Vernon Seymour vs Weekend Argus

Complainant: Vernon Seymour

Lodged by: Vernon Seymour

Article: ‘Sex scandal’ Seymour seeks reinstatement

Author of article: Schroeder

Date: 14 September 2015

Respondent: Fatiema Schroeder, on behalf of the Weekend Argus

Complaint

Seymour is complaining about a story in the Weekend Argus of 13 June 2015, headlined ‘Sex scandal’ Seymour seeks reinstatement.

He complains that the story:

·         falsely stated that he had been banned for life;

·         labelled him as “Sex scandal” Seymour (in the headline);

·         falsely said that he had been seeking reinstatement;

·         failed to point out that:

o   there was a “distinct possibility” that the General Council of Safa would reject the recommendation resulting from disciplinary proceedings; and

o   the matter had already gone through four appeals.

He adds that the newspaper did not ask him for comment.

The text

The story, written by Schroeder, said that Seymour, who had been banned from football for life following a sexual harassment scandal, had turned to the Western Cape High Court in a bid to return to the sport. Safa, in turn, asked the court to dismiss the case as internal processes were available to resolve the issue.

Schroeder reported, “Seymour was banned after being found guilty of sexually harassing a female intern at Safa offices in November 2013, allegations he has denied.” Seymour reportedly said the fact that he had resigned meant that he was no longer subject to Safa’s jurisdiction.

The complaint in more detail

Seymour complains it appears that the journalist compiled the report based on court papers relating to a review application he had filed. “She was therefore in possession of all the papers and could quite easily have compiled a truthful article but chose not to [do so].”

He explains that a disciplinary committee has recommended that he be banned for life, but stresses that no such decision has been taken yet.

Seymour argues there is a distinct possibility that, should the matter be tabled before general council for approval, it would be rejected because he had won every single appeal – documentation to which Schroeder had access, “yet her article creates the impression that I resigned without participating in any disciplinary proceedings”.

He states that the following sentence was unbalanced: “Internally, Seymour had three options open to him – appealing to the national appeals board, referring the dispute to the Safa arbitration tribunal, and appealing to the court of arbitration for sport in Lausanne, Switzerland.”

Seymour concludes, “The selective extracts from court documents will leave anyone who reads her article, with the impression that this ‘Sex Scandal’ guy is guilty and is clutching at straws. This is what the article of Fatima Schroeder sets out to achieve.”

The newspaper’s response

Background

Schroeder says that, on 12 June 2015 (the day before the story was published), an application came before the Western Cape High Court. The matter was postponed to 10 September 2015. Her article was based entirely on the papers before the court on that day.

She says the court case involved an application brought by:

·         Seymour on 1 April 2015 against 22 respondents to:

o   review, correct or set aside an arbitration award made by Advocate Nassir Cassim SC on 28 September 2014;

o   review, correct or set aside the ruling of the chairman of Safa on 29 October 2014;

o   declare the decisions of Safa’s Cape Town Regional Appeal Board made on 1 July 2014 to be in force and the final determination of disciplinary matters against him; and

·         Safa against Seymour on 25 May 2015, as an interlocutory application in his application, for the application brought by Seymour to be dismissed, alternatively stayed.

After sketching the background to the case, the journalist says Seymour was found guilty and a life ban from Safa was recommended. This decision, she says, was taken on arbitration before Advocate Cassim SC, who confirmed the verdict.

“Following the arbitration award made by Advocate Cassim, a second disciplinary process followed and it was recommended that Seymour be banned for life from all football associated activities.”

Response to complaint

Schroeder denies that the headline unfairly branded Seymour, as it used inverted commas around the words “sex scandal” (which, she says, placed the truth of the phrase in doubt, and also suggested that it had been previously used in the Seymour case). “[It] merely refers to the fact that it relates to the sex scandal that involves Seymour who seeks some form of reinstatement.”

Regarding the recommended banning, the journalist says:

·         an internal disciplinary tribunal is similar to a court of law, but it is often chaired by an independent professional who is not the employer;

·         in the Seymour case the process was thus outsourced to Advocate Brendan Joseph, who  found him guilty and recommended a life ban;

·         the matter went to an arbitrator (Advocate Nassir Cassim SC), who endorsed Joseph’s finding;

·         in the Safa Cape Town charge sheet dated 7 October 2014, the decision by Cassim is summarised as follows: “Ultimately, Accused One [Seymour] was found guilty and banned from all football activity”;

·         a letter dated 29 November 2014 from Safa Cape Town to clubs in Cape Town states: “As you know Seymour has been banned for life from all football activity in terms of the arbitration award…”;

·         paragraph 19 of the founding affidavit in Safa’s application states: “A ban for life on his affiliation with SAFA, as recommended by the third respondent, the presiding officer in the SAFA Cape Town Disciplinary Hearing, was confirmed by the arbitrator, Adv Nassir Cassim SC…”; and

·         on 10 October 2014 Kickoff Magazine reported, “Vice-president of Safa Cape Town Vernon Seymour has been banned from football for life after being found guilty of sexual harassment.”

She concludes, “I therefore submit that my use of the words in the article was correct and justified and the court papers are replete with the mention thereof.”

With regard to the complaint that Safa’s general council may reject Cassim’s finding, she says, “[it]would appear that…Seymour wishes me to decide on the merits of the matter which is pending before the court as well as [to]anticipate what other people may do in future. Such action would not only be reckless on my part, but also in contempt of court.”

Regarding the complaint about the sentence stating that Seymour had “three options open to him”, Schroeder says that she presented first Seymour’s and then Safa’s case. The sentence in dispute was “a direct quote from paragraph 8 of the SAFA founding affidavit”.

The journalist also attests that Seymour did seek reinstatement. She notes that the first paragraph of the article said that Seymour “has turned to the Western Cape High Court in his bid to return to the sport”. She argues, “The article makes it clear that Seymour is trying to have the life ban reversed. That is nothing other than a reinstatement. Whilst many words may be used to describe Seymour’s application, if he succeeds with the court case, the status quo as at 2 November 2013 (before Seymour was suspended) would prevail.”

Schroeder’s conclusion

The journalist says the story was a fair and balanced reflection of court papers and did not venture outside the case facts as they are contained in the court papers. The article also summarised the arguments on both sides.

“Seymour seems to imply that it was my duty to venture beyond the case and provide an interpretation and weighing of the evidence. That would have been reckless and unlawful. The article is accordingly covered by qualified privilege and gives a fair reflection of what served before the court, without commenting on the merits.”

Analysis

Banned for life

The introductory sentence to the story stated that Seymour, “who was banned from football for life following a sexual harassment scandal, has turned to the Western Cape High Court in his bid to return to the sport”. (My emphasis.)

Seymour complains that this statement was false.

At the meeting, both parties explained the chain of events which this matter followed – from a ruling by Joseph on 2 May 2014 against Seymour, to several rulings by appeals boards in his favour (these were mainly not about the merits of the case, but rather about Joseph’s jurisdiction to hear the matter in the first place).

Everybody concerned should note that it is not my task to establish if Joseph had the jurisdiction to hear the case presented by the disciplinary council of Safa Cape Town, or if the outcomes of the appeals boards’ decisions were correct or not. This office is not a court of law – I am merely interested in, and mandated to adjudicate, if the newspaper was justified and fair in its reporting on this matter.

Louw referred me to the latest decision on this matter, namely the arbitration finding by Cassim, dated 26 September 2014. Sections 22 and 23 of his “Orders” read: “[Mr] Seymour is found guilty of serious misconduct namely sexual harassment, breaching the terms of his suspension and of falsely accusing Safa Cape Town General Secretary of lying. A life ban on Mr Seymour’s affiliation with the association as recommended by the disciplinary chairman is appropriate.”

Seymour then pointed out that there were recommendations to have him banned for life, but argued that a recommendation was not a decision, and stated that the recommendation should first have been accepted by Safa Cape Town before it came into effect – which, he said, never happened.

While Louw did not dispute this, and also could not provide any evidence that Safa Cape Town did accept the recommendation, he referred me to a letter by General Secretary Nomonde Dlakana of Safa Cape Town, dated 20 November 2014 (two months after Seymour had resigned). This documentation was addressed to the South Peninsula Local Football Association, dedicated to the attention of all South Peninsula clubs, and cc-ed to all Safa Cape Town regional executive committee members and to all local Football Associations.

The documentation was headlined, Vernon Seymour continued involvement in Safa Cape Town and South Peninsula LFA affairs.

In this letter, Dlakana stated that Seymour “had been banned from all football activity in terms of both a SAFA arbitration award issued by an independent senior council (Adv N Cassim SC), and a recent SAFA National Disciplinary Committee decision. Both decisions are valid and legally binding until set aside in accordance with SAFA processes.”

I am mindful of the fact that the matter is presently before the Cape Town High Court, and that I cannot – and indeed should not – make a decision on the merits of the case. My only concern is if the journalist, at the time of publication, was justified in her reportage.

Given Dlakana’s quite explicit statement, as quoted above, there is no way that I can find that Schroeder was not justified to state that Seymour had been banned for life – if the General Secretary made such a statement, surely the journalist should not be held responsible for reporting it, even if it may later prove to have been false. Schroeder is a reporter, not a fortune-teller.

Headline: ‘Sex Scandal’ Seymour

The introductory sentence to the story stated that Seymour, “who was banned from football for life following a sexual harassment scandal, has turned to the Western Cape High Court in his bid to return to the sport”. (My emphasis.)

The headline read, ‘Sex scandal’ Seymour seeks reinstatement.

He argued that the headline had been unfair, and objected to his name having been linked to a “sex scandal”.

Louw argued the opposite. He said that Seymour had been involved in a sex scandal – whether there was any truth to the allegation or not.

Let me quote Cassim again: “[Mr] Seymour is found guilty of serious misconduct namely sexual harassment…”

Given that statement, the newspaper was justified to state it. Again, Weekend Argus did not make the news, it merely reported it.

I can fully understand Seymour’s objection in this regard, as it deeply affects him and his family. But again, that was not of the newspaper’s making.

Seeking reinstatement

The introductory sentence to the story stated that Seymour, “who was banned from football for life following a sexual harassment scandal, has turned to the Western Cape High Court in his bid to return to the sport”. (My emphasis.)

Seymour denies this, arguing at the meeting that he never stated in any documentation that he had been seeking reinstatement.

The question arose what Seymour actually had resigned of.

In his letter of resignation he stated that he had been resigning from Safa Cape Town.

While this was a general statement, I note that Seymour, in his affidavit dated 24 March 2015, stated: “I was a member of SAFA Cape Town up until 23rd September 2014 when I tendered my resignation as a member. At the time of my resignation I held the office of Vide-President of the organisation. After my resignation as a member I also stepped down from the position of President of the South Peninsula Local Football Association, which was an affiliate member of SAFA Cape Town.”

Clearly, he resigned both as vice-president and as a member.

The question then arose why did Seymour went to court if he did not seek re-instatement.

He argued that he only wanted to clear his name; Louw stated that that might have been part of the reason, but also argued that his application to the High Court had indicated that he in fact wanted to be reinstated.

Be that as it may, I take into account that Seymour emphatically stated that he had had enough of the “murky” actions against him which had lasted for 15 months, that the matter had become personal, and that he did not want to have anything to do with Safa anymore.

However, in her letter to the South Peninsula Local Football Association, Dlakana stated that, as recently as 19 November 2014, Seymour had e-mailed all the clubs to lobby support for his preferred presidential candidate.

I have some doubt on this issue. I should not second-guess Seymour, and it is difficult for me to decide what his intentions were of going to court.

On the other hand, I have no reason to disbelieve Dlakana’s statement that Seymour had sent the e-mails referred to above. In that case, I find it hard to believe that he wanted a clean break with the sport, as he so categorically stated at the meeting, while still “interfering” with Safa Cape Town matters.

This sways me to give the benefit of the doubt to the journalist.

Good chance of success

Seymour complains that the newspaper failed to point out that there was a distinct possibility that the General Council of Safa would reject the recommendation of disciplinary proceedings.

I said at the meeting that the newspaper should work with facts and that it could not be expected to be a fortune-teller. Seymour accepted my assertion and withdrew his complaint on this particular issue.

Not asked for comment

Seymour complains that the newspaper did not ask him for comment.

At the meeting I explained to him that a journalist is not supposed to ask a subject for comment if he or she is reporting on an onging court case. The reason for this, of course, is that such reportage may influence court proceedings.

He indicated that he understood that, but also argued that the Weekend Argus should at least have pointed out that the recommendation that he be suspended for life had to be adopted by Safa Cape Town – and that the latter had not done so yet. “All I am asking for is fair reporting,” he said.

Which is exactly what he got.

General comment

The newspaper was justified in its reportage, even if the High Court at a later stage may find for Seymour and overturn Cassim’s ruling – Schroeder merely reported the facts which were relevant at the time of publication. Besides, she also stated that the matter was before the Court, which implied that Cassim’s finding could still have been overturned.

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 Appeals 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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