‘Platinum Credit Card Corporation and others vs Moneyweb’

Complainant: ‘Platinum Credit Card Corporation and others

Lodged by: P.A. Venter

Article: ‘I lost R33 000 to dodgy debit orders’ – businessman

Author of article: Julius Cobbett

Date: 3 April 2014

Respondent: Moneyweb

COMPLAINT

PC3 and others complain about a story published on Moneyweb on 5 February 2014, headlined: ‘I lost R33 000 to dodgy debit orders’ – businessman

I could not entertain their complaint about stories published in September 2013, as this  was submitted too late.

They complain that Cobbett:

  • ignored the true nature of Mr Koos Smit’s complaint as outlined in the article;
  • maliciously used the word “dodgy” while referring to PC3;
  • tried to sensationalise his story by negatively referring to Stratcol and endeavoured to harm PC3’s relationship with both Stratcol and ABSA;
  • misrepresented the facts by stating that PC3 “appeared to concede last year that it had overcharged Smit”;
  • falsely insinuated that PC3 was guilty of theft or fraud;
  • stated without any substantiation that PC3’s track record had been “worse than most”;
  • failed to integrate PC3’s comments in his article, and failed to verify his information; and
  • defamed both Olivier (PC3’s legal advisor) and Burger (PC3’s general manager) by including their pictures and by alleging that the latter had failed to respond to the journalist.

THE TEXT

The story, written by Julius Cobbett, reported Port Nolloth businessman Koos Smit as saying he had lost more than R30 000 in dodgy debit orders paid to PC3 – in one month his account was debited 13 times at a total cost of R2 654.45. The journalist wrote: “When it comes to disputed debit orders, PC3’s track record is worse than most…”

ANALYSIS

Ignoring the nature of Smit’s complaint

PC3 explains the background to Smit’s complaint as follows: Mrs Catharina Susanna Smit (Koos Smit’s wife) signed up as a Platinum client during 2004 and provided banking details to complete the transaction. This contract was subsequently cancelled, and a refund was arranged for monies deducted after the date of cancellation. “The refund could, however, not be paid into the original bank account, as it was since closed.”

Venter states that PC3 became suspicious of the validity of the request for a refund as:

  • Ms Annari Smit (Koos Smit’s daughter-in-law) denied Ms Catharina Smit’s authority to enter into the agreement with Platinum;
  • the former asked for payment to be made into the account of a certain C.S. Smit, without explaining the link to Mr Koos Smit (who was allegedly the account holder of the original account);
  • it received information that the account was originally opened for Kori Engineering – a CC that existed prior to the opening of the account with Platinum; and
  • Catharina Smit owned 40% of the membership interest in the CC, and was its majority member.

Venter says that Annari Smit contacted Cobbett after the refund was not paid (for the reasons outlined above).

He argues: “Cobbett was aware of the fact that the true nature of the dispute was not the alleged wrongful deductions by Platinum, but rather the ‘rejected refund’ as appears from the heading to the … E-mail which he sent to Ms Burger … Cobbett ignored the true nature of the complaint, but rather used it as basis for a further defamatory article regarding Platinum.”

He concludes it should have been clear to Cobbett that PC3 was justified in withholding the refund until the matters as set out above were adequately addressed. Cobbett had a “civil duty” not only to refrain from publishing, but also to refrain from assisting Annari Smith in enforcing payment until PC3 was satisfied that its queries were answered. “Cobbett’s failure to do so and Moneyweb’s decision to publish the article … maligned Platinum.”

Cobbett denies the allegation that he ignored the “true nature” of the complaint – the dispute was not merely about a “rejected refund”, but rather about the fact that the Smit family denied that anybody had authorized PC3 to debit Koos Smit’s account.

The reporter also denies that:

  • Smit received any value in exchange for the debit orders that went off his account. “This is recorded in my article”; and
  • he had a “civic duty” to refrain from publishing his article – he argues that the content was newsworthy and in the public interest.

Most importantly, he adds: “It appears that Platinum argues that, since they are investigating the refund-issue, the issue about the seemingly irregular and allegedly unauthorized debit orders themselves should be ignored. The article complained of is about the initial debit orders. Platinum has not taken issue with the facts in this regard and has not explained the erratic and seemingly irregular nature of the debits that went through. Instead, Platinum is seeking a total ban on publishing anything on the matter ‘until these queries have been answered to [its]satisfaction’ …”

My considerations

I agree with Cobbett on this issue – he kept his eye on the ball (the alleged irregular debiting of Smit’s account). I submit that it would have been better if the journalist did report the issue of the refund, but I certainly do not believe the omission was material enough to have constituted a breach of Section 2.2 of the Press Code (which refers to material omissions). The crux of the story was not that PC3 had not refunded Smit, but rather the debiting of his account.

‘Dodgy’

The introduction to the story was: “Port Nolloth businessman Koos Smit says he has lost more than R30 000 to dodgy debit orders” (which were paid to PC3). The headline also used the phrase “dodgy debit orders”.

PC3 complains that Cobbett used this phrase prominently: “It is done with malice, and to harm the reputation of Platinum.”

Cobbett replies that the complainants are attempting to divert attention from the crux of his article, which was that Koos Smit’s account had been debited as many as thirteen times in one month. “The cause of these debits remains unexplained. The description of such debit orders as ‘dodgy’ is not only a quote, but (also) a justifiable one based on the unanswered issues around these debit orders.”

He also denies that he used the word “dodgy” with malice in order to harm PC3’s reputation. “The word dodgy encapsulates Koos Smit’s allegation that the debits were not authorized, erratic and ultimately, unexplained. The article makes it clear that it is Koos Smit who is alleging that the debits were dodgy and I am quoting him accordingly. Even if one accepts PC3’s version – that debits were deducted after cancellation – that alone suggests that Smit’s allegations [have]merit and [that]the debits were indeed dodgy.”

In its reply to Cobbett’s response, PC3 argues that the word “dodgy”, which Cobbett ascribed to Smit, was never used in any of the correspondences with which PC3 was provided by the journalist.

My considerations

I note that Cobbett did not state as fact that Smit’s debit orders were “dodgy” – he ascribed it to Smit.

The fact that the correspondence the journalist provided did not contain the word “dodgy” is neither here nor there. Cobbett correctly said: “The word dodgy encapsulates Koos Smit’s allegation that the debits were not authorized, erratic [and]ultimately, unexplained.

When seen in this context, the reporter was justified in ascribing the word “dodgy” to Smit.

Harming relationships

The reference to Stratcol and Absa was: “Despite its poor track record, PC3 remains a client of debit-order company Stratcol. This grants it access to the banking system through Stratcol’s sponsor bank Absa.”

PC3 complains that Cobbett tried to sensationalise the matter by negatively referring to Stratcol, and that he endeavoured to harm PC3’s relationship with both Stratcol and Absa.

Cobbett denies this, saying that the reference to Stratcol was factual and relevant. “Stratcol granted PC3 access to the banking system, via its sponsor bank Absa, which is how it was able to debit Koos Smit’s account.” He adds that the mentioning of Stratcol in this regard was newsworthy and justified.

My considerations

I note that PC3 does not complain about the veracity of these statements, only that Cobbett intended to harm its relationships with Stratcol and Absa by means of the statements.

I am not willing to jump on this band-wagon. If the statements were accurate and factual, and if they then harm PC3’s relationships with those two institutions, that is the nature of the beast called journalism. The spirit of the Press Code is to prevent unnecessary harm – not harm as such.

Appearing to have conceded an overcharge

The sentence in dispute read: “PC3 appeared to concede last year that it had overcharged Smit.”

PC3 denies that this statement is true.

Cobbett says that the company itself stated that monies were deducted after the date of cancellation. “This amounts to overcharging.” He argues it is fair to say that, when a company tenders a refund, it indeed appears “to concede having overcharged”.

My considerations

Again, I agree with Cobbett. Any attempt to refund boils down to overcharging (or else there would be no such refund).

I also note the careful way in which he worded this sentence (“PC3 appeared to concede…” – emphasis added).

Insinuations of theft, fraud

PC3 complains that the article falsely insinuated that it was guilty of theft or fraud. It argues that Moneyweb’s and Cobbett’s intentions were to harm its good name by the use of innuendos and falsehoods.

Cobbett denies this allegation.

My considerations

I can understand why the journalist denies this allegation – his article was factual (PC3 does not deny that it had debited Smit’s account 13 times in a month, and it concedes that Smith may be refunded) as well as newsworthy.

Track record “worse than most”

Cobbett wrote: “When it comes to disputed debit orders, PC3’s track record is worse than most.”

PC3 complains that this statement had no substance and argues that it was libelous.

Cobbett replies: “This statement is justified and the article itself explains the basis for this statement immediately following the statement complained of.”

He also provided me with documentation regarding twenty people who claimed that their accounts had been debited without authorisation. “They detail intense frustration on the part of the complainants. The list … is not exhaustive.” To this, he adds that consumer journalist Wendy Knowler described PC3 as having “an appalling history of putting through unauthorized debits” – and states that a “cursory” internet search revealed several unflattering media reports and complaints relating to PC3. He says that the consumer website Hellopeter reveals similar complaints.

“This supports my statement that when it comes to disputed debit orders, PC3’s track record is worse than most.”

PC3 responds that:

  • the number of complainants was a miniscule percentage (approximately 0,05%) of its total number of clients;
  • a significant number of these complaints dated back to the time of Cobbett’s initial stories; and
  • nineteen of the twenty complaints to which the journalist refers, have been addressed even before Cobbett responded to this office.

My considerations

PC3’s response is weak on this point. Even if the number of complainants was small, as a percentage, and even if most of those incidents were resolved, the fact remains that Cobbett had written evidence of many such cases. Also, it does not matter if a significant number of the complaints date back to September last year – the story referred to a “track record”. Surely, what happened a few months ago forms part of this track record?

Failing to integrate PC3’s comments or verify

PC3 complains that Cobbett failed to integrate its comments in his article. “Only referring to the concerns of Platinum at the very end of the article confirms Cobbett’s bias and total disregard for the objectives of the press code.” It also states that the journalist did not properly verify his information, and adds that the journalist failed to provide it with an adequate opportunity to respond to previous requests.

In later correspondence, PC3 explains that the journalist gave it one business day to respond, which it regards as unreasonable.

Cobbett says “the record shows” that he gave PC3 ample opportunity and time to investigate the matter and to address any “discrepancies” it had identified relating to the proposed refund payment.

My considerations

Cobbett provided me with quite impressive documentation to show that he consistently asked PC3 for comment, adequately demonstrating that the reporter did his duty in this regard. Also, it is not true that he reported PC3’s views “at the very end” of his text – it was rather more in the middle of his article.

I am satisfied that the journalist did not cross the ethical lines drawn by the Press Code. If the matter was important to PC3, one business day should have been enough time to formulate a proper response.

Defaming Olivier, Burger

Olivier and Burger complain that Moneyweb defamed them by including their pictures and by falsely alleging that the latter had failed to respond to the journalist.

Cobbett does not reply to this part of the complaint.

In later correspondence, Venter says that any casual reader would simply connect Olivier’s and Burger’s names (and photos) to allegations of fraud or theft.

My considerations

I take into account that Olivier and Burger occupied important positions in PC3, and that Cobbett mentioned them both in his article. Therefore Moneyweb was justified to use their pictures.

Also, in the copy of the article at my disposal Cobbett did not state that Burger had failed to respond to his enquiries. On the contrary, he wrote: “When Moneyweb asked PC3 to comment on Smit’s case in October last year, a response was received from general manager Johrika Burger. A copy of the response can be downloaded here. Burger says … Burger says …”

FINDING

The complaint is dismissed.

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 for the appeal. He can be contacted at Khanyim@ombudsman.org.za.

Johan Retief,  Press Ombudsman