RoleModels Foundation vs. Weekend Post


Mon, Jul 31, 2017

Ruling by the Press Ombud

 31 July 2017

This ruling is based on the written submissions of Mr Alwyn Smit, executive officer of RoleModels Foundation (RMF), a non-profit organisation (NPO), and those of Angela Daniels, news editor of The Herald and Weekend Post newspapers. It is also based on a meeting I had with the journalist and four contestants on July 13 in Port Elizabeth, a Skype meeting on July 26, as well as on a meeting with Smit and his wife, Ms Juanita Smit, on July 25 in Worcester.

RMF is complaining about a front-page lead in the Weekend Post of 6 May 2017, headlined ‘Secrecy’ over pageant cash – Irate Miss PE entrants want to know what happened to the thousands they collected. Next to this story, in a separate box and also above the fold, Ms Smit’s response was published. This was headlined, Those complaining ‘unhappy they lost’.

Complaint                                            

The gist of RMF’s complaint is that the:

·         article aimed to discredit it by:

o   implying gross negligence, underhanded operations and even criminal activities on its part, which had to be kept secret;

o   creating the wrong impression that RMF was raising funds for impoverished children and schools, while it was doing so for the NPO as a whole;

·         journalist:

o   entered the Imfundo school’s premises under false pretenses, misleading the caretaker in the process as to her identity as a reporter;

o   did not investigate (corroborate / verify) her information properly;

o   did not adequately report RMF’s response to her enquiry, nor afford it a reasonable time to reply;

o   acted with deliberate malicious intent, bias and unfairness, willfully misleading the public; and

·         headline added to the misleading reporting.

Smit adds that “numerous” sponsors have withdrawn from the NPO as a result of the reportage. 

The text

The first few sentences of the article, written by Lee-Anne Butler, summarise the gist of the story. They read:

“A husband and wife duo – high-flyers on the beauty pageant scene – are being asked to account for tens of thousands of rands raised for impoverished children, with entrants asking why the money is shrouded in secrecy.

“No strangers to these allegations, RoleModels Foundation bosses Juanita and Alwyn Smit have been accused by dozens of entrants and beneficiaries of a lack of transparency about pageant proceeds from as far back as 2013.

“Last weekend’s Miss Port Elizabeth pageant was no different. Entrants say there was no official hand-over of funds and no final total on money raised given, with the winner of the 2015 pageant saying she was bullied when she raised concerns.”

Butler also reported on Imfundo Educare (a pre-school) in Malabar Extension 6, which apparently should have, but seemingly did not, benefit from that fundraising event.

The arguments on paper (prior to the meetings)

Smit cites every sentence or paragraph in his complaint, pointing out “irregularities” as he goes along (details below). In doing so, he repeats himself over and over again. I shall avoid such repetition in this summary.

The article

Sentence: “A husband and wife duo – high-flyers on the beauty pageant scene – are being asked to account for tens of thousands of rands raised for impoverished children, with entrants asking why the money is shrouded in secrecy.”

 

Smit:

·         The reference to “husband and wife duo” wrongly insinuated that the NPO was a family concern, while the pageant was hosted by RMF, governed by an executive management committee, as a fundraising initiative for its outreach programs;

·         The reporter did not substantiate the “tens of thousands of rands” as “no validation for these could be obtained from the NPO due to logistical impossibilities”;

·         The reference to “impoverished children” constituted a half-truth, as the pageant was a fundraiser for the NPO; and

·         All contestants were briefed on what was expected from them, including fundraising procedures; they also received an information pack stating the purpose of the pageant; and a WhatsApp chat group was started where information was shared regularly; and

·         The reporter was briefed in full.

Daniels:

·         The Smit couple started the organisation and were its directors;

·         Her information came from the women who raised the money – who were “in the very best position to say how much money was raised by each of them individually and on adding up how much each raised it was clearly in the thousands”; and

·         Both sides were allowed to voice their opinions.

Sentence: “No strangers to these allegations, RoleModels Foundation bosses Juanita and Alwyn Smit have been accused by dozens of entrants and beneficiaries of a lack of transparency about pageant proceeds from as far back as 2013.”

 

Smit:

·         The journalist was reporting on previous, distorted media articles by the same media outlet, which she presented as fact; and

·         RMF was not asked for comment on the previous articles.

News editor:

·         It is true that these allegations have been reported before – but RMF and Smit did not raise any concerns then; and

·         Smit was quoted in these articles.

Sentence: “Last weekend’s Miss Port Elizabeth pageant was no different. Entrants say there was no official hand-over of funds and no final total on money raised given, with the winner of the 2015 pageant saying she was bullied when she raised concerns.”

Smit:

·         The pageant director clarified the matter with the journalist – should the NPO have publicly  handed over funds to itself?; and

·         The reporter did not verify her concerns with the former titleholder. 

Daniels:

·         The finalists apparently would have liked a public handover; and

·         The journalist spoke to the former titleholder and verified the nature of her concerns; the latter also provided the reporter with e-mail correspondence where she asked for meetings with RMF on a number of occasions to discuss her concerns.

Sentence: “When Weekend Post asked for answers, the couple’s response was to send a lawyer’s letter.”

RMF:

·         There were several telephone conversations as well as e-mails between the pageant director, the executive officer and the reporter;

·         The management committee prepared a legal letter to the newspaper house due to previous negative, unsubstantiated and inaccurate reporting; and

·         The reference to “the couple” created the wrong impression that the couple had acted independently.  

Daniels:

·         Mrs Smit asked the journalist to e-mail her questions and promised to answer those – however, after an e-mail was sent, the paper received a lawyer’s letter;

·         The reporter sent four questions, which did not require lengthy answers; these questions were how:

o   much money was raised by means of the pageant that year;

o   much was raised the previous year;

o   many pageants were held each year in Port Elizabeth; and

o   much money was made annually through pageants;

·         This type of information is not difficult to disclose and should be readily available; over 24 hours was more than enough time to answer such questions;

·         Questions on the pageant’s format and how it is run were asked and answered telephonically – but the newspaper did not get a response to the crucial question, namely how much money had been raised that year; and

·         The newspaper published the NPO’s “official position” in full in a follow-up article, above the fold, on the front page.    

Sentence: “RoleModels Foundation is a registered NPO managing about 40 events in the country.”

Smit:

·         How could the journalist report in a previous paragraph that there had been no handover, only to then acknowledge that the organization driving the event was an NPO?

Daniels:

·         Would Smit have preferred the article not to state that RMF was a registered NPO?

Sentence: “Four Miss Port Elizabeth finalists said alarm bells started going off as the couple kept the total amount of money raised a secret.

“The four women – who spoke on condition of anonymity – said they ‘felt used’ after paying R350 to enter the competition, a minimum R750 ‘charity donation’ as well as raising tens of thousands of rands in prizes and donations.”

RMF:

·         There was no “secret”; and

·         The NPO has never received any request from any finalist to be provided with any information regarding amounts raised.

Daniels:

·         Finalists said they expected an announcement of how much money had been raised, considering how much emphasis was placed on raising money.

Sentence: “While the Smits claim the proceeds are paid to their NPO which sustains three preschools across the country, at least one of the beneficiaries, Imfundo Educare, a preschool in Malabar Extension 6, seems not to benefit.”

Smit:

·         By using the term “Smits” the article was diminishing and discrediting the fact that the NPO, where the Smits were office bearers, was the beneficiary of all money raised; and

·         The reportage was vague, failing to distinguish between cash and non-cash prizes, and donations, again deliberately misleading readers to believe that the finalists had raised tens of thousands in cash.

News editor:

·         The article had to state that the Smits made the claim, as they were the people spoken to – an NPO “cannot be quoted”; and

·         There was nothing “vague” about the reporting – the finalists clearly stated how much cash they had raised and what prizes they had donated, as reflected in the article.

Sentences: “When Weekend Post visited the school this week, the caretaker said the school received no money and was run on donations of food and supplies from retailers, titleholders and the public.

“The Smits have rubbished the allegations, claiming the girls are ‘disgruntled finalists’.”

 

Smit:

·         In this “climax in underhanded and misguided reporting” the reporter had:

o   gained access to the school’s premises under false pretenses, making the caretaker believe that she was a sponsor who would like to look at the school;

o   asked him leading questions on the financial support of the school, without verifying;

o   misquoted the caretaker; and

·         The journalist should have taken into account that a caretaker might not have a good understanding of a school’s finances.

Daniels:

·         There is no proof for these allegations;

·         A photographer witnessed the reporter identifying herself as a journalist;

·         She took notes (which would be unusual for any other visitor);

·         The photographer also identified himself before taking photographs which is not something ordinary visitors would usually do;

·         There were no leading questions; “As part of the reporter’s investigation into the allegation she went to the school to ask those on site what they knew. The complainant cannot possibly know if the caretaker was misquoted as she was not there for the interview”; and

·         The reporter did not interview only the caretaker.

Sentence: “Meanwhile, Weekend Post also spoke to 2015 winner Shannon Hutton, who echoed the claims, saying she had returned her crown after asking questions and getting no response.”

Smit:

·         The journalist failed to state that this was her opinion and what steps she took to verify Hutton’s claims; and

·         RMF has never received any request for or questions about, nor any cash donations from Hutton. 

News editor:

·         It was not an opinion that the journalist spoke to Hutton – she did, and accordingly quoted her on her concerns; and

·         It is a verifiable fact, of which the newspaper has proof, that Hutton repeatedly asked for a meeting to voice concerns.

Sentences: “The women said they had paid R350 to enter and given a R750 donation before their picture was added to the pageant’s Facebook page to obtain votes. They also paid R400 as a photographer’s fee.

“The finalists were asked to approach sponsors for monetary donations and donated 10 gifts to be distributed as prizes.”

RMF:

·         No verification; ignoring information; no distinction between a beauty and a philanthropic pageant.

Daniels:

·         Not true; also, the difference between a philanthropic and a beauty pageant was outlined in Mrs Smits’s own words in her right of reply.

Sentences: “They also had to sell tickets at R120 per person for the gala evening at the Athenaeum in Central this past weekend.

“The girls said they had been expected to sell at least eight tickets at R80 per person or R50 per child for a Texas Rodeo-themed “high tea” at the Londt Park Sports Club on April 27.

“They were expected to bring table cloths, snacks and decor.

“They were also asked to donate prizes to be auctioned on the evening and paid towards the R3 000 hiring of a mechanical bull for the evening.”

Smit:

·         In order to give the pageant judges a better understanding of the organizational skills and support network of finalists, it is standard pageant etiquette, recognized world-wide, that they be involved in hosting friends and family at events as well as in the selling of tickets to those events – especially when it is a philanthropic pageant; it would also be required from the winner to fundraise for the NPO.  

News editor:

·         The article detailed how the pageant worked, so the readers could understand the format; and

·         “In any event the format is not what is being questioned by the entrants. What is being questioned is how the money raised is used.”

Sentences: “A finalist, who said she had sold 18 gala evening tickets, said the women had been asked to secure flowers for the winners, a DJ for the rodeo evening, a hairstylist and sound and lighting.

“’From the interviews held at the Protea Marine Hotel, I thought this would be a prestigious event,’ she said.”

Smit:

·         All the pageant requirements expected of finalists were shared at a briefing session during the interview phase; they also received an information pack in which all requirements were clearly stipulated;

·         The journalist failed to report “the fact that the anonymous finalist has perhaps forgotten the information was emailed to her prior to her entry, alternatively she has not read the information pack that was given to her or understood the briefing session which she was part of”; and

·         The finalists were aware of their tasks and chose to participate, never voicing concerns until they did not win. 

Daniels:

·         The reporter could not possibly have known if the finalists had forgotten information;

·         The Smits could have conveyed this in their right of reply; and

·         The concerns were brought to the newspaper by a number of participants as well as an employee of a sponsor company.

Sentences: “She said Smit had auctioned off a lollypop at the gala for R500, which was embarrassing.

“She said entrants had also been asked to sell lollies for RoleModels Foundation’s ‘Poverty Sucks’ campaign as well as Casual Day Takkie Tax stickers.”

RMF:

·         The reporting style used was similar to a criminal report “and therefore painting a negative light” on the pageant director; and

·         The journalist only reported the view of a single finalist as fact, without reporting on other views of other attendees as well. 

News editor:

·         It is not clear how quoting a person could translate into a style used in a criminal report; and

·         It is a fact that the finalist found it embarrassing; however, it was not reported as fact that it was embarrassing – it was a quote, clearly showing one person’s opinion.

Sentence: “ ‘I organised R5 000 but I do not know if [it] will reach the school. We still do not know how much was raised. There was no handover,’ she said.”

Smit:

·         At no stage was the finalist informed that she was fundraising for a school; instead it was confirmed at a briefing and in an e-mail, as well as in an information pack, that fundraising was done for the NPO (and not a school).

Daniels:

·         The finalists all dispute this, with all saying they were informed that the school would benefit; the former winner also stated this.

Sentences: “Another finalist said she had secured a sound and lighting person for the gala evening but had been shocked to learn the Smits had approached him for added services.

“’They offered four free tickets and a free meal. He did not agree and Juanita’s husband, Alwyn, ended up doing the lighting. I feel it was all a scam. I am broke and my family is broke,’ she said.”

 

RMF:

·         The reporter did not approach the supposed sponsor for his opinion, ignored the answers given, and insinuated that the technical director has ventured outside the set parameters, instead of the sponsor acknowledging that he did not have the technical equipment required;

·         The reporter was trying to insinuate that the sponsor had only been offered free meals and free tickets as acknowledgement for his sponsorship – while there were fixed promotional packages for all sponsors based on the value of their sponsorship; and

·         The “husband” referred to was the technical director at all of the NPO’s events, who hired above average equipment to conform to technical standards across the country.  

News editor:

·         The finalist was clear that her sponsor was unable to provide additional services, as shown in e-mails; and

·         The story did not insinuate that the sound and lighting was below par – the issue was that the finalist felt uneasy with the sponsor she secured being asked to provide more than what he already had done.

Sentences: “Another finalist said she had handed over R23 000 in cash and prizes – which included a R10 000 donation from a local government development agency.

“We do not know how much was raised. Everyone is raising money for this school but it is in such a bad condition. It does not add up,’ she said.

“Another finalist said she had given R10 000, while Hutton said she had raised R64 000.”

 

Smit:

·         The reporter quoted finalists without substantiating the inaccuracies, which the finalists were fabricating as fact. 

Daniels:

·         The finalist never claimed to know how much was raised in total – only that she knew how much she personally raised (which was reflected in the article); and

·         The four finalists and the previous winner, as well as this year’s winner who has subsequently resigned, all insisted they were told they were raising funds for the school. “Six people are all saying the same thing yet we are expected to not quote them based on what the organiser says.”

Sentences: “After winning, Hutton secured a sponsorship of chicken for the daycare but said the Smits informed her cash was ‘the priority’. She also alleges she could not raise money for anyone but RoleModels and Imfundo.

“Hutton said when she asked for financial statements she had hit a brick wall and returned her crown.

“’Juanita posted on Facebook and said I was stripped of my crown. I sent her e-mails requesting her to take down the post. She ignored me. I am so disgusted. Every year kids are being exploited because every girl wants to be Miss PE,’ Hutton said.”

Smit:

·         No verification; incorrect and damaging reporting.

News editor:

·         The journalist merely quoted Hutton as saying she handed back her crown while the organisers say they stripped her of her crown.

Sentence: “In 2013, Weekend Post published an article about the Smits being accused by Mrs Cape Town runner-up Anita Verster of stripping her of her title because she asked about the money.”

Smit:

·         Why was Cape Town news published by an Eastern Cape media house; “Is it because the media in Cape Town has approached the Organization in question and has followed up on the facts and substantiated the true motive behind Anita Verster’s claims and decided not to print it because it was untrue?”

Daniels:

·         She has no knowledge of what other newspapers did not report; and

·         Perhaps the complainants should have provided the “proof” of Verster’s motives at the time, when asked about this, or in fact this time round – they did not do so.

Sentence: “The mother of a former Little Miss Port Elizabeth winner, Celeste Robson, also said the Smits had threatened to take her daughter’s crown away when she asked questions.”

RMF:

·         The reporter resurrected old information; and

·         The “mother” referred to has changed her surname three times since the article had been placed seven years ago.  

News editor:

·         It is common journalistic practice to refer to previous articles written on the same subject – there is nothing suspicious about it; and

·         Those questions were put to the Smits at the time and answered by them. They did not challenge the article at the time and had their right of reply.

Sentences: “Weekend Post visited Imfundo this week and found a modest wooden structure, fenced off in a large yard. There were also two outside toilets.

“The school has large rainwater tanks to supply water, three jungle gyms and no electricity.

Caretaker Theo Jacobs said the school survived on donations from titleholders and the public.

“’We receive food from SPAR. We give the children breakfast once or twice a week. We also receive food from Woolworths so we send them home with fruit sometimes. All the crayons, books and paint have been donated,’ he said.

“He said he and his wife served as caretaker and cook respectively but were not remunerated. He said the school operated from 8am until 11am each day and had 27 children.

“When approached yesterday, Imfundo Educare’s teacher and Mrs Nelson Mandela Bay Diane Johns declined to provide information about the school and its proceeds, saying only: ‘I completely believe in what RoleModels is doing. That is all I am willing to say’.”

Smit:

·         The story suggested that the:

o   caretaker of the school was familiar with the school’s finances;

o   school was in poor condition and that there were no proper facilities – but it failed to report that the Educare facility was in an informal settlement where there was no access to any municipal services such as running water and electricity;

·         The reporter insinuated that the “high–flying” husband and wife duo were fundraising for their own profit, using disadvantaged children; and

·         The reporter did not include any of the NPO’s feedback in the main article (while the story went viral).

Daniels

·         The report did not suggest the caretaker had intimate knowledge – he was asked what he had seen, how often donations were brought to the school and how often food was provided (information to which he was privy);

·         The journalist was not in a position to visit the other two schools reliant on the NPO – it was made clear that the school in Port Elizabeth did not appear to benefit from the fundraising events;

·         The article did not say there were no facilities such as proper toilets – it stated that there were two outside toilets;

·         There is no proof that the entrants felt aggrieved because they did not win; if that was the case the winner would not have resigned, which goes for the 2015 winner as well;

·         The response article was loaded online at the same time as the other article; it was decided to write two articles to ensure the Smit’s response was used in full; it was used on the front page of the newspaper above the fold; and

·         answers from RMF were reflected except where answers were not given;

·         RMF is still afforded the opportunity to provide the newspaper with a total amount raised through the pageant and details on how the money was spent; and

·         The Code of Ethics and Conduct was not violated.  

The headlines

Headline: ‘Secrecy’ over pageant cash.

 

Smit:

·         There was no secrecy, any underhanded operations, or criminal activities.

Daniels:

·         The headline quoted people (correctly) in the story;

·         The Smits are public figures, often seeking publicity themselves; and

·         RMF is an NPO which should account for money raised, which placed the story in the public interest.

Sub-headline: Irate Miss PE entrants want to know what happened to the thousands they collected.

Smit:

·         The impression was created that both the reporter and the “irate” finalists had approached the pageant organiser to ask information and were denied;

·         Not one of the finalists has ever approach the organisation to ask any questions; and

·         The reporter was briefed about this, but ignored the information.

Daniels:

·         There were a number of very irate finalists who wanted to know how much money was raised;

·         The journalist did ask how much was raised; and

·         Following the article, the reigning Miss Port Elizabeth also asked and resigned her title when she was not provided with satisfactory answers.

Other issues

Not enough time to respond; verification; etc

Smit:

·         The pageant director was away from the office when the journalist phoned;

·         RMF told the reporter that documents pertaining to the income of the pageant were en route to the organisation’s offices – which rendered it impossible to supply the information in time; and

·         The journalist was informed that RMF would not have sufficient time to compile the financial information she required.

Daniels:

·         Why was the amount of money not divulged during a 75 minute conversation, even though the information was being couriered to the office?

·         Why would a courier service not have delivered the information within 24 hours?

·         RMF was not asked for a financial report – the newspaper simply requested a grand total of the money raised;

·         Mrs Smit replied she would answer the question after the reporter sent an e-mail – instead, however, a lawyer’s letter was received;

·         24 hours to give a final figure on money raised during a pageant was reasonable;

·         Three separate, concerned parties approached the paper independently;

·         Smit is not able to distinguish between people raising concerns, asking questions and stating they had not received answers, and facts that can be quantified through paperwork; and

·         The story contained questions and opinions, not accusations – the paper tried to verify what had happened to the money raised, yet the only people able to provide those answers failed to do so.

Analysis

Putting all the above as well as the conversations I had with the parties into one pot, I am now attempting to answer one question and one question only: Was the reporting reasonable: “yes” or “no”.

This implies, of course, that I am not interested in the veracity, or the lack thereof, of the allegations levelled by finalists against RMF – my office is not a court of law, and has no investigative powers. My focus is not on RMF or on the Smits, but on whether or not the article met the standards of the Code of Ethics and Conduct.

This is serious (1): opening remarks

This complaint is extraordinarily serious as, in the end, it is about more than the story – it is also about disadvantaged children in a township in Port Elizabeth, whose future may or may not be jeopardised, in some way, by what has transpired. These are children who have had precious few opportunities in life, and who are not likely to get many in future.

It is theoretically possible that through their actions, or the lack thereof, the Smits have deprived these children of opportunities to help laying the foundation for a proper education (by being non-transparent, giving rise to reasonable doubts about their motives and by causing the withdrawal of sponsorships) – even though, ironically, their intention might have been the opposite. The same goes for the newspaper (by unnecessarily frightening sponsors into withdrawing their goodwill for fear of being exploited).

It is my task to decide which is which.

I am raising the issue of the children quite deliberately as, superficially, it would seem that RMF and Weekend Post are at different ends of the stick – while, in fact, they are not. Both RMF and the newspaper have the same goal, which is to serve society. After a lengthy discussion with the Smits, I am convinced that that is precisely their goal; and it is not for nothing that the first words of the Preamble to the Code of Ethics and Conduct for South African Print and Online Media read, “The media exist to serve society.”

It is my fervent wish that this finding serves the same cause.

Lack of transparency?

The gist of RMF’s complaint is that the article aimed to discredit it by implying gross negligence, underhanded operations and even criminal activities on its part, which had to be kept secret – which continues to cause the NPO serious reputational damage, resulting in economic losses on many fronts.

Let me first glance back at the story again, highlighting only a few statements which pointed to the suspicion of a lack of transparency:

·         Entrants asked why the total amount of money which they raised was not revealed (“shrouded in secrecy”);

·         The Smit couple has been accused by “dozens of entrants and beneficiaries” of a lack of transparency from as far back as 2013;

·         This year no final figure on money raised was given, and there was no official hand-over of funds;

·         The preschool in Malabar seemed not to benefit, as expected; and

·         A finalist said she had organized R5 000, but she did not know whether the money would reach the school.

In its defense, the newspaper argued that it made no statements of fact in this regard – it merely recorded the concerns of those who asked some probing questions.

That is correct, of course, but keep in mind that a newspaper is not at liberty to publish an allegation just because someone has made it – there has to be some justification for it. For example, if a newspaper publishes an allegation that I have stolen R1-million rand from the Press Council, I wish that publication all of the very best. In court.

The basic question, therefore, is whether Weekend Post was justified to publish the concerns raised by the entrants. Please note this does not mean that the newspaper had to establish if, in fact, it was true that the Smit couple was non-transparent and perhaps guilty of corruption. That was not its task, as it is not mine. My (only) question is whether it was reasonable to report the doubts raised in this regard.

Firstly, I need to keep in mind that the issue here is not profit – it is about how much money was raised (which would have been easier, and quicker, to establish than profit).

I have spoken to four contestants, and clearly they were all expecting – and justifiably so – to learn the result of all their efforts. That is understandable, as they have worked hard to raise funds.

From an outsider’s point of view, I would have thought that RMF would at least have divulged an estimated income at the gala event or, alternatively, said that it would announce the amount as soon as it was available.

That has not happened – hence the suspicion about the lack of transparency.

I take into account, though, that RMF had an accountant (not the Smits) who handled the NPO’s finances, and that it was reasonably possible that they did not know what the total income was at the gala event, or when the journalist asked them about it.

If there is any doubt, then, about the question whether the Smits knew what the total income was but for some reason refused to divulge that figure to the journalist, I am prepared to give them benefit of this doubt.

But more needs to be said.

As I was curious as to why the Smits did not announce the total income when that figure eventually became available, I asked them if they had ever, previously, announced the total income of an event in PE. If so, I wanted to know why this year was any different.

Ms Smit replied that RMF has never, in thirteen years of hosting events, announced the income from a single event. She argued that nobody ever requested it, “as the finalists have always been clear / satisfied with the fact that they are fundraising for a national NPO, and not for one of its projects alone”.

She also argued that, if RMF were to publically announce what the profit was at a given pageant, sponsors would not be as keen to assist afterwards as they might simply say the NPO should use the profit that it made. She states, “What the public don’t understand is that the [profit] came in, in bits and pieces, over a 10-12 week period, being used along the way for the organisation’s / project’s admin and operational costs… This is the purpose of the fundraising pageants, to sustain the NPO, which in turn sustains its projects.”

She added she did not believe this was a genuine concern with this year’s finalists either – she says that one finalist “got a couple of the finalists … riled up in a frenzy, creating doubt, so as to justify her not winning”.

Smit also mentioned that RMF’s audited annual financial statement were available to anyone who enquired. She said, “Up until a while ago, they were on our website for anyone to view … which was a sponsored website service that we lost due to the negative publicity.”

While I am trying to understand this point of view, I remain convinced the fact that the total amount of money raised was not communicated to anybody, whether it was expected or not, by necessity raised questions about transparency and secrecy. Nobody should be surprised by this. Instead, I would be surprised if such questions were only now asked, and not earlier.

By not releasing the total income, it was neither the newspaper nor the contestants who planted the seeds of doubt, but RMF itself.

Of course, I am not saying the Smits were guilty – I am merely pointing out that critical questions should be expected in the absence of transparency – the disclosure of the total amount amassed.

I am not concerned about a public “handover”. The issue is simply the disclosure of the fruit of the finalists’ labour.

Having given the Smits the benefit of the doubt as to why they did not tell the reporter how much money was raised (given their explanation that they themselves did not have that figure at the time), I asked them why they did not release the total income to the newspaper later, when the amount did become available – even if it was a week or two after the publication of the story.

By this time I expected their response, but it nevertheless remained unsatisfactory: They said it was because they did not trust the newspaper to report fairly on this matter.

Again, RMF should not be surprised that questions are raised about the lack of transparency.

For the record: The Smits have confirmed that they do not have signing rights on RMF’s bank account – in which case a perceived lack of transparency does not by necessity equal corrupt activities, as the couple personally did not gain anything. I also note that, to the best of my knowledge, no charge of corruption or any similar crime has ever been laid against them.

Lack of transparency equals critical questions, not necessarily guilt.

Related to this, the complaint charging that the reference to a “husband and wife duo” wrongly insinuated that the NPO was a family concern (while it was hosted by the NPO which was governed by an executive management committee) has no legs to stand on. I note that Smit does not deny Daniels’s statement that he and his wife started the organisation and were its directors; therefore, I have no reason to blame the newspaper for stating that they were being asked to account for monies raised. Ms Smit also calls her and her husband “the founders and protectors of [RMF’s] vision”, adding that they have dedicated their lives to this cause.

Regarding the statement that the journalist did not substantiate the reportage that “tens of thousands of rands” were raised, the story inter alia mentioned the following with regard to monies:

·         Each contestant had to pay R350 to enter, and had to provide a minimum of R750 as a charity donation, together with R400 for the photographer;

·         One finalist reportedly said she had handed over R23 000 in cash and prizes, which included a R10 000 donation from a local government development agency; and

·         Other finalists said they contributed R64 000 and R10 000 respectively.

I do not expect from the reporter to have verified all these claims, as per RMF’s complaint. If the contestants told her those were the monies concerned, and given the transparency issue, I cannot agree with Smit that the reporter did not “substantiate” the amount of “tens of thousands of rands”; I also take into account that this amount was an approximate one, and that it was presented as an allegation and not as fact.

Based on all of these considerations, and on the fundamental conviction that RMF itself is responsible for critical questions being asked, I cannot uphold its complaint that the article aimed to discredit it by implying gross negligence, underhanded operations and even criminal activities on its part, which had to be kept secret.

Raising funds for impoverished school children

The second main part of this matter centers on the complaint that the story has created the impression that RMF was raising funds for impoverished children and schools, while it was doing so for the NPO as a whole.

This time, the story did not state this as an allegation, but as fact. For example, the introductory sentence read that the Smits were being asked to account for tens of thousands of rands “raised for impoverished children”. Indeed, this was a theme throughout the article – later on a finalist was quoted as saying she did not know if her R5 000 had reached “the school”; and still later this was evidenced by the journalist’s reported visit to that school.

At the meeting in PE, four finalists told me they were under the impression that funds raised by them would go to the Imfundo school in that city.

The question is just how reasonable this expectation – with the accompanying reportage on this matter – was.

From the information package supplied to contestants by RMF, it was clear that the money would not go directly to the Imfundo school in PE, but to the NPO itself. (RMF has one bank account, into which all its proceeds go, and it spends that money on projects where the money is most needed at the time – including the Imfundo school in PE.)

It was also clarified that RMF funded projects other than Imfundo schools (plural), namely the Asanté-Neo-Life Project, which supports abused women, children and single mothers, and the Tamakhulu Project, which focuses on older women and grandmothers.

It was also stated that the school in PE was not the only Imfundo school in the country.

There is another side to this matter, though. Approximately 90% of this information document was about Imfundo. Also, in a later document, informing entrants about “the charity”, only the Imfundo schools were mentioned, which mirrored the trend in the WhatsApp conversation preceding the gala event as well.

Therefore, while it should have been clear to the contestants that the money would go to RMF and not only to the one Imfundo school in PE, and that the NPO would utilize the profit in all its projects throughout the country, it was also understandable that some finalists (mistakenly) thought all their efforts were on behalf of the school in PE – which some (or all) of the finalists visited, in any case.

While I therefore can understand that some contestants came to such an uncritical conclusion, I also believe that the journalist should have stepped up one gear to understand that this was a popular misunderstanding. Had she realized this fact, I believe the reporter would have presented the story quite differently – at least on this particular issue.

Failing to do so, represented a material omission on Butler’s part.

I need to add that the Smits said that they initiated the school. They showed me slides of how they worked at the site, preparing it for what it is today, adding that RMF was sustaining the school all the time. This, I submit, also puts a different colour to this picture.

False pretenses

Smit’s complaint that Butler gained access to Imfundo’s premises under false pretenses, making the caretaker believe that she was a sponsor wishing to look at the school, is quite serious.

In an affidavit, the caretaker himself (Mr Theodore Jacobs) submitted that the journalist had presented herself to him as a would-be sponsor, and only when she started asking questions did he realise that she was in fact a journalist. He also denied that he had said the negative things which the newspaper reported. This sentence read, “I was shocked to hear [the journalist] had turned my answers to [her questions] into a negative.”

The problem with this affidavit, though, is that it was dated one day prior to publication. How Jacobs explains his denial of what Butler wrote before she even published her story, is not my business, but nobody should blame me for not taking that document seriously.

Smit also does not elaborate on his allegation that the reporter asked the caretaker “leading questions”, or exactly where and how the journalist “misquoted” the caretaker. I cannot adjudicate on matters if I do not know their exact nature.

I also do not blame Butler for speaking to the caretaker, especially because he was not the only one interviewed by the reporter, and in any case, the “school” has only two workers – Jacobs, and a person who acted as a teacher.

No proper verification

Smit complains that Butler did not properly corroborate or verify her information.

At our meeting, Ms Smit explained that the reporter should have contacted the chief financial officer, Ms Madelene Wilmot, and / or the national chairman of RMF, Mr Shane Govender, and / or Ms Unathi Faku, a member of the national executive committee.

However, Butler denies that Smit has prompted her to do so. The journalist also argues that Smit never, in any correspondence, asked her to verify her information with anyone else.

Be that as it may, I need to take into account that Butler, after her lengthy conversation with Ms Smit, also e-mailed her a list of questions – to which she replied via her attorney (who did not respond to any of the journalist’s enquiries).

No reasonable time to reply; not adequately reporting response

This part of the complaint is without any merit – Butler and Ms Smit had a 75-minute telephone conversation, followed by some e-mail correspondence. The reporter sent her questions to Smit on May 4 already, and her deadline was more than 24 hours later. The fact that Smit referred the journalist’s questions to the NPO’s attorneys did not diminish the other fact, namely that those questions were quite straight-forward.

The allegation that Butler did not adequately report the NPO’s response to her enquiry is also devoid of any merit. 

Her own response was also covered extensively, in a separate story next to the one in question.

Ms Smit’s argument that her version of events should have been part of the main story, is especially without merit – her version was published on the front page, above the fold, next to the main story, in a separate box. It does not get any more prominent than that.

Malice, bias, misleading

Smit complains that the journalist acted with deliberate malicious intent, bias and unfairness, that she willfully misled the public, and that she deliberately launched a smear campaign against RMF. In page after page, he blames the newspaper for “attacking” it and unnecessarily painting a negative picture of its operations. He calls it a “travesty” that the newspaper published “the rantings of disgruntled finalists” and accuses it of deliberately destructing or destroying the organisation.

Based on the evidence placed on my table, I do not for one moment believe any of the above. Instead, I suggest that the story would never have been written in the first place, or at the very least written with a totally different angle, had RMF disclosed the total amount of funds raised.

Headline

Given my arguments above, if follows that I have no reason to find against the newspaper as far as its headlines are concerned as they reasonably reflected the contents of the story. The headline placed the word “secrecy” in inverted commas, indicating that this was someone’s view (which was true).

The same goes for the posters, which had the same text as the main headline (‘Secrecy’ over pageant cash).

This is serious (2): concluding remarks

Whichever way one looks at the situation, it is ultimately the children who are suffering as a result of sponsors withdrawing from the scheme.

Weighing up all the information at my disposal, I became convinced that the parties are jointly responsible for this situation (the degree of this shared responsibility will, of course, depend on which angle one looks at it):

·         The mere fact that the total income of the pageant was not divulged (neither prior to or after publication) created the perception of non-transparency – which was not the newspaper’s fault; and

·         Had the story clarified that the purpose of the pageant was not to support the Imfundo school in PE, but rather RMF and all its projects, suspicion against RMF in general and the Smit couple in particular would have been much less.

The good news, though, is that this situation can be rectified, from both sides:

·         The Smits can learn from this and divulge how much money it received – not only now, but also in future. If they do not want to do this, they should learn to live with the alternative, which of necessity leads to uncertainty and suspicion; and

·         The newspaper can explain that the pageant was not meant either exclusively or mainly to fund the Imfundo school in PE, but that the aim of RMF’s fundraising is much wider than a school or two.

Where there is a will, there is a way. Together, both sides can benefit from the above, if they are willing to work together. I am expressing my wish that this will happen – for the sake of all concerned, and especially for the sake of the children who stand to gain or to lose, depending on the decisions of the various adults.

Finding

Lack of transparency?

The complaint that the article aimed to discredit RMF by implying gross negligence, underhanded operations and even criminal activities on its part, which had to be kept secret, is dismissed – not because the allegations or innuendos to this effect are necessarily true, but because, in the absence of an announcement of the total amount of money raised, the newspaper was justified to publish those allegations / innuendos for what they were.

Raising funds for impoverished school children

The complaint that the story created the wrong impression that RMF was raising funds for impoverished children and schools only, while it was doing so for the NPO in general, is upheld as such an omission was material and would have helped to bring the necessary balance and context to the story.

This omission was in breach of Section 1.2 of the Code of Ethics and Conduct which reads, “News shall be presented in context and in a balanced manner, without any intentional or negligent departure from the facts whether by … material omissions…”

False pretenses

This part of the complaint is dismissed.

No proper verification

This part of the complaint is dismissed.

No reasonable time to reply; not adequately reporting response

This part of the complaint is dismissed.

Malice, bias, misleading

This part of the complaint is dismissed.

Headline

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 breach of the Code of Ethics and Conduct as indicated above is a Tier 2 offence.

Sanction

Weekend Post is directed to apologise to RMF for creating the wrong impression that RMF was raising funds with this pageant for impoverished children and schools only (and especially for one school in Port Elizabeth), while in fact it was doing so for the NPO in general – and thereby to a certain extent unnecessarily fueling a perception that the organisation was involved in some underhand activities.

The newspaper is requested to publish:

·         the apology above the fold on its front page, with a headline containing the words “apology” or “apologises”, and “RMF” or “Smit”; and

·         the same text online (if the story appeared there as well).

The text should:

·         be published at the earliest opportunity after the time for an application for leave to appeal has lapsed;

  • 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 newspaper and be approved by me (after consultation with the Smit couple).

Post script: Because I have dismissed the complaint regarding transparency (read: the non-disclosure of the amount raised), I cannot direct the newspaper to publish anything in this regard. However, I am convinced that the publication of such a figure and, in fact, also the net profit – at the same time as this apology – would go a long way to further correct the situation.

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