The New Age vs. Sunday Times


Wed, Dec 19, 2012

 

Ruling by the Deputy Press Ombudsman

December 19, 2012

This ruling is based on the written submissions of Mr Nazeem Howa, the CEO of The New Age newspaper (TNA), and the Sunday Times newspaper.

Complaint

TNA complains about a story in the Sunday Times on 7 October 2012 and headlined SABC looting laid bare.

The newspaper complains that the:

·         story erroneously linked the Gupta family and Howa with “looting” at the SABC;

·         story omitted to report on key elements of the strategic alliance regarding the SABC’s Morning Live show;

·         reference to its subscriptions lacked context;

·         allegation that the SABC paid it R147 251 for publishing advertorials was incorrect;

·         use of the words “a benefactor of Zuma” was inappropriate;

·         Sunday Times did not ask it for information; and

·         “continuous barrage of poor journalism from the Sundays Times” resulted in a misconception that made it difficult for them generate revenue.

Analysis

The story, written by Stephan Hofstatter, Mzilikazi wa Afrika and Rob Rose, casted a wide net over various questionable transactions of the SABC. The article was based on forensic reports, board minutes and internal correspondence and the revelations disclosed that the SABC was at the same time looking to raise a further R6 billion to implement its digital broadcasting strategy. The story also focused on TNA subscriptions at the SABC, the exposure that the national broadcaster had given to TNA on its Morning Live show and the advertorials that the SABC paid for to TNA.

Linking Gupta, Howa with the headline ‘SABC looting laid bare’

TNA says it is concerned about the linking the Gupta family and himself with “looting” at the SABC. Howa argues that “looting” is a criminal offence and that the Sunday Times has found him and TNA guilty of this without any supporting evidence.  He adds that the placement of the final paragraph (which referred to a report from the Special Investigations Unit – SIU) further defamed the Gupta family as well as him, as neither of them has been named in the SIU report.

The Sunday Times says that the allegations of looting were made against the SABC and not against TNA – and as the public broadcaster relies for its funding on public money, this story was a matter of public interest. It says: “No reasonable reader would make the error of believing that the headline referred to TNA when the story deals with a litany of problems at the SABC”. The newspaper rejects the notion that the story implies that TNA, the Gupta family or Howa was involved in looting or implicated in the investigation of the SIU.

A careful reading of the text supports the Sunday Times’ response – neither the headline nor the story can be specifically linked to the Gupta family or to Howa (being a part of the “looting”).

Morning Live show: Omitting key elements

TNA complains that the story stated as fact that it had been given free exposure worth millions of rands on its Morning Live show, but did not reflect the key elements of the strategic alliance. It says that these include that each party:

·         carried agreed portions of the costs (the SABC covered the cost of the broadcasting, and TNA paid for the hosting of the event); and

·         branded each other in the run-up to each event.

It adds that all revenues generated through the broadcast were for the account of the SABC only, and the public broadcaster also benefitted from the two-pages of coverage it generated following each breakfast briefing. Given this context, it argues that the story presented incorrect conclusions as fact.

Sunday Times says that the information was obtained from SABC staff, who furnished a cryptic response that said the broadcaster had been receiving “compelling content” from TNA. The newspaper says that this was not a proper response and that it had been designed to obfuscate. The newspaper then contacted Howa – but his response avoided providing specific answers and instead he said that the information that the newspaper was seeking “border(ed) on seeking business information under the guise of journalism”.

This response did Howa no good and he cannot complain later that he should have been given more time.  As he did not disclose the contribution and benefits of each party, the Sunday Times cannot be faulted for implying that TNA was a beneficiary of the deal. This was not prejudicial to Howa; indeed, if true, TNA’s benefits may well have been the result of his negotiating skills.

Subscriptions

The story said that TNA “flooded” the SABC with “thousands of newspapers” that staff did not want and stated as fact that the SABC had agreed to buy 1 800 copies a day.

TNA complains that these statements were both incorrect as the SABC was not “flooded”, and the pilot programme was for 1 000 copies and not for 1 800 copies.

The Sunday Times responds that the SABC agreed to “flood Auckland with thousands of newspapers staff don’t want”. It adds that “one thing the SABC didn’t skimp on was striking a deal to buy TNA newspaper for staff” who gave different subscriptions figures – all of which the Sunday Times quoted, including the reduction of the subscriptions accompanied by a quote from TNA that it was disappointed with the reduction.

The newspaper adds that it relied for its information about the subscriptions on SABC managers. It says that Howa was approached for comment, but that he refused to respond.

Firstly, regarding the use of the word “flood”: On 9 May 2012 the general manager of the SABC’s Logistical Services wrote an email to the head of Compliance, Monitoring and Operations in the Office of the CEO. The GM said that the budget was for 1 000 papers, but that at that time only 25 papers have been requested for Auckland Park. “What do we do with the rest of the papers?” the GM asked.

The answer came the same day, saying that 400 newspapers would be distributed at Auckland Park, and the rest to the SABC regions.

It is simple mathematics: 375 extra newspapers would be delivered at Auckland Park alone. Multiply this by 22 working days, and the additional amount is 8 250 newspapers per month. This does not even take the other 600 copies that were meant for the reagions into account.

Based on this, the use of the word “flood” was reasonable.

The correspondence at my disposal says that 1 000 copies per day should be distributed, and not 1 800 copies as reported. However, the story said that the CEO (Mr Hlaudi Motsoeneng) “agreed” to buy 1 800 copies per day; the story then continued to state that this number had been contradicted by other emails. Therefore, the story did not state it as fact that the SABC actually bought 1 800 copies per day.

I have no reason to disbelieve that Motsoeneng told the Sunday Times that he agreed to buy 1 800 copies.

Not advertorials

The story said that the SABC paid the paper R147 251 to run advertorials.

TNA complains that this statement was incorrect. Howa says that two half-page advertisements – and not advertorials – were published before the negotiations around the business programme took place.

Sunday Times says that it obtained its information from SABC staff who used the word “advertorial”, and argues that it therefore accepted that the invoice was for an “advertorial”.

That is correct. On October 5, Sully Motsweni, SABC compliance head in the CEO’s office, responded as follows: “This invoice was for an advertorial placed in the New Age newspaper. The advert…”

Clearly, Motsweni did not understand the difference between an advertisement and an advertorial. The newspaper therefore cannot be blamed for using the word “advertorial” instead of “advertisement”.

‘Benefactor of Zuma’

The story referred to the TNA, “a newspaper owned by the wealthy Gupta family, a benefactor of Jacob Zuma”.

TNA takes exception to this statement, arguing that the words “benefactor of Zuma” were without foundation. It adds that Gupta was not involved in any day-to-day decision-making at TNA.

Sunday Times responds that the reference to the Gupta family as Zuma benefactors was justified as numerous instances of the beneficial relationship have been documented.

The newspaper’s argument is persuasive.

Not asked for information

TNA complains that the Sunday Times did not ask it for information regarding the subscription and the advertorial issues. The newspaper says that, despite the Sunday Times working on the story for at least ten days, it only approached TNA for comment on the Friday evening before publication, with a request for comment and reply by 10:00 the following day. It adds that, “despite meeting the deadline, our response to the question of the business briefings was not published, nor were we given the context for their question on the subscription copies”. It argues that the Sunday Times did not take its comment seriously and concludes that the actual purpose of the story was to discredit and defame its good name and reputation.

This argument is without base. The story was about the SABC and not about TNA. Sunday Times obtained the SABC’s comment and portrayed it throughout the story.

Main concern

TNA says that its main concern was the “continuous barrage of poor journalism from the Sundays Times”. It argues a misconception was being created, making it difficult “for us to deal with and which is now negatively impacting our ability to generate revenue for our title”.

This office cannot adjudicate on “continuous barrage of poor journalism” – we can only adjudicate on individual stories as and when they are complained about.

Finding

The complaint is dismissed in its entirety.

Appeal

Please note that our Complaints Procedures lay down that within seven days of receipt of this decision, either party 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 contacted at Khanyim@ombudsman.org.za.

Johan Retief

Deputy Press Ombudsman