Neil Diamond vs The New Age

Complainant: Neil Diamond
Article: Deal on the rocks – Neil Diamond and widow continue to fight over an Alberton wedding venue
Date: 19 July 2012
Respondent: The New Age
Complaint

ANC councillor (Alberton) Neil Diamond complains about a story on page 3 in The New Age on 27 March 2012 and headlined Deal on the rocks – Neil Diamond and widow continue to fight over an Alberton wedding venue. The front page also reflected this headline.

Diamond complains that the:
  • allegations in the story were false;
  • headline and caption were inflammatory, vexatious, false and one-sided; and
  • newspaper did not give him a chance to comment.
Analysis

The story, written by De Wet Potgieter, was about Diamond who reportedly had been embroiled in a bitter battle with a widow (Ms Antoinette Fourie) and her children over a luxurious wedding venue in Alberton.  Potgieter wrote that Fourie’s husband had committed suicide two years ago and since then the venue had turned into a nightmare for the family. The reporter quoted the widow as follows: “Diamond is a powerful man and he is bullying us financially into getting La Montanara for a song.” However, Diamond reportedly denied this allegation and stated that it was not him, but his wife who was caught up in the dispute.

False allegations – General

Diamond complains that the allegations in the story were false (initially without specifying what specific allegations he refers to).

In his reply to the newspaper’s response, Diamond mentions several specific issues (as these were new, I had to ask the newspaper to respond again).

False allegations – Specific

            Involved in legal battle

The story and the caption state it as fact that there was a legal dispute between Diamond and Fourie.

Diamond says court papers show that he was not involved in the legal battle – yet the story and the headline leads a reasonable reader to think that he was directly involved in the dispute and a party to the litigation. (He presented me with a copy of the filing sheet of the litigation to – convincingly – prove his argument.) He adds that he told Potgieter on various occasions that the allegations were false and unsubstantiated, but says that the reporter nevertheless stated that he was involved in the court case.

The newspaper says it is correct that Diamond was not involved, but states that the following considerations have led the journalist to believe that he was behind the litigation:

  • Potgieter was informed that Diamond was involved in negotiations to purchase property and that he negotiated directly with the estate agent; and
  • Family adviser Hennie Els advised the reporter that he has had no substantial dealings with Diamond’s (former) wife – instead, he dealt with Diamond himself.

It concludes: “Accordingly, it is submitted that although on paper the respondent is not a party to the legal dispute, in fact he is substantially involved.”

Diamond may or may not be “substantially involved” in the legal battle. In fact, I would be rather surprised if he was not substantially involved (because his wife was). However, that is irrelevant. The fact of the matter is that Diamond was not a party to the legal dispute, yet the story and the caption – not the headline – inaccurately stated this as fact.

The reporter should have been more careful.
            Implicated in a multimillion-rand scandal

The story says that Diamond has been at the centre of a multimillion-rand land scandal several years ago.

Diamond says it is true that he was implicated in this scandal – but adds that he was cleared from any wrong-doing by the Nupen report that was adopted by the Ekurhuleni Metropolitan Municipality in 2010, which also recommended that no action should be taken against him. He says that the Municipality rejected the Pasco report in which allegations were made against him. He implies that, having mentioned that he was “at the centre” of the scandal, the reporter should also have mentioned these facts.

Ampofo-Anti says the statement in dispute is true. She refers me to two stories in the Mail & Guardian to prove that the information was in the public domain.

The newspaper adds that to date Potgieter has not had sight of the Nupen report. However, he says that sources told him that the report does not clear Diamond of all wrongdoing.

The Nupen report was already adopted in 2010. This report exonerated Diamond from all but two allegations against him. The overwhelming majority of allegations against him were found to be without substance. Nupen eventually concludes that “it would not be appropriate to proceed against Cllr Diamond in terms of Clause 14 of the Code of Conduct.”

The fact that Potgieter has not yet seen the Nupen report is no excuse. If the journalist saw it fit to mention the scandal, he then should have done his homework and added that

no steps were going to be taken against Diamond. The statement that Diamond was involved in a scandal is true, but it is not fair to him to neglect to state that he was greatly exonerated.

            Forensic reports

The story only once mentions a report. The sentence reads: “Despite a damning forensic report into this apparently dodgy transaction, the only casualty was former city manager Patrick Flusk…” (own emphasis)

Diamond says the two forensic reports that the newspaper says it relied on (Pasco is one of them) were rejected as factually incorrect. He also referred me to the disclaimers in these reports. (He says he sent me a copy of these, but I have not received it.) He maintains that Potgieter knew that these reports were rejected, and concludes that his reportage therefore boils down to deliberate character assassination.

The New Age says that Potgieter did not know about the existence of the Nupen report at the time of publication, and also not that that report was adopted instead of the Pasco report. It states: “These facts were not widely reported in the media.” It argues that the fact that the council minutes allegedly refer to the Nupen report, does not mean that the journalist should have known about the report. “Had the journalist been aware of these facts, they would have been included in the article. It is accordingly denied that there was any dishonesty on the part of the journalist.”

My argument above is also valid here.

I indeed do not think that the journalist was dishonest, he was merely – sadly – uninformed.

Widowed

The intro reads: “Neil Diamond…is embroiled in a bitter battle with a widow and her children over a luxurious wedding venue and popular social landmark in the town.”

Diamond complains that the story incorrectly states Fourie was widowed – he says that she was divorced at the time of her ex-husband’s death and that she therefore cannot be called a widow. He provided me with documentary proof to this effect.

The New Age says that at the time of publication, Potgieter was not aware that the Fourie couple had been divorced as that fact was never mentioned in his interview with Mrs Fourie.

The newspaper argues that the reportage was justified because the two were living together in the same house at the time of Mr Fourie’s death; and because Ms Fourie was a beneficiary in her former husband’s will (she was bequeathed 50% of his estate).

“Accordingly…they were for all intents and purposes living as husband and wife and it was reasonable for the journalist to describe Mrs Fourie as a widow.”

The sloppy reporting continues.
No verification

Diamond complains that the newspaper did not verify the allegations against him; instead, it dished up unsubstantiated allegations out of context.

The New Age says that it obtained its information from:

  • Fourie;
  • court papers in the legal disputes between Diamond, his wife and the Fourie family;
  • Els; and
  • a copy of a report that the Fourie family obtained.

The newspaper also argues that the statements in the story are all presented as allegations, not as fact, and that the sources of these allegations are all properly attributed.

Firstly, it is not true that all the statements in the story are presented as allegations.

While Potgieter tried to verify his information, he did not succeed in doing so adequately (for example that Diamond and Fourie were involved in a legal battle, that Fourie was widowed, and using a wrong report to base his story on).

 Headline, caption inflammatory, vexatious, false, one-sided

The headline says: Deal on the rocks – Neil Diamond and widow continue to fight over an Alberton wedding venue. The caption reads: “HOUSE OF PAIN: The wedding venue of La Montanara is at the centre of a bitter legal dispute between property tycoon Neil Diamond and an Alberton widow.”

Diamond complains that both the headline and the caption are inflammatory, vexatious, false and one-sided, and a “blatant misrepresentation of the facts contained in the article”.

The New Age says that both the headline and the caption are a fair and accurate description of the story, as the:

  • headline refers to the ongoing dispute between Diamond and Fourie regarding the wedding venue; and
  • caption reflects the fact that the venue was at the centre of the legal dispute. It adds that the description “House of Pain” refers to the pain experienced by the Fourie family resulting from the legal dispute.

Diamond replies that the headline and caption indeed reflect the false allegations in the story, and are therefore also false.

Firstly, the headline did not say that the battle between Diamond and Fourie was a legal one. I accept that Diamond was involved in a battle with her (as his wife was directly involved), and therefore do not find anything wrong with the heading – except, of course, for the use of the word “widow”.

The caption is inaccurate, as it reflects the inaccurate impression that the story created that Diamond was “at the centre of a bitter legal dispute”; it also used the word “widow”.

No chance to comment

Diamond complains that the newspaper did not give him a chance to comment, even though Potgieter afforded the other parties referred to in the story an opportunity to do so.

The New Age disputes this, saying that its reporter made “every effort” to give Diamond an adequate right of reply. It explains:

On 14 March 2013, Potgieter contacted Diamond telephonically to ask his views, who told him that he was in Dubai; Diamond asked him to send him questions in writing and promised to respond on March 19 when he would be back in the country.

Potgieter obliged on March 19. Diamond then informed him that he could only respond the following week, upon which the journalist told him that the story would be published on March 22.

Diamond immediately afterwards wrote an email to the news editor, complaining about the story that was about to be published. The newspaper then decided to hold back the story for another week in order to give him adequate time to respond to Potgieter’s questions.

It also says that the last four paragraphs of the story reflected Diamond’s response (which he sent on 24 March)

In later correspondence Diamond states that he invited Potgieter for an interview and a visit to a site, but says that this never materialized.

Based on the documentation that the newspaper provided me with to substantiate its argument, I have no reason to believe that this part of the the complaint has any leg to stand on – the reporter did contact Diamond, and the latter even responded in time.

Potgieter was under no obligation to visit Diamond in person (although that might have helped him to establish his facts – but that is a different issue).

I also need to congratulate The New Age for postponing publication to accommodate Diamond. That is responsible journalism.

Even though Diamond did not complain about it, I still needed to check if the story adequately reflected his views. In my view, it did. Nothing material to the story was omitted.

Finding

Involved in legal battle

The story and the caption – not the headline – say that Diamond was involved in a legal battle with Mrs Fourie. That is not accurate and is therefore in breach of Art. 1.1 of the Press Code that states: “The press shall be obliged to report news…accurately…”

Implicated in a multimillion-rand scandal

The statement that Diamond has been at the centre of a multimillion-rand land scandal several years ago is accurate, but out of context as he has been greatly exonerated and as no steps were going to be taken against him. This is in breach of Art. 1.2 of the Code that says: “News shall be presented in context and in a balanced manner, without any intentional or negligent departure from the facts whether by…omissions…”

Forensic reports

The newspaper based its reportage on the wrong document. There is no excuse for this, as the right document was already accepted in 2010. This is in breach of Art. 1.2 of the Code.

Widowed

The statements in the sub-headline, the caption and the story that Fourie was widowed are inaccurate. This is in breach of Art. 1.1 of the Press Code

No verification

Potgieter did not properly verify his information (for example that Diamond was involved in a legal battle, that Fourie was widowed, and using the wrong report to base his story on).  This is in breach of Art. 1.4 of the Code that states: “Where there is reason to doubt the accuracy of a report and it is practicable to verify the accuracy thereof, it shall be verified. Where it has not been practicable to verify the accuracy of a report, this shall be mentioned in such report.”

The lack of verification also resulted in an unfair story (unfair to Diamond), which breached Art. 1.1 of the Code that states: “The press shall be obliged to report news…fairly.”

Headline, caption inflammatory, vexatious, false, one-sided

 

This complaint regarding the headline is dismissed (save for the word “widowed” that I have already dealt with).

I have already dealt with the caption (under “Widowed”).

No chance to comment

This part of the complaint is dismissed.
 
 
Sanction
The New Age is directed to apologise to Diamond for:
  • incorrectly stating that he was embroiled in a legal battle with Fourie; and
  • stating that he has been at the centre of a multimillion-rand land scandal several years ago without also saying that he has greatly been exonerated and that no steps were going to be taken against him.
The newspaper is also:
  • reprimanded for not properly verifying its information and for using the wrong report to base its story on, which resulted in unfair reportage; and
  • cautioned for stating that Fourie was widowed.
The newspaper is directed to publish the following text on page 3:

The New Age apologises to ANC councillor Neil Diamond (Alberton) for incorrectly stating that he was embroiled in a legal battle with Mrs Antoinette Fourie, and for stating that he has been at the centre of a multimillion-rand land scandal several years ago without ading that he has greatly been exonerated afterwards and that no steps were going to be taken against him.

This comes after Diamond lodged a complaint with the Press Ombudsman about a story headlined Deal on the rocks – Neil Diamond and widow continue to fight over an Alberton wedding venue (published on 27 March 2012).

The story, written by De Wet Potgieter, was about Diamond who reportedly was involved in a bitter battle with a widow (Fourie) and her children over a luxurious wedding venue in Alberton.

Deputy Press Ombudsman Johan Retief also:
  • reprimanded us for not properly verifying our information and for using the wrong report to base our story on; and
  • cautioned us for incorrectly referring to Fourie as a widow (at the time of Mr Fourie’s death they were divorced and could therefore not have been widowed).

He dismissed the complaint that the newspaper did not give Diamond a chance to comment, as the story adequately reflected his views.

Visit www.presscouncil.org.za (rulings, 2012) for the full finding.

End of text
 
Appeal

Please note that our Complaints Procedures lay down that within seven days of receipt of this decision, either party 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 contacted at Khanyim@ombudsman.org.za.

Johan Retief
Deputy Press Ombudsman

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