govender sent follow-up questions relating to the transfer of the site and reported on that issue instead;

·         His view was not properly reported, and the journalists mostly quoted from court papers; and

·         By leaving the DoD’s comment (that the “appropriate disposal procedures were not followed” with regards to his buying of the old Natal Command site) as the final word on this issue, the story left the impression that the transaction was tainted – which cast aspersions on his character and integrity, as he was the main subject of the article.  

Singh says he has adequately responded to Govender. He says officials of the City of Durban also advised him that they had responded to questions from Govender in detail, providing critical information that contradicted the DoD’s statement, and also advising that they hoped to finalise the transfer in the next two months.  This information, he adds, was also conveniently omitted from the article.

Smuts says the story was initially intended as a report on the proposed project and its expected economic impact on Durban. However, the angle about the court case emerged – and the published article relied substantially on the affidavit by Rinaldo’s Sudhir Pragjee. “It is baffling that Mr Singh objects to us reporting on a version that his company has offered the court,” she adds.

She denies that the:

·         story cast aspersions on Singh’s character and integrity; on the contrary, it rather suggested that Rinaldo’s plans were held hostage by apparently underhanded tactics – the fact that the courts approved the costs in 2013 and 2014 was reflected in the story;

·         quote from the DoD (that the “appropriate disposal procedures were not followed”) reflected on him in any way – it was clear from the context that the disposal procedures was a matter for government departments to sort out, which did not suggest that the transaction was questionable or that Singh’s conduct was in any way blameworthy;

·         City of Durban commented on the disposal procedure (it did respond to other questions, she says); and

·         headline and article amounted to false, defamatory or malicious coverage, adding that the headline was explained in the story.

She also points out that the newspaper was entitled to report on court matters without seeking permission from the parties involved.

The managing editor adds, “While it is true that we interviewed Mr Singh with a view to writing a different story, we gave him no undertakings about the form or content of the story that was to be published. From his complaint it appears he is aggrieved because the story we published did not match his expectation based on the interview he gave. That is unfortunate, but it does not amount to a breach of the Press Code.”

Singh replies that:

·         the headline supported a sensationalist agenda that immediately skewed the story negatively towards him;

·         his action was against the entity Giant Concerts, and not against an individual; and

·         Gayadin and his wife were partners in this company, which “did not die with Mr Gayadin”.

Analysis

‘From beyond the grave’, etc.

The word “sensational” has different meanings. In this case, I treat it as reportage that produces a startling effect and creates intense interest. In normal parlance: putting some spin on the ball.

The Press Code does not disallow “sensational” reportage as such; what it does prohibit is the unnecessary tarnishing of someone’s reputation and dignity – to which sensational reporting could easily lead.

The use of the words “from beyond the grave” in the headline and “trying to retrieve R1-million from a dead man” in the introductory sentence to the story, was clearly sensational.

It also went too far (put too much spin on the ball) as the:

·         headline created the impression of someone who wants to do the impossible; and

·         introductory sentence, instead of clarifying matters, rather exacerbated this impression by reinforcing the suspicion that Singh was unreasonable, and even irrational (this time the statement was even more specific – Singh wanting a dead man to pay up).

The use of the word “trying” (to retrieve money from a dead man) further rubbed in this impression. Of course that is impossible. Unreasonable. Unheard-of. Absurd. And yet, this “movie mogul” pursued this fata morgana

If a columnist made these statements in some ironic context, it would have been a different matter – but the reportage was presented as hard news.

Smuts’s argument that the article has explained these statements does not hold water – not everybody reads the full story and besides, the impression created by the headline and the first sentence tends to linger on while reading the article. And even after that.

In addition to this rather bizarre choice of words, the statements in question were also not correct – Singh was not trying to recover legal fees from a dead man, but rather from the closed corporation of which Gayadin’s wife was a member, and who was very much alive at the time of publication.

I have little hesitation in deciding that this reporting was unfair, and unnecessarily harmful of Singh’s dignity and reputation.

Selective reporting

Singh complains that the journalists reported selectively by not reflecting his response and that of the City of Durban, and that they largely quoted from court documents.

Singh’s response

The story reflected Singh’s response in the last two sentences. This read, “Singh said he was ‘very concerned and surprised’ by the [DoD’s] statement (that the appropriate disposal procedures had not been followed, and that the disposal had therefore not been authorised and could not be executed). ‘It seems that the Department of Defence does not appreciated the economic impact that the project will have on this city,’ said Singh.”

The relevant parts of his (unedited) response to Govender read in full:

I am very concerned and surprised by the statement of the Department of Defence.  In fact, they are actually delaying the process despite:

1.      Having formally vacated the site on 16 October 2009

2.      The Minister of Defence and Military Veterans responding to a question in the National Council of Provinces on 23 October 2009, confirming that the site has been vacated, stating that “As a result of the consolidation of the facilities footprint in Durban, the facility became superfluous and the South African National Defence Force had handed the facility back to the National Department of Public Works and Ethekwini Municipality on 16 October 2009.”  This response also confirmed that the site was sold to us “for the development of a film studio complex.”

Defence was always supportive of the sale of the site and was a respondent to the legal case that ultimately ended in the Constitutional Court in 2009, which unanimously ratified the sale of the property.  At no time during this period nine years did Defence indicate that they had further use for the site to Public Works.  Additionally, on the instructions of Public Works, the City had requested its lawyers to draft the transfer documents.

We have made a commitment to invest R7.5 billion in this project and it seems that the Department of Defence does not appreciate the economic impact that the project will have on the City by creating a film production and creative hub  which will generate an estimated 17 000 direct (onsite) and 33 000 indirect (off-site) construction jobs over project period of five years and 4 300 permanent jobs in the operational phase.  The South African Film Industry is a significant contributor to GDP and generates in excess of R10 billion in economic activity per annum, and Durban receives less than 5% of this.

We are firmly of the view that all the correct disposal procedures were followed between City, Public Works and Defence, as they collectively supported the court case as co-respondents and defended the sale of the site.  

The project has also received the support of key government departments including the Ministries of Economic Development, Trade and Industry and has also received interest from the Industrial Development Corporation.

We are delighted to be working proactively with the City in an attempt to finalize transfer in the next two months.  We currently have several productions totaling in excess of R100 million which are scheduled to start soon and we would like to shoot these in studios on the site.   We look forward to breaking ground immediately after the transfer process has been concluded…

I am not convinced that the reporters have adequately quoted Singh – they recorded his “concern” and “surprise”, yes, but the sole reason for his reaction was presented as an economic, and not as a “fundamental” one.

Granted, Singh did mention the economic aspect in his response, but the real reason for his surprise and concern lay elsewhere – in his conviction that the correct disposal procedures were followed. His denial to this effect was central to his response – yet the journalists did not report this (material) issue.

With Smuts, I do not think that the reporting of the DoD’s opinion in this matter has reflected on Singh, and I do believe that the journalists were entitled to quote the DoD on this matter – but the, his denial of the department’s statement became of vital importance.

City of Durban’s response

I have asked Singh for proof that the City of Durban did respond to Govender’s questions, as he has insisted that it did.

A copy of the relevant documentation, dated 9 February 2018, and issued by EThekwini Head of Communications, Tozi Mthethwa, proves the newspaper’s argument – the latter has declined to respond to the issue by saying, “The Municipality cannot comment on the transfer (disposal) process, refer query to the Department of Public Works.”

Court documents

Smuts is correct in that the newspaper was entitled to report on court matters without seeking permission from the parties involved.

Different story

The fact that the story has turned out entirely different to the one initially envisaged, was unfortunate, as it cannot amount to a breach of the Press Code, as Smuts correctly points out.

Finding

‘From beyond the grave’, etc.

Both the headline and the introductory sentence:

·         unfairly portrayed Singh as unreasonable and even irrational person;

·         falsely created the impression that he was lodging an action against a dead person while instead, his actions were aimed at a closed corporation and those who were still alive; and

·         unnecessarily tarnished his dignity and reputation.

This was in breach of the following sections of the Press Code:

·         1.1: “The media shall take care to report news truthfully, accurately and fairly”; and

·         3.3: “The media shall exercise care and consideration in matters involving dignity and reputation…”

Selective reporting

Singh’s response

The newspaper was justified to report the DoD’s statement, but the story was unbalanced as it did not contain Singh’s side of the story. That was in breach of Section 1.2 of the Code that states, “News shall be presented … in a balanced manner, without any intentional or negligent departure from the facts whether by … material omissions…”

City of Durban’s response

This part of the complaint is dismissed.

Court documents

This part of the complaint is dismissed.

Different story

This part of the complaint is dismissed.

Seriousness of breaches                                              

Under the headline Hierarchy of sanctions, Section 8 of the Complaints Procedures distinguishes between minor breaches (Tier 1 – minor errors which do not change the thrust of the story), serious breaches (Tier 2), and serious misconduct (Tier 3).                                             

The breaches of the Press Code as indicated above are all Tier 2 offences.

Sanction

Sunday Times is directed to apologise to Singh (in all the editions where the story appeared) for:

·         unfairly portraying him as unreasonable and even irrational person (with regards to the headline and the introductory sentence);

·         falsely creating the impression that he was lodging an action against a dead person while instead, his actions were aimed at a closed corporation and those who were still alive;

·         not balancing out the DoD’s statement with his version of events; and

·         unnecessarily tarnishing his dignity and reputation in this process.

The newspaper is requested to publish this apology with a headline containing the words “apology” or “apologises”, and “Singh”:

·         at the top of the same pages which carried the story; and

·         on its website (at the top of that page).

The text should:

·         be published at the earliest opportunity after the time for an application for leave to appeal has lapsed or, in the event of such an application, after that ruling;

·     refer to the complaint that was lodged with this office;

·     end with the sentence, “Visit www.presscouncil.org.za for the full finding”; and

·     be prepared by the publication and be approved by me.

Appeal

The Complaints Procedures lay down that within seven working days of receipt of this decision, either party may apply for leave to appeal to the Chairperson of the SA Press Appeals Panel, Judge Bernard Ngoepe, fully setting out the grounds of appeal. He can be contacted at Khanyim@ombudsman.org.za.

Johan Retief

Press Ombud