Appeal Decision: Avril Jansen vs Son

Decision: Application for leave to appeal

Applicant: Avril Jansen

Respondent: Son

Mattter No: 1169/06/2015


[1]     Son (“respondent”) wrote an article in its edition of 4 June 2015 with the headline “Misdaad stop sopkombuis”.  The article was said that a church of which Ms Avril Jansen (“applicant”) was a member, had closed a soup kitchen where every Wednesday soup had been served to the poor for over 13 years.   It transpired from the story that the practice was stopped following the theft of copper pipe from the building.  The article quoted some of the beneficiaries, one aged 51 and the other 73, who were unhappy about the termination of the supply.

[2]     Respondent raised a number of complaints with the office of the Press Ombudsman.  The applicant wanted the respondent to publish a retraction and an apology to the church; but respondent refused.  The matter was adjudicated by the Ombudsman, who issued his Ruling dated 23 June 2015.  He dismissed the complaints, hence this application for leave to appeal.

[3]     For the application for leave to succeed, the applicant must show reasonable prospects of success before the Appeals Panel, in the event leave is granted.  To determine this, I had to read the article complained, the arguments by both parties, and of course the Ruling of the Ombudsman, in particular the manner in which he dealt with the matter and the reasons he gave.

[4]     I briefly restate the complaints, aptly summarized by the Ombudsman.

4.1    The story wrongly stated that the Minister of the Church stopped the supply of soup; that he threatened people with lawyers; and that soup was served only to elderly people whereas young people were also served.

4.2    It wrongly referred to the serving point as a “soup kitchen”, and to the premises as a “shelter”.

4.3    Did not set out the reasons for the closure of the kitchen.

4.4    The story was malicious in some respects, reporting falsely.

4.5    Journalist did not contact the Minister for comment, and failed to produce proof of any attempt to do so telephonically.

4.6    The headline was misleading.

[5]     Respondent’s responses were likewise summarized.  It stated that on the day it visited the place, no young people were seen; it could only report what it was told and had seen.  Regarding the complaint that the place was not a place of shelter, respondent argued that it quoted one of its sources (name actually mentioned) as saying they came “for shelter”, something different from saying the church was “a shelter”.

[6]     As the Ombudsman says, there was nothing wrong in referring to the place where soup was served as a soup kitchen.  As far as the issue of “shelter” is concerned, people said they came for shelter. Surely there was nothing wrong in putting it the way people had put it; after all, the meaning of the word “shelter” is so broad that it could even mean shelter against hunger.  As regards the alleged omission of the content of the letter explaining the closure of the supply of soup, respondent says it did not have a copy of the letter. In my view, the content does not materially affect the accuracy of the report, even though it does offer additional explanation for the termination of the service.  I say so because the bottom line is that the service was terminated as a result of the theft of a copper pipe on the premises.  In my view, it cannot, for this reason, be said that the story maliciously ascribed the termination to the capriciousness of the Minister of the Church.  Finally, I consider the fact that the motive, as stated by the respondent, was to publish the plight of the people who had been benefitting for years, with the hope that help might come from somewhere else to continue the supply of soup to those indigent people.  Regarding respondent’s alleged failure to contact the Church or the Minister, there would be no reasonable basis to hold that respondent’s claim that it tried to do so is not true; in fact, it says it withheld publication for some time to try and accommodate the Church.

[7]     I have also read the applicant’s application for leave to appeal.  It does not raise any new substantive argument not considered by the Ombudsman.  I also do not find any fault in the manner in which the Ombudsman erred in dealing with the matter.

[8]     For the reasons I give above, which should be considered together with those given by the Ombudsman, I hold that the applicant has no reasonable prospects of success before the Appeals Panel.  The application is therefore dismissed.

Dated this 22nd day of July 2015

Judge B M Ngoepe; Chair, Appeals Panel