Laraine Lane vs The Times

Compliant: Laraine Lane

Lodged by: Laraine Lane

Article: A leaf out of Hammies’ book

Author of article: David Isaacson

Date: 24 January 2011

Respondent: The Times

COMPLAINT

Ms Laraine Lane, a former member of the (also former) board of Athletics South Africa (ASA), complains about a column in The Times, published on September 21, 2010, headlined A leaf out of Hammies’ book and written by David Isaacson.

 

The main complaint is that the:

  • reference to her (and her colleagues) as a “barrel of rotten apples who effectively financially crippled Athletics South Africa” is without any factual basis; and
  • journalist is biased in favour of the South African Sports Confederation and Olympic Committee (Sascoc).

She also complains that the:

  • column is exaggerated, pejorative, subjective and vindictive;
  • journalist made derogatory remarks about Mr Butana Komphela; and
  • statement that Parliament’s Sports Committee is under the control of Komphela is misleading.

I could not entertain the following complaints, namely that:

  • she was on “trial by media” for almost a year – our office is in no position to establish if this is true or not;
  • she has, over the space of eleven months, sent factually-based information to the newspaper that it chose to ignore – our office cannot dictate to newspapers what information to use (and what not);
  • if a newspaper has its own point of view, how can its reporting be anything but opportunistic and untruthful – every newspaper has the right to its own opinion, as long as “it appears clearly that it is comment” (Art. 4.2 of the Press Code); and
  • it is false to state that Caster Semenya has complained that the journalist was part of a “trial by media” – the column does not say that at all.

ANALYSIS

 

The column is about ASA’s new board whose task it was to get the federation back on track “after it was effectively crippled by Leonard Chuene and his barrel of rotten apples” (his board). ASA’s new chairman, James Evans, is said to have the task of taking on Komphela (Parliament’s sports committee chairman) – who “has long been friends with Chuene”.

 

Firstly, I have decided to entertain Lane’s complaint even though she is not mentioned by name in the column – she was a member of the board that the journalist criticizes.

 

Secondly, our office always needs to be particularly careful when it comes to complaints about opinion articles. Section 16 of the South African Constitution states: “Everyone has the right to freedom of expression, which includes freedom of the press…” The last thing that this office should do is to restrict this freedom. A complaint cannot be upheld simply because the complainant or our office is of a different opinion than the journalist.

 

That is why the Press Code carefully restricts itself (Art. 4.3) to the following wording: “Comment by the press shall be an honest expression of opinion, without malice or dishonest motives, and shall take fair account of all available facts which are material to the matter commented upon.”

 

This wording will be my yardstick as I now start to consider the merits of the complaint:

 

A ‘barrel of rotten apples’

 

Lane complains that the statement that describes her (and her colleagues) as Chuene’s “barrel of rotten apples who effectively financially crippled Athletics South Africa” is without any factual basis.

 

The newspaper says that ASA was in serious financial trouble after the Chuene regime – and that Lane was a member of his board. It argues that Lane, as a board member, was required to approve financial decisions, including Chuene’s R150 000 bonus for 2007. It adds: “Whether by commission or omission, she was a member of Mr Chuene’s board. From this, it would be difficult to view Ms Lane as an opponent of Mr Chuene.”

 

Firstly: The newspaper does not dispute the inference that the expression “barrel of rotten apples” refers to Chuene’s board. It is also reasonable to accept that readers would have understood it likewise.

 

The question, therefore, is: Did the journalist “take fair account of all available facts which are material to the matter commented upon” (Art. 4.3)?

 

For this, we need to turn to the Deloitte (Sascoc) report, which is a forensic audit and investigation into alleged irregularities at ASA during the time that Chuene was the chairman. This report is dated August 13, 2010 – more than a month before the column was published.

 

The newspaper, in its response to the complaint, says that Isaacson specializes in SA athletics and that he wrote the column based on his experience as a sports writer. If that is the case, he should have known about the Deloitte report (it was in the public domain and at the time widely reported on).

 

Amongst other things, the report states with regard to Chuene and his board:

  • Chuene used R90 406 of ASA’s funds to persuade someone to keep quiet about an intimate relationship between him and somebody else. Then: “It is also important to note that these costs and the nature thereof were not disclosed to the ASA Board”;
  • “This (regarding some financial irregularity) would appear to constitute a fraud perpetrated by Mr Chuene as the users of the financial statements – such as the ASA Board of Directors – were deliberately misled as to the true state of affairs…”;
  • “We were unable to locate any evidence that all Directors…had consented to the granting of loans to…”;
  • The “incentive bonus” of R150 000 that was paid to Chuene was approved only by the ASA Finance Committee and not the full ASA Board;
  • “We found no evidence of Board approval for the said loan (of R50 000 granted to Chuene)…”;
  • “…the Board was not aware and were also not informed of the excessive spending by the ASA management…”; and
  • “…that ASA’s deficit had been accumulated over the years and that this situation was never reported to the Board”.

Under the heading Disciplinary actions in respect of the ASA Board, the report states that while the board neglected to perform their duties and responsibilities in accordance with the requirements of the Companies Act and their fiduciary duties to the company, it “could not find sufficient evidence indicating that the whole Board of Directors acted male fide or intentionally to the detriment of ASA.”

 

Based on all of the above-mentioned, it is clear that some members of the Board of Directors may have been labelled as “rotten apples” – but not all of them. This specific statement is therefore not backed by facts, making it unfair to label the whole ASA board as a “barrel of rotten apples” – even though the board was not perfect.

 

It is also noted that:

  • Lane was not a member of the Financial Committee; and
  • although she was suspended by Sascoc (not by ASA) for longer than a year now, no charges were ever brought against her by either ASA or Sascoc.

While journalists have a right to publish their opinion, they are bound to unnecessarily cause harm to people’s names and reputations when they make (unfair) statements that are not supported by facts. It is for this very reason that the Press Code makes provision for instances such as this one.

 

A loyal propagandist for Sascoc

 

Lane complains that Isaacson’s many articles inevitably reveal him as a loyal propagandist for the Sascoc point of view – evidently, this happens again in the disputed column. She argues that the journalist failed to gather “collateral information” (from ASA) and that the column is therefore unbalanced. She says that the journalist has never asked her for comment and that she has never heard of him approaching other ASA administrators.

 

The Times says that the journalist, in the same column, also criticizes Sascoc’s Gideon Sam for his ambitious goal of twelve medals for 2010. It adds: “David has long been a critic of the body, when it has deserved criticism…”

(Sascoc is the controlling body for all high performance sport in South Africa including the Olympics, Paralympics, Commonwealth Games, World Games and All Africa Games.)

Firstly: Our office cannot make a finding with regards to “many articles” – the complaint is only about the column at hand. We can also not establish to what extent, if any, the journalist tried to get information from ASA in the past.

 

On the face of it, there is balance in the column – the journalist mentions both Sascoc’s president as well as ASA’s new chairman.

 

Secondly, columnists often exaggerate some aspects in relation to others, as I shall argue under the next heading. Besides: Isaacson may or may not be a “loyal propagandist” for Sascoc, but in a column like this one he has a right to be exactly that.

 

Exaggerated, pejorative, subjective, vindictive

 

Lane complains: “I find this…article both exaggerated and pejorative. His comments are unobjective and appear to be nothing more than vindictive venting.”

 

The newspaper argues that the views were expressed in a column. It says: “These elements often crop up in sports columns. It’s the nature of sports writing…”

 

It is noteworthy that the newspaper does not deny this part of the complaint.

 

The newspaper is correct as far as three of the four above-mentioned concepts are concerned. Columns are indeed frequently exaggerated, pejorative and subjective – in the interest of the robustness of the debate those concepts are acceptable (in an opinion-piece, such as this one).

 

The same, however, does not go for “vindictive”. One internet-definition of vindictiveness is “a malevolent desire for revenge”. Synonyms for vindictive include spiteful, malicious, mean, hurtful and nasty.

 

Art. 4.3 of the Press Code states: “Comment by the press shall be an honest expression of opinion, without malice…” (emphasis added)

 

Not only does the newspaper not deny that it was vindictive, but it in fact actually justifies itself on this point. This is alarming.

 

Derogatory remarks about Komphela

 

The remark regarding Komphela that Lane complains about is: “Now the little man is trying to force Sascoc to go to Parliament and explain its investigation of ASA”.

 

Lane says that the use of the word “little” is an obvious reference to Komphela’s reduced stature that results from his physical disability. She adds that a reasonable person may have interpreted it in such a way.

 

The Times says that one of Komphela’s legs was amputated, and asks: “How does ‘little’ necessarily refer to a man missing a leg?” It argues that, within the context, the word “little” refers to Komphela’s (diminished) stature as a credible person. The journalist adds that he himself has a physical defect and that he would not pick on someone for having such a defect.

 

The newspaper’s argument is persuasive – “little” does not equal “amputated leg”.

 

It must also be noted that many (reasonable) people may not even have known that Komphela’s leg was amputated.

Sports Committee under Komphela’s control

 

The story describes Komphela as chairman of Parliament’s Sports Committee. A sentence reads: “Sam has hit back by saying that he can’t get a fair hearing while Komphela heads the sports committee.”

 

This, Lane complains, is misleading. She adds: “In truth, the Committee is representative of all political parties in Parliament and is not the preserve of one man.”

 

The Times says that this comment was made as a result of previous interaction between the journalist and Komphela. The newspaper mentions a few examples to back up its argument.

 

That was not even necessary. The sentence in dispute is not stated as a fact – it does not come from the journalist, but it is attributed to a source.

 

FINDING

 

A ‘barrel of rotten apples’

 

The reference to Chuene’s board as a “barrel of rotten apples” is not supported by facts and is unfair. (This probably caused her unnecessary harm as it reflects on her good name and reputation.) This is in breach of Art. 4.3 of the Press Code that states: “Comment by the press shall…take fair account of all available facts which are material to the matter commented upon.”

 

A loyal propagandist for Sascoc

 

Isaacson may or may not be a “loyal propagandist” for Sascoc, but in a column like this one he has a right to be exactly that. This part of the complaint is dismissed.

 

Exaggerated, pejorative, subjective, vindictive

 

The complaint regarding the words exaggerated, pejorative and subjective is dismissed.

 

Not only does the newspaper not deny that it was vindictive, but it in fact actually justifies itself on this point. This is in breach of Art. 4.3 of the Press Code that states: “Comment by the press shall be an honest expression of opinion, without malice…”

 

Derogatory remarks about Komphela

 

The reference to “little” does not necessarily refer to Komphela’s amputated leg. This part of the complaint is dismissed.

 

Sports Committee under Komphela’s control

 

The words in dispute are attributed to a source. This part of the complaint is dismissed.

 

SANCTION

 

The Times is directed to apologise to Lane for:

  • referring to Chuene’s board as a “barrel of rotten apples”; and
  • publishing a column that was vindictive.

The newspaper is directed to:

  • publish a summary of this finding (not necessarily the whole ruling);
  • add the following sentence at the end of the text: “Visit www.presscouncil.org.za (rulings, 2011) for the full finding”; and
  • furnish our office with the text prior to publication.

 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

 

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