Appeal Decision: Clinton Manuel and Knysna-Plett Herald

Mon, Oct 15, 2018

In the matter of

CLINTON MANUEL                                                                                            APPLICANT


KNYSNA-PLETT HERALD                                                                          RESPONDENT

                                                                                         MATTER NO: 3914/07/2018


  1. This is an application by Mr Clinton Manuel (“applicant”) for leave to appeal the Ruling of the Press Ombud, dated 13 September 2018 following a complaint by the applicant against Knysna-Plett Herald (“respondent”).  The complaint was against an article by the respondent on 5 July 2018, the long headline of which read: “For over a year we have seen the to and fro of conflicting theories of how the Knysna fires started. But after the CSIR report, many people are asking: has Knysna’s former Chief Clinton Manuel not been caught with his … Pants on fire?” The essence of the story was that the CSIR (Council for Scientific and Industrial Research) and a certain Dr D Klatzow had produced reports about how the Knysna fires of 2017 that gutted the town, which contradicted the report by the applicant; then the town’s fire chief.  There was also a cartoon in which Dr Klatzow was depicted kicking the applicant on his behind, and the latter’s nose lenghtened Pinocchio style.
  2. The applicant complained that the story was defamatory of him inasmuch as it conveyed that he was proved lying by the above other two reports, a message streghtened by the picture of an elangated nose a la Pinocchio.  He said the reportage violated clauses 1.1 and 1.2 of the Press Code.  The respondent disputed that, and pointed out that the other reports did in fact disprove applicant’s theory.  They also disputed applicant’s contention that he was depicted as a dishonest person.  In the cartoon, the applicant had in his hand a book entitled “Manuel’s book of Fables”.
  3. The Ombud found that there were “enough essential differences between (the report) by Manuel and the other two for the newspaper to have reported that fact – which is exactly what the journalist has done, without himself commenting on the differences or taking sides in the matter”.  Of course, the matter was of huge public interest. I agree with the Ombud’s approach and conclusion.  The answer does not lie in the word-for-word comparison of the contents of the various reports, but whether, substantially, they do differ.  There is a reason why I literally reproduced the long headline: It prepares the reader that there are differing opinions on the cause of the fires. The reader of the article will therefore, when reading the story itself, know and accept that they are in the realm of different opinions.  It cannot be defamatory to say one is wrong; the natural consequence of differing opinion is that they cant both be right. Regarding the headline itself, as I have just said, it was reflective of the content of the story, as the Ombud indeed also found.
  4. In my view, the appeal to the Appeals Panel would have no reasonable prospects of success; the application therefore fails.

Dated this11th day of October 2018

Judge B M Ngoepe, Chair, Appeals Panel