Appeal Decision:Noupoort Christian Center vs The Times & The Herald

Decision: Application for leave to appeal

Applicant: Noupoort Christian Care Centre

Respondent: The Times

Matter No: 42/07/2014

DECISION: APPLICATION FOR LEAVE TO APPEAL TO THE APPEALS PANEL

 [1]  Noupoort Christian Care Centre (“the Applicant”) seeks leave to appeal to the Appeals Panel of the Press Council of South Africa against the Rulings of the Ombudsman, both dated 1 October 2014.  The Times and The Herald (“the Respondents”) oppose the application.  Although the complaints were lodged against each of the Respondents separately, and therefore attracted two separate Rulings by the Ombudsman, I deal herein with both matters together; this is because the complaints were identical, and the publications complained of came out the same day (20 June 2014).  Furthermore, the facts and circumstances around, and leading to, the publications are the same.

[2]   The headline to the story in The Herald read: “Shocking treatment revealed in report on Karoo rehab centre.”  The essence of the story was that the inmates of the centre were being ill-treated.  The headline to the story in the Times read: “Childcare shocking claims”, and the sub-headline: “Kids had to clean out pig pens.”

[3]   The complaints: The complaints against both publications were substantially the same; the gist of which were:  The stories were critical of the Appellant and were not balanced; they left out positive things about the Applicant; not given enough time to comment and leaving out such comments as had been given, the result of all these being a negative impression about the Applicant.

[4]   In both instances, the response by the Respondents was that, firstly, the stories were based on the contents of the report by the Centre for Child Law, which had been submitted to the court in a case between the Appellant and its landlord, Transnet.  The report was therefore part of the papers before the court.  That being the case, the Respondents were not obliged to give the Applicant the opportunity to comment before publishing.  The Respondents further argued that, in any event, even though not so obliged, they asked the Applicant for comment but the Applicant failed to do so adequately. I have serious reservations about whether sufficient time was given; to me, the deadlines were too short.  The journalists were not seeking comments from an individual, but from an institution which obviously had layers of authority and some decentralized administration.

[5]   My sympathy that sufficient time was not given does not, however, help because I do agree that the Respondents were not, in the first place, obliged to get the Applicant’s views as they were relying on a report before a court.  Indeed, a paragraph in both stories, reads: “These damning claims have emerged in a report by the Centre for Child Law which was asked to intervene in a court bid to evict the centre (Applicant) from Transnet land.”

[6]   To an average reader, it would therefore have been clear from the above quotation that the stories relied on a report submitted to court.  Secondly, the acts of ill-treatment were described as “claims”, dispelling any notion that they were stated as facts.

[7]   I handed down my Decision, dated 7 November 2014, in an application in a matter in which the Applicant had raised similar complaints; the facts were also the same, except with regard to one particular complaint which does not feature in the two matters dealt with here.  This was in Matter No: 24/07/2014, between the Applicant and Rapport.  The reader of this Decision may refer to my Decision in that particular matter for further elucidation.

[8]   I do not find fault with the Ombudman’s Rulings.  For the reasons given above, the applications for leave to appeal in both matters are dismissed as they have no reasonable prospects of success before the Appeals Panel.

Dated this 18th day of November 2014

Judge B M Ngoepe: Chair; Appeals Panel