Peter Fryer vs. Daily Maverick


Fri, Feb 2, 2018

 

PARTICULARS

 

Complainant

 

Peter Fryer, director of Risk Diversion Digital (RDD)

 

Publication

 

Daily Maverick

 

Date of article

 

 

29 November 2017

 

Headline

 

Have SITA and SAPS been captured? Scopa to ask questions about R6.1bn expenditure

 

Editor’s Note

 

Author of article

 

Marianne Thamm; editor

 

Respondent

 

 

Thamm


Complaint                                            

Fryer complains about an editor’s note at the bottom of his right of reply, following an article which was published on 29 November 2017.

He complains that the Daily Maverick could not have had a reliable source in respect of RDD:

·         having been a supplier to SITA (or SAPS through SITA);

·         being owned by Keith Keating; his involvement in the company as a director prior to 1 February 2016; and the firm having been incorporated by him;

·         having been the focus or agenda item of a SCOPA hearing; and

·         raking in billions through evergreen procurement deals (with SAPS through SITA).

He concludes that the the editor’s note was misplaced and that it has in fact nullified his response.

The texts

The section in dispute in the original story, which also adequately summarises what the article was about, reads as follows:

“The State Information and Technology Agency (SITA) appears to have become a site of capture by private interests, two investigations – by IPID and SITA itself – have revealed. The relationship between SAPS, the agency and Keith Keating, director of FDA and two other companies, Investigative Software Solutions and Risk Diversion Digital, also owned by Keating, and which have collectively, since 2010, raked in around R6.1-BILLION in evergreen procurement deals, will be the focus of a Scopa hearing on Wednesday. Keating was most recently linked to an alleged kickback scandal involving former acting National Commissioner, Khomotso Phahlane, who was previously SAPS Divisional Commissioner of Forensics.”

Fryer’s reply was then published, with a note by the editor which said:

“On 29 November Daily Maverick published an exposé of how the State Information and Technology Agency (SITA) and SAPS appeared to have become a site of capture by private interests. We verified our information with three sources, one of those being an IPID investigation involving Keath Keating, a director of Forensic Data Analysts and two other companies, Investigative Software Solutions and Risk Diversion Digital. We stand by our story but publish Fryer’s letter as a right to reply and in the public interest.”

The arguments

Thamm says the DM did not edit Fryer’s response in any material way and ran his response in full.

Fryer replies that the DM did not address the essence of his complaint. He submits that the DM may have been placed in unlawful possession of certain information forming part of one or more pending investigations – but that in itself does not guarantee that the information is accurate; DM has relied on an unlawfully leaked report by IPID.

Fryer says the article focused on irregularities within SITA, which were reported to be investigated by SITA and IPID – but the false impression was created that RDD had been the subject of pending investigations following billions of rand expenditure since 2010.

He submits that SITA cannot confirm that RDD was a supplier to it, as it is not true, and adds that the SCOPA hearing of 29 November 2017 did not mention RDD, nor was it an item on its agenda.  

He also:

·         denies any involvement in wrongdoing, and stresses that the company has not been formally charged or challenged as such;

·         says RDD was not given a right of reply prior to publication; and

·         denies that RDD has “raked in” around R6.1-billion, and calls this “pure fiction” – he says there can be no independent verification of the figures, “as SAPS would not release these to DM and we were not asked to submit any amounts to DM”.

Fryer denies that Keating owns RDD, and asserts that the latter was not involved in RDD as a director prior to 1 February 2016 (which is proven by CIPC documentation). He adds that Thamm was informed about this fact, yet she did not make a correction in this regard. He adds, “The DM Editor’s Note had the effect of nullifying this correction in the right of reply despite Ms Thamm having been provided with publicly available CIPC records.”

He alleges that Thamm lacks objectivity in this regard and that she is conflicted. He says the reporter has a commercial interest in the IPID storyline – one of the central figures is Mr Paul O’Sullivan, whose book Thamm has authored (and therefore she derives commercial benefits from any stories linked to O’Sullivan, he attests).

In response to questions I have posed to the DM, Thamm says she:

·         has replied to Fryer that the DM is more than willing to correct that Keating was not a director of RDD prior to 1 February 2016; and

·         accepts that Keating does not own RDD (but is a director). 

She also denies any conflict of interest as far as reportage on O’ Sullivan is concerned.

Analysis

Daily Maverick has supplied me with sensitive information, the content of which I am not at liberty to disclose, and which greatly justifies its reportage – including the references to R6.1-billion and to the Scopa meeting. If Fryer disputes these issues, he should take up the matter with the source of the investigation, and not with the messenger.

Even though the editor’s note did not state that Keating owned RDD, or that he was not a director of that company prior to 1 February 2016, these matters should have been clarified by now (maybe this was not done as the complaint with this office was still pending).

The fact that the DM could have unlawfully gained access to information is of no concern to me. Section 1.4 of the Press Code states, “News should be obtained legally, honestly and fairly, unless public interest dictates otherwise.” If there was no other way of obtaining information which is of public interest, it might have been illegal – but certainly not unethical.

Of course Fryer is correct in that the fact that information illegally obtained does not guarantee that the information is accurate. However, that is not for the media to decide – a court of law is the appropriate place for such a determination.

I need to add that:

·         DM should have given Fryer a right of reply prior to the publication of the article. However, as his reply was published at a later stage, I am not taking this part of the complaint any further; and

·         Fryer’s allegation that Thamm was conflicted is a very serious one, which could endanger her whole career. It is not for me to decide which is which, but I need to state that many journalists author books on well-known or controversial people – which should not deter them from writing about those people in future. The mere fact that a reporter has authored such a book does not conflict them by default. Evidence to this effect, and not merely assumptions or conclusions, is needed before such a serious allegation should be made.

Finding

The gist of the complaint is dismissed.

The references to Keating as the (or an) owner of RDD, and that he was a director of that company prior to 1 February 2016, were inaccurate and therefore in breach of Section 1.1 of the Press Code which states, “The media shall take care to report news … accurately…”

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).                                            

I have toyed with the idea of labelling the breaches above as Tier 1 offences, as they do not seem to be that serious. However, I also need to look at this matter through Fryer’s eyes – which has eventually persuaded me to classify them as Tier 2 offences.

Sanction

The Daily Maverich is reprimanded for inaccurately stating that Keating owned RDD, and for either stating or implying that he was a director of that company prior to 1 February 2016.

The newspaper is requested to correct these matters on the same page as where the editor’s note appears.

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