SARS vs. Sunday Sun


Wed, Jan 17, 2018

Ruling by the Press Ombud

15 December 2017

This ruling is based on the written submissions of Mr Sandile Memela, the SARS executive for media and public relations, on behalf of SARS, and those of Johan Vos, deputy editor of the Sunday Sun newspaper.

SARS is complaining about a front-page lead in Sunday Sun of 26 November 2017, headlined Moyane in fuel drama – SUV driver ‘speeds off without paying’. The story continued to page 2, headlined, Case withdrawn! – Moyane agrees to settle R200 bill.

Posters accompanied the story, headlined SARS BOSS IN FUEL DRAMA!

Complaint                                            

SARS complains that the reportage (story, headline and picture) unfairly and falsely painted a picture of its Commissioner, Mr Tom Moyane, as personally involved in a “fuel drama”, suggesting that he had an improper involvement in the matter and / or that he had stolen diesel.

This, Memela says, was notwithstanding the fact that SARS provided the journalist with a full and comprehensive response prior to publication, both telephonically and in writing.

He singles out the following statements in the story which, he says, falsely insinuated impropriety on Moyane’s side:

·         “Imagine it: Tom Moyane a diesel thief!”; and

·         “And although most people would pretty much smell a rat here, stop it! Tom’s negotiation skills rose to the occasion on this one. It’s alleged that he ‘settled’ the matter with the owner of the implicated Engen service station.”

The text

The article, written by Mdududzi Nonyane, said that Moyane was one of Mzansi’s (South Africa’s) most powerful men – but there had been a mishap when his “mighty car” had been flagged for fleeing a petrol station.

Were this not Mzansi, the story continued, this was “pretty much how the cookie would crumble. Imagine it: Tom Moyane, the diesel thief!”

However, the Commissioner reportedly pulled a rabbit out of his hat, escaping a diesel theft charge by the skin of his teeth. “According to a well-placed insider, police abruptly stopped their probe into the matter because the complainant had suddenly withdrawn the case. And although most people would pretty much smell a rat here, stop it: Tom’s negotiation skills rose to the occasion on this one. It’s alleged that he ‘settled’ the matter with the owner of the implicated Engen service station… And for those in doubt, look, even cops confirm this version of events,” Nonyane wrote.

He also reported that Moyane denied that he was behind the wheel.

Quoting his spokesperson (Memela), the journalist also reported that the incident involved Moyane’s “offspring”, who had been transporting family friends home. Memela added that an agreement had been struck with the petrol attendant, who had been told that the bill would be settled.

Sunday Sun responds

Vos contests all the complaints, saying that the story was truthful, accurate, fair, balanced, and not out of context.

He says the newspaper gave Moyane, who was the subject of the reportage, an opportunity to reply via Memela (his spokesperson).

He says it is undisputed that:

·         Moyane’s SUV (according to his spokesperson, a Range Rover) was seen at the fuel station and that the driver of this car never paid for the fuel bill;

·         Moyane settled the bill later on by paying R200, as his invoice indicates; and

·         the police opened a case of theft (after which the complainant withdrew his charges).

The deputy editor says the story did not state that Moyane was the driver of the car or that he was the person responsible for not paying the bill – his offspring was (according to Memela).

Yet, he adds, there is also no denying that Moyane was involved in the petrol-station drama as the SUV that belongs to him was spotted at the petrol station.

Vos also denies that the main headline did not reasonably reflect the story. He quotes the following sentence to support his argument: “He’s one of Mzansi’s most powerful men. But there was a mishap recently: When his mighty car was flagged for fleeing a petrol station! This is the drama surrounding South African Revenue Service (Sars) boss, Tom Moyane.”

Regarding the headline and sub-headline on page 2, he says the police confirmed that the case had been withdrawn, and it was also not in dispute that Moyane had agreed to settle the bill of R200.

He says that Moyane was a public figure and it was therefore in the public interest to publish the article, adding that the story was reasonably true.

Analysis

The crux of the matter is if, and how, Moyane was involved in the incident.

Vos admits that Moyane was not present at the scene, but argues that he was involved in the petrol-station drama in that the vehicle belonged to him.

That cannot be fair. If he was not present, it is two bridges too far to suggest “imagining” that he was a diesel thief and “involved” in a “fuel drama”. I simply cannot buy this argument.

Allow me to also “imagine” for a moment: My son borrows my car, and he has an accident in which a child is killed. I would have been furious if a newspaper reported, Press Ombud in fatal crash (or something to that effect) – just because the car belonged to me.

Even if I, afterwards, had to have the car repaired (suggesting some “involvement” on my part), it still cannot mean that I was involved in the incident.

The problem with the reportage is that it suggested, both with its main headline, the publication of Moyane’s picture, and the style in which the story was written, that he was involved in the incident itself – “Imagine Tom Moyane, a diesel thief!”

To such reporting I say “No!” – not even in a tabloid, with a style admittedly different from broadsheet publications, but also obliged to adhere to the Press Code. In the end the truth and fairness is what matters – media ethical principles, which are the same for all publications.

Also, the fact that Moyane afterwards settled the R200 bill cannot be suspect, as clearly suggested in the story, nor can his “negotiating skills” be brought into the matter – as if he had pulled strings to get his offspring off the hook on a charge of diesel theft. Settling the account afterwards was what any reasonable and responsible father would have done. I would have thought he should be commended for it.

And yet the report suggested throughout, sometimes subtly and sometimes not so subtly, that there was something untoward about the settling of the bill and the withdrawal of the complaint.

Consider, for a moment, these extracts from the story:

·         Moyane “pulled a rabbit out of his hat”;

·         “Escaping a diesel theft charge by the skin of his teeth”;

·         Police “abruptly” stopped their probe into the matter because the complainant had “suddenly” withdrawn the case;

·         Moyane’s negotiation skills “rose to the occasion”; and

·         It was “alleged” that he had “settled” the matter with the owner of the service station.

I cannot pronounce on Memela’s response to Sunday Sun that there was a clear agreement between the petrol attendant and one of the adult passengers that the bill would be settled – if there was such an agreement, it would make no sense for the attendant to report the matter to the Police.

Be that as it may, even if there was no such agreement, or there was some sort of a misunderstanding, Moyane still cannot be held responsible for the actions of his “offspring”.

To summarise, the following aspects of the reportage was unfair, as it created the impression that Moyane could have been involved in impropriety (diesel theft):

·         SARS BOSS IN FUEL DRAMA! (posters);

·         Moyane in fuel drama (the main headline);

·         The prominent picture of Moyane accompanying the story on the front page; and

·         The statement in the story which read, “Imagine it: Tom Moyane, the diesel thief!”

Even if a headline reasonably reflects the content of an article, I also need to take into account that, if the content is unfair, the headline would also be unfair.

I am also not happy with the impression that Moyane’s negotiation skills and probably also his position got him, or his offspring, out of trouble (as is clear from the part of the story cited above under the sub-headline The text), suggesting some form of underhand action.

This irresponsible and unfair reportage could only have seriously, and unnecessarily so, harmed Moyane’s dignity and reputation – even though Moyane’s response via Memela was adequately reflected in the article.

Finding

The following issues are at stake:

·         The posters, the main headline, together with the prominent placement of Moyane’s picture, and the statement in the story asking the reader to “imagine” him as a “diesel thief”, strongly suggested that he personally had been involved in a “diesel theft” incident; and

·         The impression that Moyane’s negotiation skills and probably also his position got him, or his offspring, out of trouble, suggesting some form of underhand action.

This reporting was inaccurate, untruthful and unfair, has unnecessarily tarnished his dignity and reputation, and amounted to breaches of the following sections of the Press Code:

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

·         1.2: “News shall be presented in context and in a balanced manner, without any intentional or negligent departure from the facts…”; and

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

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).                                              

When considered as a whole, the breaches of the Press Code as indicated above are all Tier 3 offences – journalism implicating an uninvolved person in possible theft and underhand negotiations, especially someone in Moyane’s position, can hardly be worse.

Sanction

Sunday Sun is directed to apologise to SARS in general, and to Moyane in particular, for reporting in such a way as to suggest that:

·         he might have been involved in a diesel theft incident; and

·         his negotiation skills and probably also his position got him, or his offspring, out of trouble, suggesting some form of underhand action.

I take into account that the story was carried on a large part of the front page, as well as on page 2, as well as the fact that the offending suggesting was carried on posters. I am reluctant to use the same space on page 1 for the apology and to direct the newspaper to apologise on its posters – but in exchange for that I am taking the whole of page 2.

Under “Hierarchy of sanctions” in the Complaints Procedures, the following is stated: “[The] Ombud … may impose a ‘space sanction’ ranging from a few centimetres to a full page for the complainant or the Press Council to use as determined by the Ombud…”

The newspaper is therefore requested to publish:

·         a kicker on the top half of the front page, using the words “apology” or “apologises”, and “SARS”, announcing that the apology is carried on page 2;

·         the apology on page 2; and

·         this finding in full on the rest of that page, without any other editorial content or advertisements on that page.

If the story was carried online as well, the apology should be published at the top of that page, with a link to the full finding.

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, in accordance with that ruling;

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