Khaya Ngqula vs Sunday Times

Complainant: Khaya Ngqula

Lodge by: Mr Billy Gundelfinger

Article: Former CEO balks at repaying SAA – Ngqula says airline got its money’s worth from deal

Date: 04 April 2011

Respondent: Sunday Times

Complaint
Dr Khaya Ngqula complains about a story in the Sunday Times, published on February 13, 2011and headlined Former CEO balks at repaying SAA – Ngqula says airline got its money’s worth from deal.
The complaint is that the:
  • story falsely states that he (Ngqula) chartered a plane;
  • story falsely creates the impression that he flew for personal purposes at the expense of the South African Airways (SAA); and
  • newspaper did not verify the facts prior to publication.
Analysis
The story, written by Sashni Pather, is about efforts by South African Airways (SAA) to get former CEO Ngqula repay alleged irregular expenditure, including court cases regarding a gold sponsorship deal with golfer Angel Cabrera (involving R30 million) and staff retention bonuses (R27.4 million). The story says that Ngqula was defending both court actions. The story concludes with references to alleged extravagances on his part.
We shall now consider the merits of the complaint:
Chartering a plane
The sentences in dispute say: “His (Ngqula’s) extravagance included chartering an aircraft for a 30-minute flight between France, where he had a holiday home, and the UK. SAA paid Dassault Falcon Service more than R100 000 for the journey. It would have cost R3 288 on Air France if it had been booked via SAA in Johannesburg.”
Ngqula complains that this is false as he did not charter the flight – SAA did. This was done, he says, in order for him to attend a meeting at the Airbus Head Office to negotiate a contract relating to Airbus. He says that he was accompanied by various staff members of SAA, including the Chief Financial Officer.
Sunday Times says that:
  • Ngqula’s extravagance included chartering a flight;
  • the point about the chartering of the flight was that it was at exorbitant cost and that it took place at a time when Ngqula was contracted to reduce costs at SAA;
  • the reference to the chartered flight was relevant to the story (which concerned a court case to get Ngqula to repay alleged irregular expenditure); and
  • even if Ngqula was accompanied by staff members, the cost on Air France would still have been substantially less that the R100 000 it cost to charter the flight.
In his reply to the newspaper’s response to his complaint, Ngqula says that the flight for him and all the staff members would have cost more than R3 288 and discards most of the arguments mentioned above as irrelevant.
The central point here is the fact that the flight in question was chartered while Ngqula was the CEO of SAA. To me, it would be strange if somebody else other than Ngqula gave the instruction to charter the flight.
The newspaper’s argument, namely that he could have instructed staff to book him on a cheaper flight on a commercial airline, is therefore reasonable – even more so because it came at a time when Ngqula was supposed to reduce costs at SAA.
Besides, the newspaper says (in further correspondence, in response to a question from me) that the facts regarding the chartered flight had previously (in 2005) been confirmed.
Taken together, I believe that the newspaper’s reportage on this matter was reasonable.
Flew for personal purposes
Kgqula says that the reference to his holiday home falsely created the impression that he flew for personal purposes between the UK and his holiday home in France at the expense of the SAA.
Sunday Times denies that the story either said or implied that Ngqula undertook a chartered flight at SAA’s expense for personal purposes.
The newspaper says that:
  • it does not believe that the offending paragraph, read in the context of the entire story, implies anything other than extravagance;
  • although the story did not state that the flight was chartered for business meetings, it believes that it was implied;
  • the entire story concerned alleged overspending by Ngqula as CEO of SAA – it takes therefore a “somewhat creative reading” of the story to suggest that the last paragraph should be cut loose from the general tone of the story (suddenly implying something was done for private purposes).
Ngqula replies that the reference to his holiday home creates the impression that he chartered the flight whilst on holiday in France and the UK. He says: “This statement (concerning his holiday home) cannot be understood and/or interpreted in any other way.”
He also points out that:
  • he did not visit his holiday home at that time;
  • in the pending court cases SAA does not seek repayment of the costs in respect of the charter; and
  • nearly the entire story relates to alleged irregular business expenditure.
The question is whether the reference to Ngqula’s “holiday home” implies that he chartered the plane for private use.
Not necessarily so.
The entire story is about alleged extravagance on Ngqula’s part. When I first read the story, I understood the reference to his holiday home to be just one more example used by Sunday Times to underline his alleged extravagance. The mere fact that he had a holiday home in France emphasizes the point that the newspaper is making.
It is one bridge too far to say that the reference to his holiday home implies that he actually went on holiday and that he therefore misused his position for private purposes.
No verification
Ngqula says that the journalist and the newspaper have acted irresponsibly and recklessly in not verifying the facts prior to publication.
Sunday Times says that it was not necessary to ask Ngqula for comment. It says that the major part of the story concerned a court action and newspapers do not generally seek comment from parties involved in a court case.
The newspaper adds that it did approach SAA for comment at the time of first publication in 2005. It says that SAA then confirmed that the flight had been chartered, and also that Ngqula used helicopters to attend meetings. “Since the facts had previously been confirmed, and never disputed since publication in 2005, we do not believe it necessary to approach Ngqula again.”
 
The newspaper’s arguments are convincing.
Finding
Chartering a plane
It is reasonable to accept that the CEO of SAA issued the instruction for the chartered flight. The newspaper’s reportage on this matter is therefore also reasonable, especially so because it says that it has verified the facts regarding the chartered flight in 2005. This part of the complaint is dismissed.
Flew for personal purposes
The reference to Ngqula’s holiday home is used as an example of his alleged extravagance, rather than to imply that he misused his position for private purposes. This part of the complaint is dismissed.
No verification
There was no need for verification as the major part of the story concerned a court action and as newspapers do not generally seek comment from parties involved in a court case. The newspaper’s argument that it had already (in 2005) confirmed the facts and that there was therefore no need to do it again, is also reasonable. This part of the complaint is dismissed.
Sanction
There is no sanction.
 
 
Appeal
Please note that our Complaints Procedures lay down that within seven days of receipt of this decision, anyone of the parties 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 reached at khanyim@ombudsman.org.za.
Johan Retief
Deputy Press Ombudsman