Endumeni Motorsport Club vs Ladysmith Gazette


Fri, May 13, 2022

12 May 2022

Finding: Complaint 9466

Date of publication:  25 March 2022

Headline: Plane left hanging

Author: No byline

Particulars

This finding is based on a written complaint by Mr Shaiel Chunder on behalf of the Endumeni Motorsport Club; a written response by Mr Rod Skinner, Group Editor of Caxton Local Media in the Northern KwaZulu Region, along with a number of WhatsApp images; a written reply to Caxton’s response by Mr Abu Goolam, secretary of the Endumeni Motorsport Club; a  further response by Mr Skinner together with various screenshots; and  two affidavits provided by the Endumeni Motorsport Club at the request of the Public Advocate.

Complaint

The complainant does not identify which specific clauses of the Press Code it believes the article transgresses. In general terms, it claims that the article is “biased and untrue”; secondly, that the article is “misleading”; and, thirdly, that the newspaper did not contact the organisers of a drag racing event for comment.

These complaints can be addressed in terms of the following three clauses of the Press Code:

“The media shall:

1.1. take care to report news truthfully, accurately and fairly;

1.2. present news in context and in a balanced manner, without any intentional or negligent departure from the facts whether by distortion, exaggeration or misrepresentation, material omissions, or summarization;…

1.8. seek, if practicable, the views of the subject of critical reportage in advance of publication, except when they might be prevented from reporting, or evidence destroyed, or sources intimidated. Such a subject should be afforded reasonable time to respond; if unable to obtain comment, this shall be stated; ....”

1. Summary of text

1.1 The front-page article reports that planes were grounded at the airfield in Ladysmith on 19 and 20 March 2022.

1.2 According to the article, a Notice to Air Missions (Notam) was initially issued by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) to allow the Endumeni          Motorsport Club to hold a drag race at the airfield on 20 March (Sunday), but was later updated and the airfield was closed on 19 March          (Saturday) as well.

1.3 However, a plane transporting a group of investors was reportedly not aware of the change, and ended up circling the airfield on the                Saturday because it was unable to land on the airfield.

1.4 As a result, the pilot decided to land in Newcastle, from where the businessmen were fetched by ground support crew and transported to        Ladysmith for an on-site inspection of a local business.

  1. Arguments

Endumeni Motorsport Club

2.1. The complainant disputes the contents of the newspaper report.

2.1.1. It denies that a plane transporting investors was unable to land at the Ladysmith airfield on 19 March, and believes that a false claim was made in an attempt “to tarnish the drag racing event”.

2.1.2. It further demands that the writer of the article substantiates the information in the article and provides details of the flight and the passengers.

2.2. The complainant also claims that the article is misleading in that a plane requires CAA clearance of where it must land before it takes off.

2.3. The complainant further notes that the event was a charity event and that it was legal, with support from the Municipality, South African Police Service, traffic department, Emergency Medical Rescue Services and CAA.

2.3.1. It submits that one-sided reporting tarnishes the event and causes a loss of revenue.

2.4. Lastly, the complainant states that the newspaper did not contact the organisers of the event for comment.  

Ladysmith Gazette

2.5. The respondent reiterates the claim in the newspaper report that there was a plane that could not land at the airfield on March 19, and points out that this was double-checked separately with two members of the Ladysmith Flying Club.

2.5.1. He states that the report does not name its sources due to the acrimony which surrounded the event, and adds that he and pilots at the club even received threats at one stage.

2.6. The respondent notes that it was not unusual for two Notams to be issued.

2.6.1. He further points out that a pilot at the club only found out about the updated Notam on the Saturday morning when he started preparing his plane for a flight.

2.6.2. The respondent argues that, if a club member only found out on the Saturday about the update, it was not surprising that an out-of-town pilot only made the discovery in mid-flight when informed by “people on the ground”.

2.6.3. He submitted an online screenshot of the site where pilots check for Notams, which indicates that the original Notam closed the airfield from 4am to 4pm on March 20.

2.6.4. When he checked this with a Ladysmith Flying Club member on March 19, he was told that the airfield was indeed closed on that day as well.

2.7. The respondent further points out that the article stressed that the reason the plane did not land in Ladysmith was because of the Notam – even if there was nothing on the airfield itself to prevent the plane from landing.

2.7.1. He adds that the newspaper’s sources did not blame the Endumeni Motorsport Club for the events on that day.

2.8. The respondent states that the pilot of the plane who could not land in Ladysmith elected to land in Newcastle as it was the only other registered airfield in Northern KwaZulu-Natal. As a charter plane, he says, it could not land in Ladysmith as this would have been an “un-insured” landing, and any damages to the plane would not have been covered.

2.8.1. He adds that the developer of the property visited by the businessmen confirmed that the plane could not land in Ladysmith and that it had to divert to Newcastle.

2.9. The respondent points out that both Ladysmith and Newcastle are not manned airfields, with the result that the CAA does not have any records of landings and take-offs at those airfields.

2.9.1. As an example, he cites the arrival in Ladysmith of the US film actor Tom Cruise with six helicopters, and adds that there were at least 20 plane landings and take-offs at the airfield that day. But, he says, the CAA would not have any record of those flights.

2.9.2. He adds that planes land daily in Ladysmith and Newcastle without the CAA being aware of each and every landing because both airfields are “unmanned”.

2.10. The respondent also states that, according to the developer, this is the second time that investors “had issues with people on the ground at the airfield”. And, as in the previous instance, the organisers of the drag race were involved as well.

2.11. The respondent further argues that the story was in the public interest because a registered airfield such as Ladysmith is of considerable importance to the local “tourism-based economy” (it says the two registered airfields in Northern KwaZulu-Natal service about 500 000 people).

2.12. In conclusion, the respondent notes that the Ladysmith Gazette published stories about the drag race before the event and a feature promoting it. In addition, the newspaper conducted a Facebook Live at the event to promote it.

2.12.1. He points out that the newspaper published articles linked to the race after the event as well.

  1. Further arguments

Endumeni Motorsport Club

3.1. The complainant states that its major concern is that the information in the article was provided by two members of the local flying club when the Endumeni Motorsport Club was the target of much acrimony from the flying club because of the event.

3.1.1. It also takes issue with the justification provided by the respondent for being unable to verify this information. It goes on to question why the article was published even though the information could not be verified, and regards this as biased reporting.

3.2. The complainant further describes the information provided by the club as “not completely accurate”.

3.2.1. In support of this submission, it attaches the Notam issued by the CAA on 18 March 2022 and sent to the Endumeni Motorsport Club by email at 3.36pm, and notes that it was in effect from 4am on 19 March until 11.59m on 20 March.[1]

3.2.2. It argues that, if the local flying club members could give the newspaper inaccurate information about the Notam, the accuracy of its claim about “a plane full of investors” could also be questioned.

3.3. The complainant states that the online screenshot of the Notam provided by the respondent is dated 17 March 2022 and argues that, in terms of aeronautical norms, more than 24 hours had passed since that screenshot. As a result, it contends, this information would not be “acceptable” to any pilot taking off on 19 March 2022.

3.3.1. Moreover, it submits that the pilot should be “blamed” if he or she did indeed attempt to fly over the airfield and land on 19 March in view of the Notam issued the previous day. It says its research indicates that it is a legal requirement for a pilot to check for any Notams before setting off on any flight. If the pilot had done so after 3.36pm on 18 March, it says, he or she would have been aware of the closure of the airfield that weekend.

3.3.2. It suggests that the CAA could take action against the pilot for failing to adhere to a Notam and flying over a restricted airspace.

3.4. The complainant also questions the Group Editor’s “involvement in obtaining the information relating to the story”, and asks whether he similarly becomes involved in other stories.

3.4.1. It reiterates its complaint that it was not contacted by the newspaper for comment.

3.5. In conclusion, the complainant argues that, in view of the various discrepancies and inaccuracies in the article, it should be withdraw

3.5.1. If not, it says it will engage with the Alfred Duma Municipality, the custodian of the Ladysmith airfield, to take further action.

Ladysmith Gazette

3.6. In reply to the complainant’s response, the respondent repeats its contention that there was indeed a plane that could not land at the Ladysmith airfield on 19 March, and provides a screenshot of an email from the Ladysmith Flying Club’s safety officer, Mr LA van der Merwe, which states that a Beechcraft King Air 200 was hovering over the airfield at 11.45am on the day in question.

3.6.1. The newspaper adds that its sources include “businessmen with impeccable credentials”.

3.7. The respondent further states that nobody blames the Endumeni Motorsport Club for whether or not the Notam was issued for one day or two days.

3.7.1. Instead, it suggests that there is an issue with how the CAA updates its site – hence the need for pilots to phone the CAA to check whether or not the airfield is closed.

3.7.2. It further notes that the CAA does not usually update its site on weekends. Thus, on 18 and 19 March, the airfield was still “open” on the CAA site.

3.8. The respondent does not dispute that it is the responsibility of the pilot to check for Notams. However, it adds that the article was about the inability of the plane to land, and does not apportion blame to anyone, either directly or indirectly.

3.9. Regarding the Group Editor’s role in obtaining information related to the article, the respondent points out that the newspaper asked the organisers from the beginning of that week to provide it with something in writing that the airfield would be closed.

3.9.1. It adds that, due to threats of legal action and a petition to stop the race, it was a big story for the newspaper. It says it was therefore only natural to ask “everyone involved” whether or not the airfield would be officially closed.

3.9.2. Accordingly, it submits that there was nothing untoward about the role of the Group Editor.

3.9.3. However, the organisers did not respond to the newspaper’s enquiries about whether or not the airfield would be officially closed that weekend. The newspaper only saw on 18 March that a Notam was issued.

3.9.4. It submits that the Endumeni Motorsport Club was just “one small role player” in organising the event, and that others included the Alfred Duma Municipality and the temple.[2]

3.10. The respondent also submits that the submissions of the complainant indicate that the article would not have “changed” if the club had been asked for comment. According to the respondent, the club refutes that there was a plane and also refutes that two Notams were issued – “thus creating the very confusion we allude to in our story”.

Endumeni Motorsport Club

3.11. The complainant provides two affidavits at the request of the Public Advocate.

3.12. The first affidavit is from Mr Vimal Hargovan, vice-chairman of the Endumeni Motorsport Club, who states that he was at the airfield from 11am to 10pm on 19 March. He contacted a member of the Ladysmith Flying Club that morning, who informed him that someone else was on “radio” duty and would be in touch if there was an emergency.

3.12.1. He states that there was no mention of any plane scheduled to land at the airfield on 19 March, and that he did not see a plane overhead that day.

3.13. The second affidavit is from Mr Prithi Harripershad, who was at the airfield on 19 and 20 March and supervised preparations for the drag race.

3.13.1. He states that, to the best of his knowledge, there was no aircraft that circled the field or attempted to land on the airfield.

  1. Analysis

4.1. At the centre of the Endumeni Motorsport Club’s complaint is its denial that a plane transporting investors was unable to land at the Ladysmith airfield on 19 March.

4.1.1. The newspaper, on the other hand, reiterates the claim in its report that a plane was unable to land at the airfield that day due to a Notam issued by the CAA for a drag racing event.

4.1.2. Neither party disputes that the initial Notam issued for 20 March was updated to include 19 March. What is in dispute is whether or not a pilot tried to land at the airfield on 19 March.

4.1.3. This dispute is tantamount to a case of “he said-she said”: there are two seemingly irreconcilable accounts of the same event, without any independent evidence to corroborate the version of either party (the Ladysmith airfield is “unmanned” and, as a result, the CAA does not keep records of landings and take-offs there).

4.1.4. On the one hand, the Endumeni Motorsport Club provides two affidavits to support its claim that no plane tried to land at the Ladysmith airfield on 19 March. On the other hand, the respondent refers to information provided by two Ladysmith Flying Club members and a developer that a plane was indeed unable to land that day.

4.2. In terms of the requirements of the Press Code, the key issue at stake here is whether or not the newspaper “took care to report news truthfully, accurately and fairly” as prescribed by Clause 1.1.

4.2.1. From the information provided to the respondent – which it obtained from two Ladysmith Flying Club members and a developer – it is clear that there were reasonable grounds for the newspaper to report that there was a plane that was unable to land at the Ladysmith airfield on 19 March.

4.2.2. As noted above, the newspaper based its article on multiple sources, who separately confirmed that there was a plane ferrying a group of businessmen that could not land at the airfield on the day in question. Accordingly, the newspaper met the requirements prescribed in Clause 1.1.

4.3. The respondent also complied with the obligations set out in Clause 1.2, and presented the news “in context and in a balanced manner”.

4.3.1. The newspaper report did not blame the Endumeni Motorsport Club – even indirectly – for the inability of the plane to land in Ladysmith on 19 March. The article merely states that the Notam was updated “too late for a plane full of investors”, with the result that it was “unable to land” at the Ladysmith airfield.

4.3.2. The reason why the pilot was unaware of the updated Notam is not a matter for the Press Ombud to investigate and pronounce on. This matter falls outside the jurisdiction of the Press Council and can best be pursued with the appropriate authorities.

4.4. Clause 1.8 obliges the media to seek “the views of the subject of critical reportage in advance of publication” (my emphasis).

4.4.1. As stated above in point 4.3.1, the newspaper’s report did not apportion blame to any party for the inability of the plane to land.

4.4.2. More specifically, the article contains nothing at all about the Endumeni Motorsport Club that can be construed as negative.

4.4.3. In the circumstances, there was no obligation on the newspaper to contact the Endumeni Motorsport Club for comment.

  1. Finding

The complaint that the article is in breach of Clause 1.1 is dismissed. The newspaper made various attempts to establish the veracity of its report (see points 4.2.1 and 4.2.2 of my “Analysis”).

The complaint that the newspaper is in breach of Clause 1.2 is dismissed. There is no evidence that the article is not in context and that it is not balanced; in fact, it did not blame any party for the events on 19 March (see points 4.3.1 and 4.3.2 of my “Analysis”).

The complaint that the article is in breach of Clause 1.8 is dismissed for the reasons identified in points 4.4.1, 4.4.2 and 4.4.3 of my “Analysis”.

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

Tyrone August

Deputy Press Ombudsman

12 May 2022


[1] The email refers to the runway being closed “from 06.00 on the first day to 00.00 at the last day on the 19-20 March”.

[2] This is presumably the Sri Prabhu Hanuman Temple, for which the drag race was raising funds.