Maranatha Record Company vs Rapport

Complainant: Maranatha Record Company

Lodged by: Attorneys Halse Havemann & Lloyd

Article: Maranatha kan nie sangers betaal

Author of article: Yolanda Barnard

Date: 21 February 2015

Respondent: Marga Ley, internal ombudsman of the Rapport

Complaint

Maranatha Record Company (MRC) is complaining about a story in Rapport of 30 November 2014, headlined Maranatha kan nie sangers betaal (Maranatha cannot pay singers).

MRC says the story was likely to mislead readers to believe, as facts, that Mr Lukie Carelsen, executive director of MRC:

·         owed thousands of rands in royalties to some of the leading gospel singers in the country;

·         retrenched half his staff just before the Christmas holidays;

·         owed money to singers such as Doepie du Plessis, Juanita du Plessis and Danie Botha;

·         owed Piet Smit thousands of rands; and

·         had financial problems.

The company explains that the story made no distinction between Carelsen, in his personal capacity, and the company.

MRC also complains that the:

·         newspaper failed to report the positive:

o   steps it had taken to improve its financial circumstances; and

o   statements communicated to the journalist by some singers;

·         headline was misleading and not reflective of the story;

·         quote in the caption was never made by Carelsen and was published with the intention to discredit him; and

·         picture of Carelsen was published without his consent and portrayed him in an undignified and humiliating pose.

The text

The story, written by Yolanda Barnard, said that MRC, the “oldest gospel record company in South Africa”, owed thousands of rands to some of the country’s leading gospel singers. The building housing its offices was reportedly in the market and Carelsen allegedly had retrenched more than half of his staff shortly before the Christmas holiday season.

Analysis

Confusing Carelsen with MRC

MRC complains that the reporter confused Carelsen with the company, resulting in several incorrect statements (as outlined above, under the first five bullets).

Ley replies that several singers confirmed that MRC owed them money, and they were willing to state this under their own names. She adds that Carelsen, MRC’s founder and executive director, said that it had to take “drastic measures to stay profitable”.

She argues, “As the founder … [Carelsen] has since 1984 been synonymous with MRC and MRC with him, which is why the singers referred to [him]as the one who owes them money and not necessarily to Maranatha. Rapport quoted the singers in this regard.”

Ley adds that the headline stated clearly it was the company that owed the money, and that the introductory sentence said that it was MRC that was in a financial crisis – and not Carelsen in his personal capacity. “Not for a moment would readers think that the story referred to Carelsen as a private person, because [he]was quoted as saying that Maranatha would pay royalties, that Maranatha cut its costs… His reputation was not damaged.”

She does admit, though, that the following sentence in the story was unfortunate: “Lukie Carelsen … allegedly owes thousands of rands…”

In conclusion, she notes that Carelsen’s personal financial situation was not mentioned in the story.

My considerations

The newspaper’s arguments that Carelsen and MRC are regarded as synonymous, as well as that the singers referred to him as the one who owed them money, are convincing.

Only in the second sentence, and nowhere else, does the story state that Carelsen (allegedly) owes people money – elsewhere this allegation is attributed to sources. If one looked at this sentence in isolation, MRC would have a point. I therefore agree with Ley that this sentence is unfortunate. However, when looking at the headline, the introductory sentence and the rest of the story, it should be clear that the entity facing financial problems was MRC, and not Carelsen in his personal capacity.

Failing to report ‘positive’ steps, comments

MRC complains that Rapport failed to report the positive steps it had taken to improve its financial circumstances and also some positive statements by previously contracted singers (all of which had been communicated to the reporter). This, the company says, amounted to a material omission and led to imbalanced an irresponsible reporting.

The newspaper does not respond to this part of the complaint.

My considerations

The story did quote Carelsen as saying that the debt was “not that much”, that it would be paid in full, that “drastic measures” were being taken to stay profitable, and that MRC would not close its doors. This, to my mind, gave enough balance to the story.

Misleading headline

MRC complains that the headline (MRC cannot pay) was misleading and not reflective of the story (that MRC would pay the money in full in due course).

The newspaper says that, when the headline was written, MRC could not pay the singers. Carelsen’s promise that he would pay them once he had the money to do so, was also reported.

My considerations

This part of the complaint has no leg to stand on. The story was about MRC allegedly owing money to some singers, and the headline reflected that.

Quote in caption

The caption referred to Psalm 121:1 (in the Bible) which says, “I lift my eyes to the hills…” This is a well-known verse, which is followed by the words, “where does my help come from?” This quote was followed by, “Lukie Carelsen has financial problems”.

MRC complains that Carelsen never uttered those words, and that the quote was published with the intention to discredit him. The company adds that these words were an unreasonable reflection of the content of the story, and argues that it falsely portrayed him as having been in a state of hopelessness.

Ley says that the caption indeed reflected the content of the story. She adds, “It is satirical humour which is not prohibited by the Press Code.”

MRC replies that satire is normally used with the intention of shaming somebody and it is usually meant to be humorous. “[No] reasonable person would attach a meaning which constitutes humour from the … caption – it is simply not funny.”

My considerations

To a certain extent, I agree with both parties – the Press Code does not prohibit the use of satirical humour, but in this case it was misplaced. The words, “I look up to the hills…” were used in inverted commas, which could be understood as a quote from Carelsen – which was not the case, and neither was it funny.

The caption’s second sentence, stating that Carelsen (not MRC) had financial problems, is also problematical.

Judge Phillip Levinsohn has recently (in 2013) said in a Supreme Court case in Swaziland: “Many readers of newspapers simply glance at the bold headings only and then move on. The impression implanted in the mind of the reader by such blaring headlines is likely to be both deep and lasting. Most readers do not read the whole story…”

From this, it is fair to say that headlines should stand on their own and be interpreted as such.

I would argue that the same goes for captions (and pictures, for that matter) – in which case the newspaper erred with both sentences in the caption.

Picture

In the picture Carelsen looks upwards, with his hands in front of his face, also pointing upwards.

MRC complains that this picture was published without his consent, and that it portrayed him in an undignified and humiliating pose.

Ley says the newspaper has published the picture of Carelsen as a public figure and owner of a company. Pictures of him can also readily be found on the internet.

My considerations

Rapport was not obliged to get Carelsen’s permission to publish a picture of him.

Also, there is nothing “undignified” or “humiliating” about the picture – it merely depicted somebody who was in need of help of some kind.

However, when the caption is taken into account (many people would read the caption after looking at the picture), the photograph suggested that he was personally in financial turmoil (as stated in the caption).

Finding

The complaint is dismissed, save for the caption and the picture – which, as an entity, depict Carelsen as experiencing personal financial problems. This is in breach of Section 2.1 of the Press Code, which says, “The press shall take care to report news truthfully, accurately and fairly.”

Seriousness of breaches

Under the headline Hierarchy of sanctions, Section 8 of our Complaints Procedures distinguishes minor breaches (Tier 1), serious breaches (Tier 2) and serious misconduct (Tier 3).

The breach of the Code, as described above, is a Tier 2 offence.

Sanction

Rapport is directed to apologise to Carelsen for depicting him in the caption and in the picture as experiencing personal financial problems.

The text should be provided to this office for approval, and should end with the following words: “Die volledige bevinding is by www.presscouncil.org.za

Appeal

Our Complaints Procedures lay down that within seven working days of receipt of this decision, either party may apply for leave to appeal to the Chairperson of the SA Press Adjudication Panel, Judge Bernard Ngoepe, fully setting out the grounds of appeal. He can be contacted at Khanyim@ombudsman.org.za.

Johan Retief

Press Ombudsman