Sean Wisedale vs Noseweek

Complainant: Sean Wisedale

Lodged by: Sean Wisedale

Article: Another top sportsman loses it

Date: 18 September 2013

Respondent: Noseweek

This ruling is based on the written submissions of Mr Sean Wisedale and Martin Welz, editor of Noseweek magazine, as well as on a hearing that was held on 29 July 2013 in Johannesburg. Both Wisedale and Welz represented themselves. The two members of the Panel of Adjudicators who assisted the Ombudsman were Franz Krüger (press representative) and Carol Mohlala (public representative).

COMPLAINT

Mr Sean Wisedale complains about a story in Noseweek, headlined Another top sportsman loses it, published in April 2013, as well as about the publication of his reply headlined Wisedale responds (published in May 2013).

He complains about the first story that:

  • it was defamatory, unbalanced and based on untruths and rumours, such as references to him as “psychotic”, “manic” and him being the subject of a criminal investigation (see other details below);
  • it did not identify its author, his “neighbours” and the occasions of his alleged mis-conduct, and that the journalist did not corroborate his information, especially not with direct neighbours;
  • he was not offered a reasonable right of reply; and
  • the audio recording (which is posted on the magazine’s website and mentioned in the story) was tampered with.

His complaint about the second story boils down to his belief that this text in the main perpetuated the wrongs of the first article; he also accuses the magazine of running a smear campaign against him.

The panel notes that some of these complaints overlap each other, but we shall handle each one for the sake of completeness.

ANALYSIS

The intro to the first article read as follows: “In the corporate world, he is known as one of the few who’ve conquered Everest and an inspiring motivational speaker well worth his high fee, but to his anxious neighbours in the Durban suburb of Glenwood, Sean Wisedale is known as the monster who periodically keeps them awake all night, manically yelling threats and abuse at them from behind his high boundary walls. On and on, for five hours at a stretch.”

The second one mainly repeated the above, and then recorded Wisedale’s side of the matter.

The first article

The panel needs to state upfront that we are not a court of law, neither are we an investigative body with the aim to determine which party in the neighbourhood dispute that led to these reports was right or wrong – we are merely concerned with the question if Noseweek has operated within the boundaries of the Press Code or not.

We are guided in this case by the ruling that Judge J.A. Hefer made on 29 September 1998 in the matter between National Media Ltd. and Others vs. Bogoshi.

The relevant part said: “…the publication in the press of false defamatory allegations of fact will not be regarded as unlawful if, upon a consideration of all the circumstances of the case, it is found to have been reasonable to publish the particular facts in the particular way and at the particular time. In considering the reasonableness of the publication account must obviously be taken of the nature, extent and tone of the allegations… What will also figure prominently, is the nature of the information on which the allegations were based and the reliability of their source, as well as the steps taken to verify the information.” (emphasis added)

Therefore: Our test is that of reasonableness; and we shall now proceed to discuss the relevant issues along the lines as stated above.

Defamatory, unbalanced, based on untruths and rumour

Wisedale complains that this story was defamatory, unbalanced and based on untruths and rumours, and specifically mentions the following (bulleted) statements in the article:

  • He “…has for the past year had his entire neighbourhood terrorized by his aggressive psychotic behaviour.”

Two statements are at stake here – “terrorizing his entire neighbourhood”, and “psychotic behavior”.

Wisedale denies that he has terrorized his whole neighbourhood and submits correspondence from five of his immediate neighbours that he claims all directly contradict the allegation in question.

Firstly, the panel notes that Noseweek had many statements at its disposal by people from the neighbourhood that testify to perceived ill behavior by Wisedale. For example, we are referring to affidavits/statements by three residents on the property his neighbours, the Simons (Mr Derick Zolyomi, Mr Nicholas Bent and Ms Dimone Lapage), and several of Wisedale’s neighbours who were willing to provide affidavits about his alleged unbecoming behaviour – some of whom actually made a statement to the police (such as Mr David Barrow and Ms Angela Buckland).

It is clear that at least Buckland’s statement was (rightly or wrongly) not about an isolated incident.

The panel also notes that four of the five neighbours who provided Wisedale with statements merely said that he never threw missiles into their property – an assertion that was never in question. The fifth neighbour merely stated that he did not want to get involved (which means that it is not true that these neighbours contradicted the statement in dispute, as argued by Wisedale).

Moreover, we do not read the word “whole” neighbourhood as to mean everybody in the suburb, but rather people in the near vicinity of Wisedale’s house.

Regarding the use of the phrase “psychotic behavior”: The following is one definition of psychosis, taken from www.news-medical.net: “Psychosis means abnormal condition of the mind, and is a generic psychiatric term for a mental state often described as involving a ‘loss of contact with reality’…People experiencing psychosis may report hallucinations or delusional beliefs, and may exhibit personality changes and thought disorder. Depending on its severity, this may be accompanied by unusual or bizarre behavior, as well as difficulty with social interaction and impairment in carrying out the daily life activities.”

Given this definition, and the fact that the story did not call Wisedale a psychotic but merely referred to psychotic behaviour (the two are not the same), the panel believes that the use of this phrase was justified. Again, we take this view not because we are experts in the field and are therefore pronouncing on the veracity of the statement, but because the magazine based it on enough witnesses and documentation to justify the use of this term.

  • He was “manically yelling threats at them (his neighbours) from behind his high boundary walls.” (the italics emphasise Wisedale’s complaint)

Wisedale denies that there are any high boundary walls between his property and any of his neighbours.

However, the panel saw pictures of some of the walls that surrounded Wisedale’s premises, and at least some of these walls could have been described as relatively high.

  • that is, when he is not actually hurling rocks, wine bottles and anything else that comes to hand across the wall, on to their roofs. On an occasion he threw a rock that was so large, it crashed through the tiles and landed in the room below.”

Wisedale again refers to documentation by some of his direct neighbours to prove that he lived in peace with them (except for Mr and Mrs Simons) and denies that he ever hurled any object in anger across any wall, including onto the Simons’s property. He also denies that pictures showing damages caused to windows and a roof of their property were as a result of his doing.

However, in a document headlined SAPS Case Number 301/10/2010 Mr and Mrs Simons, together with several “witnesses”, stated that a wine bottle was thrown from Wisedale’s property into their property.

The panel notes Wisedale’s assertion that he was never charged, but also believe that this does not make any material difference to the statement in dispute.

  • “Some were not even aware the Wisedale’s have an 18-month-old child.”

He says his child was 11 months old when the story was published.

The panel accepts that this information in the article was incorrect and that it therefore needs to be corrected. However, we also believe that this mistake was not material and did not affect the basic truth of the article.

  • “The police have on several occasions responded to neighbours’ late-night calls for assistance, but on each occasion Wisedale’s father-in-law, senior advocate and occasional acting judge Peter Rowan, has arrived at the scene and persuaded the police that he has the situation in hand and that they need take no action.”

Wisedale says that he showed his disquiet and frustration at the intrusive noise from one of his immediate neighbours on two occasions. He adds that his father-in-law only once visited his house when he was expressing his disquiet (referring to the first incident). “We chatted briefly and that was the end of the matter.”

The panel notes the correspondence from Rowan himself, testifying that he was involved only once.

We have no reason to disbelieve this testimony, which means that the article was incorrect on this point (which should therefore be corrected). However, we are again not persuaded that this affected the fundamental truth of the report.

  • “In addition to Wisedale’s motivational talks, he has written a best-selling book (edited by his friend Mike Greenaway, who has since joined the ranks of his ex-friends because of his violent, threatening behaviour)…”

Wisedale provides this office with correspondence from Greenaway, dated 29 May 2013, that testifies to the opposite. In the absence of evidence from Noseweek to the contrary, the panel accepts that the claim about Wisedale having fallen out with Greenaway is not supported.

The panel believes that, based on the same arguments that we used above, Noseweek was justified in publishing the following sentences that Wisedale also complains about:

  • “Alienated from his neighbours and, allegedly, terrified of intruders, Wisedale lives behind the high walls and locked gate of number 7 Haraldene Rd Glenwood”;
  • “Neighbours say they have yet to meet or exchange a word with his timid wife…”;
  • “Finally, fearing for their own sanity and safety – and that of their children, to whom he makes threatening, throat-slitting gestures when he encounters them in the street – the neighbours, after several secretive meetings, unanimously decided in November to lay formal complaints at the Umbilo police station”;
  • Noseweek has spoken to several of the Glenwood residents. All are professional: they include doctors, advocates, attorneys, architects, psychologists, and a lecturer in photography. All were desperate not to be named in this report, for fear of how Wisedale might respond. We have been persuaded by the circumstances to respect their wishes. Amongst their concerns are the death threats he has hurled at some of them”;
  • “But his neighbours have come to the conclusion that he is a binge drinker and that alcohol triggers his psychotic behaviour”;
  • “One former friend confirms witnessing him involved in bar brawls ‘after a drink or two’. Another recalls how, in the surf, he angrily ran over a friend with his surfboard, yelling ‘next time I’ll fucking slit your throat!’”;
  • “A medical doctor who happened to witness one of his night-yelling episodes, tells Noseweek: ‘I have no doubt he was psychotic. He had lost it completely and was literally raving mad. If I had known he has a small child in that house, I would have been obliged by law to summon the police and demand that they break down the gate, remove him and hold him until he comes to, or receives the necessary psychiatric help’”; and
  • “Detectives at the Umbilo police station have confirmed that they have investigated charges against Sean Wisedale by various of his neighbours, and that the docket has been referred to the NPA for a decision on whether to prosecute or not”.

All of these statements rest on testimonies of witnesses, were in the public interest to report and were largely corroborated by these sources. Some matter of detail may have been incorrect, and some descriptions (like calling his wife timid) may have been overstated, but as a whole these deficiencies are minor and do not affect the thrust of the article

No ‘identification’; corroboration

Wisedale complains that the story did not identify its author, his “neighbours” and the occasions of his alleged misconduct, and adds that the journalist did not corroborate his information, especially not with his direct neighbours.

The magazine was under no obligation to provide these details. The panel is also satisfied that the magazine spoke to enough neighbours to support the report – we certainly do not expect him to have contacted all of Wisedale’s neighbours.

No reasonable right of reply

Wisedale complains that the magazine did not offer him a reasonably right of reply. He disputes that Noseweek contacted him for comment prior to publication, and that a phone call Welz says he made to Wisedale’s wife took place. At the time, Wisedale was out of the country and without cellphone contact. His wife, Katherine, denies that the magazine phoned her. Even if the call was made, Wisedale argues, it did not give him sufficient opportunity to formulate a response, even though the magazine had been working on the story since November 212. He says it only published his version two weeks later.

Noseweek alerts the panel to the fact that he did publish Wisedale’s comments “fairly and accurately” in its next edition.

The panel believes it is possible that Welz did phone Wisedale and that the latter’s wife answered the call (Welz says he is willing to testify under oath that he did speak to Katherine). However, we do not think that Welz did enough to get comment from Wisedale – we have no evidence that he asked her where her husband was and how he could be contacted.

At the same time we note that he did obtain and publish comment from Wisedale after the publication of the first article. However, Noseweek should still have made greater efforts to obtain his comment in the first place.

Welz’s argument that he waited until the very last moment to get comment from Wisedale for fear of what the latter may do to his neighbours does not hold water. The fact of the matter is that he did try to phone him prior to publication, and that he indeed got hold of him later – what difference would a little more time before publication have made in this context?

Audio report looped, repeated

The story referred to an audio recording (of a few minutes) that has been posted on the magazine’s website.

Wisedale complains that the piece had been tampered with in various ways, such as the repetition of some sections, arguing this amounts to falsification of evidence.

Welz accepts that a part of the audio recording was duplicated, but says this was done innocently by the source who supplied the material.

Whether this was done innocently or maliciously, Wisedale confirms that he has sometimes wailed at this neighbours at night. The tape bears this behaviour out, even if it is slightly altered.

The second article

Wisedale complains that this text in the main perpetuated the wrongs of the first article; he also accuses the magazine of running a smear campaign against him.

Noseweek denies any such campaign.

If the magazine was mainly justified in its reportage in the first article, as the panel has decided, it follows that the same should go for the second story.

FINDING

Defamatory, unbalanced, based on untruths and rumour

The complaint with regards to all the issues that Wisedale complains about is dismissed, except for the erroneous statements that said:

  • his child was 18 months old, instead of 11 months;
  • his father-in-law visited him twice when the police were on the scene, instead of once; and
  • there is insufficient evidence that Wisedale has fallen out with Mike Greenaway.

No ‘identification’; corroboration

This part of the complaint is dismissed.

No reasonable right of reply

Noseweek did not give Wisedale a reasonable right of reply. This is in breach of Section 2.5 of the Press Code that states: “A publication shall seek the views of the subject of critical reportage in advance of publication…”

Audio report looped, repeated

This part of the complaint is dismissed.

The second article

This part of the complaint is dismissed.

SANCTION

Noseweek is:

  • reprimanded for not offering Wisedale a reasonable right of reply prior to publication;
  • directed to correct the erroneous statements that Wisedale’s child was 18 months old when the story was published (instead of 11 months), and that his father-in-law visited him twice when the police were on the scene (instead of once); and
  • and asked to withdraw the claim that he fell out with his friend Mike Greenaway.

The magazine is directed to publish the following text:

The office of the Press Ombudsman has reprimanded us for not offering Mr Sean Wisedale, a well-known motivational speaker and adventurer, a reasonable right of reply prior to the publication of an article headlined Another top sportsman loses it (April 2013).

The story was about his behaviour that allegedly disrupted his neighbourhood in the Durban suburb of Glenwood.

The Press Council’s Adjudication Panel has also directed us to correct the erroneous statements that Wisedale’s child was 18 months old when the story was published (instead of 11 months), and that his father-in-law visited him twice at night when the police were on the scene (instead of once); and to withdraw the claim that Wisedale fell out with his friend Mike Greenaway.

The panel dismissed the largest part of the complaint, finding that the magazine had sufficient evidence to support the overall thrust of the article.

Visit www.presscouncil.org.za for the full finding.

End of text

APPEAL

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

Franz Krüger (press representative)

Carol Mohlala (public representative)

Johan Retief (press ombudsman)