Theo Pillay vs The Rising Sun

Compliant: Theo Pillay

Lodged by: Theo Pillay

Article: Institute for learning or money-making entity?

Author of article: 

Date: 25 April 2012

Respondent: The Rising Sun

Complaint

Mr Theo Pillay complains about a story in The Rising Sun, published in the edition of 21 – 27 September 2011 and headlined Institute for learning or money-making entity?

Pillay complains that the:
  • newspaper did not contact him for comment prior to publication; and
  • story is misleading and defamatory of him.
Analysis

The story says that the Woodview Secondary principal (Mr C. Persadh) and an ex-School Governing Body (SGB) member (Pillay) are “in hot water”. This was reportedly because the latter constructed an unauthorized and illegal temple at the school. This activity was said to be “dangerous” as Pillay was operating while children were schooling. The story quotes several people, including a parent, who were all opposed to the construction.

I shall now look at the merits of the complaint:

Not contacted for comment

Pillay complains that the newspaper did not contact him for comment prior to publication.

In later correspondence he adds that The Rising Sun:

  • did not only ignore him, but also other important stakeholders like the school, educators, the SGB and the principal (“who is the manager responsible”) – instead, the newspaper chose to obtain unreliable information from “individuals” of the community; and
  • ignored the minutes, authorization and the part he played in the matter.

He concludes: “It shows deliberate mischievous tactics from The Rising Sun…”

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

I note that the story was indeed written from one perspective and one perspective only, namely from those people who criticized and opposed the construction at the school.

It was, of course, the newspaper’s duty to portray this specific perspective. However, it was likewise the publication’s duty to reflect the other side of the story – of which there is unfortunately no trace.

The newspaper should have, but did not ask Pillay for his comment. After I have spoken to Persadh I am convinced that the story would have been different had the journalist contacted either the principal or Pillay. I’ll come back to this point.

Misleading, defamatory

Amongst other statements, the story says that:

  • Pillay broke down part of a government structure at the school for private usage by his organization (the article does not clarify what this organization is, but it does mention that a “temple” was being constructed there), and that he is in “hot water” for doing that;
  • officials from the department of education had to “urgently intervene” because Pillay broke down the structure;
  • this construction was “illegal” and “unauthorized”; and
  • the department was “unaware” of the construction.

Pillay complains that the story misled the public and that it defamed his character. Although he does not spell it out, I presume that he has the above-mentioned bullets it mind.

The Rising Sun replies that all the information in the story was sourced and accurate – and was sustained by Mr Moonsamy, the Circuit Manager of the Phoenix Schools District Office. The newspaper argues that unless the school’s governing body has been granted permission for the construction, it cannot make alterations to existing school property. It says that the only body that can do alterations is the Provincial Department of Education in consultation with the SGB. “If the above is not followed accordingly, it is considered illegal.”

The newspaper also asks why the construction was brought to a halt if the correct procedures were followed.

Persadh explained to me (telephonically, on 20 April 2012) that the school did inform the Department of Public Works in Durban about the intended construction (on 22 July 2011 – I have this document in my possession). He said that he needed to get written permission from the department, but he admitted that by the time the construction started, he had not received that permission yet. The process of obtaining this permission, however, was already underway. He added that the school did in the meantime get the necessary permission and that the building had already been completed.

Pillay also provided me with an official school letter, dated 19 July 2011, in which it appealed to a sponsor for money to fund the project.

These are my considerations: Firstly, this means that the use of the word “illegal” (structure) is technically correct – no written permission was received at the time of construction and the starting with the work was therefore premature. The newspaper cannot be faulted for that.

However, the neglect on the newspaper’s part to contact Pillay and/or the principal, led to a one-sided, unbalanced story in that it did not provide the correct context that would have put the matter in a different and, less sensational, perspective.

For example, the story:
  • does not reflect that the right procedures were set in motion in that the school made the department aware of its intentions;
  • insinuates that Pillay broke down part of a government structure “for private usage by his organization”, which creates the impression that he acted on his own behalf or for his own benefit – while the initiative came from the school itself; and
  • probably correctly states that the department was “unaware” that construction had begun – but it neglects to mention that the department was very much aware of the school’s intention to this effect.

Therefore, while the text may be correct (Pillay being in “hot water”, he broke down a government structure at school, the construction being illegal, etc.), the proper context was missing as the story did not reflect that the right procedures were set in motion, that the school was awaiting official approval, and that Pillay operated on the school’s instructions.

Finding

Not contacted for comment

The newspaper neglected to ask Pillay for comment prior to publication. This is in breach of the Art. 1.5 of the Press Code that says: “A publication should usually seek the views of the subject of serious critical reportage in advance of publication…”

Misleading, defamatory

The neglect to ask Pillay and the school for comment led to the lack of the proper context (mainly in that the story does not say that the right procedures were set in motion and that the department knew about the school’s intention, that the school therefore awaited official approval, and that Pillay did not act on his own behalf or for his own benefit). This is in breach of Art. 1.2 of the Press Code that states: “News shall be presented in context…”

Sanction
The Rising Sun is reprimanded for not:
  • asking Pillay for comment prior to publication; and
  • setting the story in its proper context.
The newspaper is directed to:
  • do a follow-up story in which Pillay’s views are portrayed if indeed he wishes to do so – if not, the follow-up story should portray the correct context as outlined above;
  • publish a summary of this finding and the sanction in an appropriately prominent manner as part of that follow-up article;
  • furnish our office with the text prior to publication; and
  • add to the text: “Visit www.presscouncil.org.za (rulings, 2012) for the full finding.”
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