Rosanne Narandas vs. Sunday Times


Tue, Jul 26, 2011

Ruling by the Deputy Press Ombudsman

July 26, 2011

This ruling is based on the written submissions of Ms R. Narandas and the Sunday Times newspaper.

Complaint

Ms Rosanne Narandas complains about a story in the Sunday Times, published on June 19, 2011 and headlined Boutique owner in high court – The Pavilion tries to evict over rent.

Narandas complains that the story:
• erroneously gives the impression that she has not paid rent since March; and
• mentions a personal matter that causes pain to her and her family, but which has no bearing on the matter on hand.

Analysis

The story, written by Taschica Pillay, says that Narandas, “a Durban socialite and boutique owner”, was taken to court by a shopping mall in a bid to evict her from its premises. Narandas reportedly claimed that she refused to renew her lease until management negotiated the rental increase with her. Pillay also mentions that Narandas made headlines five years ago after an explicit DVD of her and the then KwaZulu-Natal tourism MEC Narend Singh surfaced.

I shall now consider the merits of the complaint:

Not paid rent since March

The story says: “She (Narandas) claimed she had paid her rent until March.”

Narandas complains that she never said that she had paid rent “until March”. She argues that any ordinary reader will believe that she has not paid rent since March and that the landlord has taken steps to evict her because of that.

The Sunday Times disagrees, saying the story states that Narandas said that she refused to renew her lease until management negotiated a new rental with her. The newspaper adds: “We also quote her…as saying that she had never been in breach of her lease.” It argues that nowhere does it say or imply that the shopping mall was evicting her for not paying her rent.

The newspaper admits that it did not quote her full statement regarding the March rental, but submits that, considering the context, its reportage was reasonable.

In her reply to the newspaper’s response, Narandas claimed that she never “refused to renew her lease until management negotiated the rental increase with her”, as the story states. She says that she stated that she had received an offer for a new lease, but says that she has never said that she had “refused” to renew the lease. She says that she did not even state that she had refused to sign the offer.

Let’s first look at the phrase “until March” before moving on to the “claiming to refuse to renew her lease” statement (although the latter does not form part of the original complaint, I shall look at the veracity of that statement).

So, can the phrase “until March” (which Narandas indeed did not use) be interpreted as the reason why management would want to evict her?

Let’s take a closer look at what the story says and try to figure out how the ordinary reader would interpret it.

In the first two paragraphs, the story says that Narandas was taken to court in a bid to evict her from a shopping mall. Then comes the third paragraph, which reads: “Narandas…claims she refused to renew her lease until management negotiated the rental increase with her.”

From the context this, to me, is the reason that the story puts forward as to why management wanted to evict her – and not the reference to “until March”, which is used much later in the story and is in my view an attempt to state as shortly as possible that she has paid her March rental (even though the contract has expired at the end of February).

Now, the reference to the statement that she has claimed to refuse to renew her lease until management negotiated the rental increase with her:

This is an excerpt from the email that Narandas sent to Pillay: “I firmly believe that they understood that they were not at any risk as I had made my commitment to renew my occupancy, it was just dependent on finalizing the rental. Even though the lease was expiring, I had authorized the payment of the March rental before I left. I was furthermore a reliable and financially secure tenant and believed that this counted.” (emphasis added)

The first sentence says it all: Her commitment to renew her occupancy was dependent on finalizing the rental. This indeed implies that she would not renew her lease before a negotiated settlement was not reached. The newspaper was therefore justified in its reportage.

Painful personal matter with no bearing on the story

The sentence in dispute reads: “Narandas, who made headlines five years ago after an explicit DVD of her and then KwaZulu-Natal tourism MEC Narend Singh surfaced…”

This refers to an incident that was reported under the headline MEC caught in the act on steamy DVD – Footage of politician and socialite put in public’s postboxes and published on March 19, 2006. The intro to that story read: “KwaZulu-Natal Tourism MEC Narend Singh’s political future hangs in the balance after a steamy DVD of him having sex with a wealthy, married Durban socialite (Narandas) hit the headlines this week.”

Narandas complains that the issue mentioned in the disputed sentence is a personal matter that has no bearing on the story. She argues that, if Pillay is going to be consistent, she should include the rape case involving President Jacob Zuma in all articles concerning him.

She says that Pillay should know the impact this has on her and her loved-ones. She says: “This (the DVD) happened 5 years ago and my family and I have tried to heal the pain this has caused us. Each time this is brought up, it opens these wounds.”

Sunday Times says that it was justified to mention Narandas’s personal life. It argues: “Readers will immediately want to know whether the Mrs Narandas referred to in the story of the rent dispute is the same as the Mrs Narandas of the sex-tape scandal.” It also says: “We submit that reporting on the matter of the DVD was an editorial decision that lay well within accepted journalistic practice.”

Narandas replies to this that there can “never be a justification to regurgitate this aspect of my life”. She wants to know how the newspaper knows if it is the same Ms Narandas. She also notes that the newspaper does not address her reference to Zuma.

She concludes that the mentioning of this personal aspect hurts “very much” and that no journalist has the right to hurt someone in this way. She says: “It took a long time to heal this with my husband and children, and the rest of my family too.” She says that no other newspaper refers to this matter anymore, and asks the Sunday Times to refrain from ever mentioning this again.

After mulling this over for quite some time, two contrasting convictions emerged.

On the one hand, there is the question of fairness. Is it fair to rake up somebody’s past if it has nothing to do with the story, especially when it is likely to harm them? This is indeed a serious media ethical question.

In this case, Narandas is in the process of reconciliation, and an unnecessary and irrelevant reference to what happened five years ago may certainly have unnecessarily opened up old wounds and set back the process of healing in her family.

(Of course, if the past is relevant to a story it is a different kettle of fish. If, for example, there was another issue regarding sex, the newspaper would have been entirely justified to mention the event five years – or fifty years – ago. That goes without saying.)

I would call the reference in the story to her past unfortunate, unnecessary and in bad taste. If I were in her shoes, I would have felt the same.

However, there is another side to this matter, namely the democratic value of the freedom of speech. Also keeping in mind that this issue is in the public domain, I would be gagging (read: censor) the press if I were to tell it what it may write and what not. This would set an impossible precedent.

I therefore now have to weigh up two principles against each other and have to choose which one weighs heavier – a situation that occurs often in the field of (media) ethics.

My decision is that I cannot and would not censor the press.

In conclusion: The reference to Narandas’s past was unfortunate, uncalled-for and unnecessarily harmful to her; however, the information was in the public domain and the newspaper was free to report it.

Finding

The complaint is dismissed in its entirety.

Sanction

There is no sanction.

Appeal

Please note that our Complaints Procedures lay down that within seven days of receipt of this decision, anyone of the parties may apply for leave to appeal to the Chairperson of the SA Press Appeals Panel, Judge Ralph Zulman, fully setting out the grounds of appeal. He can be reached at khanyim@ombudsman.org.za.

Johan Retief
Deputy Press Ombudsman