Sean Wisedale vs. TimesLive


Mon, Oct 30, 2017

Ruling by the Press Ombud

27 October 2017

This ruling is based on the written submissions of Mr Sean Wisedale and those of Jeff Wicks of the TimesLive publication.

Wisedale is complaining about a story in TimesLive of 22 September 2017, headlined International mountaineer Sean Wisedale in guard hut rage incident.

Complaint                                            

Wisedale complains the story falsely stated that he had:

·         dragged a hut behind his vehicle for several hundred meters – it was moved 30 metres off the pavement onto an open space of land;

·         urinated on a pile of iron; and

·         subsequently apologised to his neighbours; and that criminal charges brought against him were withdrawn.

The text

The article, written by Jeff Wicks, said that Wisedale had used his 4X4 to rip a wooden guard hut from its base and dragged it several hundred meters on a quiet Umdloti back road (outside Durban) – in a fit of rage about the “illegal” structure. 

He reportedly appeared in the Verulam Magistrate’s Court on charges of malicious damage to property, was released on R500 bail, and would appear in court again the following month.

Wisedale, who became the first South African to climb the highest mountain on each of the globe’s seven continents, denied that he had maliciously destroyed anything‚ claiming that the placement of the hut had been inherently illegal. 

He was quoted as saying the hut was erected without the proper community participation process. “Simply put‚ a security company began to control access to our public road by setting up a checkpoint with the view to installing a boom gate. It has altered the status quo of the security in our neighbourhood overnight,” he reportedly said.

The arguments

Wicks says on September 10 the community Facebook group Umdloti Community Crime Cooperative posted the following status:

“At approximately 10pm last night there was an altercation between a local Umdloti resident and a security guard who has been employed by the UIP to help protect the neighbourhood in Umdloti. A vehicle monitoring point had been set up to report suspicious vehicles entering the village on Bellamont Road as part of a security initiative to help curb the increase of armed home invasions and vehicle thefts in the area over the last few months. The resident proceeded to threaten the security guard before driving his vehicle onto the pavement and into the guard house. He then tied the guard house to the back of his Silver Toyota Landcruiser ripping it off its base and towed it down the road before fleeing the scene. The ordeal was captured on CCTV and is now forming part of a criminal investigation after a case was opened with Durban Northe SAPS. The identity of the resident is known but is being withheld until the investigation has been completed. This is a developing story, more details will be provided shortly.”

Wicks adds that he has established the identity of the alleged perpetrator, and that the latter has found himself on the wrong side of the law before (citing some media articles).

The journalist says the story was held over for twelve days, until comment from Wisedale was received (which was reported prominently).

Wicks adds:

·         Wisedale is a renowned public figure;

·         The Facebook post stated that the hut was towed “down the road” – this road is several hundred meters long. “Whether it was 30 meters or hundreds of meters, it does not change the substance of the allegations against him [which he readily admits to]”;

·         The most recent incident centred on another vehicle-borne assault, which made the context from previous reports germane to this story;

·         The story referred to a previous incident:

o   an article published on 1 September 2013 in which it was alleged that Wisedale had urinated on a pile of iron (which is why he did not state this allegation as fact, but merely that this was previously reported);

o   It is not in dispute that those charges against Wisedale were withdrawn.

Wisedale argues that the hut was erected illegally and denies that his actions amounted to an “attack”. He adds that he was on the right side of the law and states that the charge of malicious damage to property has no merit.

He also says:

·         The incident dating back four years ago was not relevant to Wicks’s report – and in any event, it did not give TimesLive a licence to exaggerate and report untruthfully;

·         He moved the hut 30 metres away to an open place of land (visible in a photograph), and he did so with minimal damage. The reference to “several hundred metres” was a gross untruth and suggested malicious intent;

·         The use of the word “reportedly” did not mitigate plagiarism and reporting without verification;

·         He did not urinate on the pile of metal; and

·         He is concerned that Wicks pinned his story on unregulated Facebook content and accepted this information as his source.

Analysis

The ‘hut’ incident

In his correspondence to this office, Wisedale consistently pleads the merits of his case (relating to both incidents). However, my office is not a court of law and is not concerned with who was right and who was wrong – my focus is squarely on how justified, fair and accurate the reportage was.

I have no way of establishing whether Wisedale in fact towed the hut for 30 metres, or for “hundreds of meters”. I have no photograph at my disposal, only a CCTV recording of the incident. From that footage it looks as if he towed the hut more than 30 metres – but it does not show exactly how far.

While I do not think that the distance is material to the story, I also need to state that Wicks should be careful not to report that Wisedale towed the hut for several hundreds of metres just because the road was that long. Based on his rather uncertain response in this regard, I suspect that he probably did put undue spin on the ball – which fortunately, as I have stated, did not alter the gist of the story.

The previous incident

Wicks reported as follows about the previous (the first) incident:

“This was not the first time the motivational speaker and film-maker has been caught up in scandal‚ as he courted controversy in 2013 when he drove his 4x4 repeatedly into his neighbour’s gate during a late night party.

“The din had upset Wisedale‚ who had recently returned from scaling Russia’s Mount Elbrus. 

“After obliterating the gate‚ he reportedly urinated on the thwarted pile of iron. He subsequently apologised to his neighbours and criminal charges brought against him were withdrawn.”

There is nothing wrong with these statements – it is true that that this matter was reported. That, in itself, did not render the claim that he had urinated on the “thwarted” gate factual.

Also, I disagree with Wisedale that this incident was irrelevant, as the two incidents do indeed have some similarities.

Finding

The complaint is dismissed.

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