Appeal Decision: Vernon Seymour vs Weekend Argus

Decision: Application for leave to appeal

Applicant: Vernon Seymour

Respondent: Weekend Argus

Matter No: 1206/06/2015

DECISION: APPLICATION FOR LEAVE TO APPEAL

[1]     Vernon Seymour (“applicant”) seeks leave to appeal against the Ruling of the Press Ombudsman dated 17 September 2015, dismissing his complaints against the Weekend Argus (“respondent”).

[2]     Applicant’s complaint followed an article by the respondent published on 13 June 2015.  The headline read “’Sex scandal’ Seymour seeks reinstatement”. The story was based on court papers in the Western Cape High Court filed by the applicant on the one side, and by his opponents on the other side.  The applicant was seeking to set aside the findings of a disciplinary hearing chaired by Adv Joseph, as well as the subsequent arbitration award by Adv Cassim SC which confirmed Adv Joseph. Disciplinary proceeds were instituted by the South African Football Association (“SAFA”) Cape Town] against the applicant following allegations of sexual harassment levelled against him. Adv Joseph found applicant guilty and recommended that he be banned from all soccer activities for life.  Applicant was an office bearer of SAFA Cape Town. Adv Cassim SC confirmed Adv Joseph’s findings and recommendations.  In the meantime, the Regional Appeals Committee of SAFA Cape Town found in favour of the applicant, apparently on technical points which had been dismissed by Adv Joseph.  In his application before the High Court, the applicant also referred to, and attached, statements by both the Regional Appeals Committee and by some individuals which were in favour of, if not actually absolving, the applicant.

[3]     The substance of the applicant’s complaint was that the report, based on the court papers, did not reflect the positive versions; he was not contacted for comment and, importantly, the report did not mention that his ban for life was just a mere recommendation which still had to be confirmed.  The Ombudsman aptly summarized applicant’s complaints; namely, that the applicant complained that the story:

l     falsely stated that he had been banned for life;

l      labelled him as ‘Sex scandal’ Seymour (in the headline);

l      falsely said that he had been seeking reinstatement;

l      failed to point out that:

there was a “distinct possibility” that the General Council of SAFA would reject the recommendation resulting from disciplinary proceedings; and

the matter had already gone through four appeals

He adds that the newspaper did not ask him for comment.”

[4]     I have considered the Ombudsman’s Ruling carefully, as well as the parties’ submissions.

4.1    I accept that the story was based on court papers and that the respondent could not ask applicant for comment; applicant’s complain that he was not asked for comment cannot therefore stand.  However, I hold the view that even though the report was based on court papers, there was still a duty to report fairly.  The duty to report fairly could not evaporate simply because the story was based on court papers.  I doubt whether one can simply ignore versions contained in the papers which are favourable to the one party, and concentrate exclusively on the negative ones.  There is a chance that the Appeals Panel could find that this is exactly what respondent did, having made no reference whatsoever to the versions favourable to the applicant even though same were also contained in the court papers.

4.2    The allegation that applicant wanted reinstatement.  This is not apparent from applicant’s court papers. Respondent seems to accept this, but seeks to argue that this is implied, notwithstanding applicant’s explanation that the reason for going to court was to clear his name. In this context, it is important to note that aplicant had already resigned and said he had had enough with SAFA affairs; how can it be inferred or argued that he wants reinstatement?

4.3    Applicant argues that the story should have stated that the banning order by Adv Joseph, confirmed by Adv Cassim SC, was merely a recommendation.  The truth of this cannot be disputed: they were mere recommendations, still to be confirmed by the General Council of SAFA.  There is a case for arguing that the fact that banning was a mere recommendation, should have been mentioned, irrespective of what the regional secretary wrote to the clubs, or what other newspapers had reported.  Was it not clear to the respondent that what Adv Joseph and Adv Cassim SC said were mere recommendations?  Banning somebody for life, is not a small matter; if such an order was a mere recommendation, applicant could convince the Appeals Committee that that should have been stated as well.

[5]     For the reasons stated in 4.1, 4.2 and 4.3 above, I am of the view that the applicant has reasonable prospects of success before the Appeals Committee of the Press Council.  I accordingly grant him leave to argue the following points:

5.1    whether the respondent’s reportage,  although based on court papers, was fair, accurate, balanced etc inasmuch as it did not cover versions in the papers favourable to the applicant;

5.2    whether it was fair/accurate/correct to say that applicant wanted to be reinstated

5.3    whether the reportage should not have stated that the ruling of Adv Joseph, confirmed by Adv Cassim SC, that the applicant be banned from all soccer activity for life, was a mere recommendation still to be confirmed by the appropriate body or bodies.

Dated this 2nd day of November 2015

Judge B M Ngoepe, Chair, Appeals Panel

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