Maj-Gen Lesley Ford vs Mail&Guardian


Tue, Nov 24, 2020

Complaint 8392

Decision to adjudicate

Headline:  ‘SANDF hid R200m expenditure on ‘Covid’ drug it can’t use’

Author: Sabelo Skiti

Publication date: 27/10/20

Particulars

Maj-General Leslie Ford complains of an article in the Mail& Guardian under the headline above.

He complains that his name and rank are mentioned in the article yet he was not contacted or interviewed by any M&G journalist to ask if his name could be used.

Summary of text

The article reports that a “senior official” in the South African Military Health Service “has blown the whistle” on defence force “spending more than R200-million on a Cuban Covid-19 treatment that the health department here has banned from using to treat the symptoms of the virus.”

Its source for this is cited as a “confidential internal report by Major-General Lesley Ford, the chief director for military health service support.”

It cites the internal report as saying the drugs have been stored inside the SAHMS base depot.

They cannot be used because the defence force did not make the necessary applications before procuring the drug. The procurement was also done without due process.”

Public Advocate

The acting Public Advocate dismissed the complaint on the grounds that the report was used in other publications. Some of these named him, others didn’t.

He said it was clear the document had been leaked to the media after it had been sent to a number of senior officers internally. “So clearly you are not an anonymous whistle-blower needing protection.”

He said it was clear the M&G article was based on the leaked document. As it was a matter of public interest, and as there is no indication that it was misquoted in the article, he concluded there had been no prima facie breach of the Press Code and declined the complaint.

Major-General Ford

In his appeal to the Ombudsman, Major-General Ford said he was not aware that his report had been the subject of articles in other media. “As my personal choice in life is to serve, I work for the Department of Defence and have not had time since 27 April 1994 to sit and read newspapers the whole day.”

He did say though that he was contacted by a reporter from another publication who wanted to talk about the report. He indicated that he was “not at liberty and not authorized to discuss Defence Force matters with him.”

He said he was “dumbstruck” when the article appeared in the M&G “that not only quoted the document verbatim but more importantly referred to me by name”. He says he was never contacted by anyone from the M&G to request an interview “or permission to utilize my internal confidential report.” (emphasis his).

He says it is part of his duties to  address “incorrect operational issues” through “correct internal procedure.” He says due to the publicity around his report it has become “almost impossible to address the matter objectively.”

He does not agree with the acting Public Advocate’s response that he is clearly “not an anonymous whistle-blower”. He says this indicates that he is an “informer”. However, this is not the case. “There was never such an occasion where I provided the report to a publishing house irrespective of how much it was in the public interest.” He did not give permission for anyone to use the information in public. “Therefore if I am not a whistle-blower how can my name be mentioned in the media”. Writing the report was part of his duties and it was never intended for “whistle-blowing.”

He also argues that his Constitutional right to privacy has been infringed. The M&G did not contact him, nor did it ask his permission to use his name. When another publication (TimesLive) contacted him “they were told in no uncertain terms that I would not communicate with them about the confidential report…” However, they did not use his name.

He says the treatment of himself by publications that have used his name without his knowledge or permission has been “degrading”.

He also argues that the media could have used the Access to Information Act to access his report.

Decision

I am aware that there have been ramifications for Major-General Ford in his place of employment as a result of his name having been published in reference to this report. Partly this is because the article in question refers to him having “blown the whistle.

In evaluating this complaint, I asked the editor of the M&G, Mr Sipho Kings if he would agree to make it clear that Major-General Ford was indeed not the whistle-blower. This he agreed to do.

However, Maj-Gen Ford still argues that the use of his name without permission infringed his right to dignity and privacy.

Thus, because no agreement between the publication and the complainant could be reached, because the article has arguably had negative implications for him,  and that on the other hand, it is arguably in the public interest, I have decided the fairest resolution will be to adjudicate this complaint.

Pippa Green

Press Ombudsman

November 24, 2020