Russell Kearney vs Daily Dispatch

Complainant: Russell Kearney

Lodged by: Russell Kearney

Article: Kearney and Kei walk 6000km for a good cause, and Charities don’t know of walker’s fund-raising

Author of article: Aretha Linden

Date: 17 December 2014

Respondent: Daily Dispatch

Complaint

Kearney is complaining about articles published in the Daily Dispatch on 9 and 12 September 2014 respectively (both on page 3), headlined Kearney and Kei walk 6000km for a good cause, and Charities don’t know of walker’s fund-raising.

He complains that the stories (including the headline and the caption of the first) are factually incorrect on several counts (details below), and that these mistakes have harmed his integrity and reputation.

Late complaint

Siqoko protests that Kearney has laid the complaint more than forty days after publication which, in terms of the Press Council’s Complaints Procedures, is too late.

However, the Public Advocate has accepted the complaint, and explained her decision to me as follows: “[I] decided to take on the complaint…because the newspaper promised to get in touch with him and didn’t.”

Based on this, I have decided to entertain this matter.

The text

Both stories were written by Aretha Linden.

The first story says that Kearney, a cancer survivor and animal activist, is taking his dog, Kei, for a six-month walk of 6 000 km around the country to highlight the plight of endangered wild animals. Linden quotes Kearney as saying: “[I] am doing this to raise funds to assist causes against canned lion hunting and rhino and elephant poaching.” The walk reportedly forms part of his planned autobiography, which will highlight his past and current travel experiences. He has “pledged to donate to Port Elizabeth’s Animal Welfare Society, Birds of Paradise and towards a bird sanctuary near Plettenberg Bay and the Lions Club International”.

The second story reports Birds of Eden and PE Animal Welfare denying knowledge of Kearney’s fund-raising efforts on their behalf. It then largely repeats the gist of the first story.

The arguments

First story

Kearney complains that the following matters are incorrect:

                    What is wrong                                      What it should have been

 

  1. The word “walk” in the headline.
Not only walking, but also taking lifts.
  1. The reference to him being a Gonubie resident in the caption.
He resides in Port Elizabeth.
  1. The story speaks of “raising funds”.
He is not raising funds, but rather raising awareness of canned hunting and poaching of rhino, elephant and lion, and also promoting his book.
  1. The Age-in-Action and Save-a-Pet walk was his last “adventure” three years ago.
The Age-in-Action and Save-a-Pet walk was done on his first SA coastal walk and they were not his “last” adventure.
  1. The story mentions “Birds of Paradise”.
It was “Birds of Eden”.
  1. The planned journey was his eighth.
The planned journey was his seventh.
  1. He had tick fever.
He had glandular fever from a tick bite.
  1. He had cancer in his ear.
His cancer had spread to multiple enlarged lymph-nodes in his abdomen and under his arm pits.
  1. His dog Kei is a cross between a pit-bull and a ridgeback.
Kei is a cross between a pit-bull and an africanis.

Second story

Kearney complains that the following matters are incorrect:

 

                    What is wrong                                      What it should have been

  1. He said he was raising funds for Birds of Eden and PE Animal Welfare.
Since his walk for Save-a-Pet six years ago he had not raised funds for any charity – and Birds of Eden and PE Animal Welfare did not even know that he planned to leave them a percentage of funds from the sales of his forthcoming books.
  1. He is “not new to controversy”.
He has an unblemished track record over the last five years, he has no criminal record and he does not owe money to any charity organization.
  1. In 2006 he held a DJ marathon and collection tins were placed at supermarkets. Former Dispatch investigations editor Eddie Botha stated that opened collection tins were found in his room. He confessed to using the money on himself.
The newspaper asked him to oversee the entire project, which included the opening of collection tins and the distribution of the funds. He was unable to survive financially at the time and used some of the money, with the intention of paying it back once he got a full-time job (which was imminent).
  1. Mavis Smith, the founder of Save-a-Pet, told the newspaper Kearney pocketed a donation of a couple of hundred rand which was meant for this organization.
Smith tries to destroy his credibility with untrue accusations.

The newspaper’s response

Siqoko says the newspaper published a story on September 9 (with which Kearney was satisfied). However, on that same day a reader phoned the newspaper, alleging that Kearney was a fraudster. In addition, two previous stories written by Botha in 2009 − in which Kearney admitted to defrauding the Daily Dispatch Children’s Fund − were brought to the reporter’s attention. She then contacted the various organisations, who stated that they had no knowledge of his plans to donate proceeds from book sales to them.

Analysis

The first story

I note that Daily Dispatch does not respond to Kearney’s complaint about factual errors in this story. The editor merely says that Kearney was initially satisfied with the article (which he disputes). Therefore, I accept that the reporter got some matters wrong.

I now need to distinguish between the seriousness of these inaccuracies. Of course, any inaccuracy is one too many – but some have the potential to cause people unnecessary harm and are therefore more serious than others.

The matters that I accept to be incorrect, but not likely to cause Kearney unnecessary harm, are all the points listed under The Arguments, First Story above, save for number 3. These inaccuracies merely need to be corrected.

The statement that he was “raising funds” needs some discussion as it has the potential of causing Kearney some unnecessary harm.

The newspaper reports as follows on this matter:

  • The sentence in question reads: “[I] am doing this to raise funds to assist causes against canned lion hunting and rhino and elephant poaching”;
  • This is reflected in the headline, which states that he walks “for a good cause”;
  • Another statement says he has “pledged to donate to Port Elizabeth’s Animal Welfare Society, Birds of Paradise and towards a bird sanctuary near Plettenberg Bay and the Lions Club International”; and
  • The caption states that Kearney and his dog have embarked on a journey around South Africa “to raise money to highlight the plight of rhino, lion and elephant poaching”.

While Kearney is adamant that he is not raising funds with his latest endeavor (he is merely “raising awareness”), he also states that his experiences will form part of a book – and states that he plans to give some organisations a percentage of proceeds derived from the sales of this forthcoming book. It is therefore not entirely incorrect to state that he is raising funds to assist some causes.

However, the story may also have left the impression that he was directly raising funds for some organisations. I have no reason to believe that this is true. As this matter can easily be misunderstood, it needs to be corrected – which will reduce the possibility of unnecessary harm to his integrity and reputation.

The second story

I am dealing with the issues raised above point by point:

(a)    I have already argued this issue above;

(b)   By saying that he has an unblemished track record over the last five years, Kearney intrinsically admits that he is not new to controversy prior to that period. The newspaper was therefore justified in its reportage on this point;

(c)    Kearney’s statement that he was unable to survive financially at the time and used some of the money, with the intention of paying it back once he got a full-time job (which was imminent), by default justifies the reportage; and

(d)   I cannot determine whether the statement in question is true or false. Therefore, I cannot come to a finding in this regard. As this may be a matter of defamation, Kearney is free to take this matter to court.

But more needs to be said – I am concerned that Siqoko’s motivation for the publication of the second article is the “information” the newspaper got that Kearney was a fraudster. This has led to the reporter contacting the organisations, and then to the story that they had no knowledge of his plans to donate proceeds from book sales to them.

Clearly, according to the editor’s own admission, the intention of this story was to cast doubt on Kearney’s integrity (he was a fraudster, was he not – hence the story).

This is the point: The fact that the organisations did not know about Kearney’s stated intention of donating money to them does not mean that it was not his plan to do so. This statement therefore unnecessarily casts doubt on his intentions and integrity, as the story strongly suggests that he was lying (with the possibility of committing fraud).

Section 4.7 of the Press Code is relevant in this case. It reads in full:

“The press shall exercise care and consideration in matters involving dignity and reputation. The dignity or reputation of an individual should be overridden only by a legitimate public interest and in the following circumstances:

4.7.1 The facts reported are true or substantially true; or

4.7.2 The article amounts to fair comment based on facts that are adequately referred to and that are true or substantially true; or

4.7.3 The report amounts to a fair and accurate report of court proceedings, Parliamentary proceedings or the proceedings of any quasi-judicial tribunal or forum; or

4.7.4 It was reasonable for the article to be published because it was prepared in accordance with acceptable principles of journalistic conduct and in the public interest.”

I do not believe that the story exercised “care and consideration” about Kearney’s dignity and reputation, neither am I convinced that any of the exceptions in Clauses 4.7.1 to 4.7.4 have been adhered to.

Finding

The first story

Regarding all the points raised above, Daily Dispatch is in breach of Sect. 2.1 of the Press Code that states: “The press shall take care to report news [accurately]”.

The second story

(a)    The statement that Kearney said he was raising funds for Birds of Eden and PE Animal Welfare is in breach of Sect. 2.1 of the Press Code that states: “The press shall take care to report news [accurately]”.

(b)   This part of the complaint is dismissed.

(c)    This part of the complaint is dismissed.

(d)   There is no finding on this part of the complaint.

The story itself unnecessarily and without proper justification questioned Kearney’s intentions and integrity. This is in breach of Sect. 4.7 of the Press Code.

Sanction

The first story

As the breaches of the Code all fall under Tier 1 of the Hierarchy of Sanctions (“Minor breaches”), Daily Dispatch is reprimanded for the inaccuracies in this story, and directed to correct all the issues tabled above.

The second story

The statement that Kearney said he was raising funds for Birds of Eden and PE Animal Welfare falls under Tier 1 of the Hierarchy of Sanctions (“Minor breaches”). The newspaper has already been reprimanded on this issue, and has already been directed to correct this matter.

Daily Dispatch is directed to apologise to Kearney for unnecessarily casting doubt on his integrity (the fact that the organisations did not know about his intentions to donate some funds does not mean that his past, whatever that may be, should be held against him). This is a Tier 2 offence (“Serious breaches”).

The text

The newspaper is directed to:

  • apologise to Kearney for unnecessarily casting doubt on his integrity, together with a mention of the reprimand, above the fold on page 3;
  • furnish the text to this office prior to publication; and
  • end it with the following sentence: “Visit www.presscouncil.org.za for the full finding”.

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

 

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