/ 2 March 2011

Sterenborg vs SABC

The SABC has been reprimanded for contravening the broadcasting code regarding an interview with businessman John Sterenborg in November 2010.

The South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) has been reprimanded for contravening the broadcasting code regarding an interview conducted by the broadcaster with businessman John Sterenborg in November 2010.

The SABC aired an interview with Sterenborg’s former business partner, Robert Gumede, in a 7pm news bulletin on November 3 2010. In the interview, Gumede accused Mail & Guardian investigative reporter Sam Sole of corruption. He alleged Sole was paid R900 by Sterenborg to publish damaging allegations of corruption against Gumede.

Sterenborg brought the SABC before the Broadcasting Complaints Commission of South Africa (BCCSA) saying, “[The] SABC completely failed to verify Robert Gumede’s allegations independently, prior to broadcasting … “

Among his complaints, Sterenborg says he was not given the right to reply following the Gumede interview as he had requested.

On November 19, SABC journalist Thami Dickson conducted and recorded an interview with Sterenborg.

Dickson is said to have confirmed that the interview with Sterenborg would be aired on that evening’s news bulletin.

However, he later communicated with Sterenborg that owing to a “technical problem” the recorded interview would not be aired, but would be read out.

It was later revealed that it was a “management decision” not to air the recorded interview.

‘No further need’
In response to Sterenborg’s complaints to the BCCSA, the SABC said “There is only one principal issue in question in the original TV news report — and that relates to the allegation by Mr Robert Gumede that the Mail & Guardian journalist Sam Sole had been paid a bribe by the complainant, Mr John Sterenborg. This was in the essence of the story and the rest of our response to the allegations in the complaint will hinge on this basic element of the story.”

The SABC said that once it had approached M&G editor Nic Dawes for comment on the November 3 interview with Gumede, who denied the allegations of bribery, “there was deemed to be no further need to approach any other parties mentioned in the story regarding the allegation of bribery, as it had effectively been denied …”

The SABC says it read the following as Sterenborg’s response on the November 19 bulletin: “The London-based businessman John Sterenborg, accused of bribing Mail & Guardian newspaper journalist, has dismissed the allegations as preposterous. Sterenborg was accused by his business adversary Robert Gumede of bribing the reporter to write damaging stories about him. The two businessmen were partners but bitterly fell out following the liquidation of their business venture. Sterenborg admits to paying the journalist’s flight ticket worth R900. But he insists that the money was not a bribe because he paid it back.”

However, according to a transcript presented to the BCCSA by Sterenborg, when he was asked, “What about the R900 bribe?”, he replied: “I did reimburse the flight ticket at a time when noseweek [whom Sole worked for at the time] was short of funds. It is obviously preposterous to label that payment, by cheque, as a bribe and everyone who has read the facts will agree so.”

“Mr Sterenborg used the word ‘reimburse’, which the SABC paraphrases … as ‘paying’. There is a difference in meaning between the two words and misunderstandings could have arisen from this.”

Another problem the BCCSA found with the paragraph read by the SABC as Sterenborg’s response was that, “The wording in the SABC report is ambiguous and unclear: in the final sentence, the phrase ‘he paid it back’ is used. While this may be interpreted as reimbursement, it is not clear who exactly the pronoun ‘he’ refers to, or to whom the money was being paid back”.

The broadcaster said that in giving Sterenborg a right to reply it had met its obligations and believed there had been no contravention of the code.

The BCCSA said, “We believe the SABC tried to deceive Sterenborg in their communications with him.

“Since the reputations of persons are at stake in this case, the broadcaster should have taken every care to ensure that facts were presented clearly and accurately. Mr Sterenborg’s objection to the way in which his rebuttal was broadcast is justified. People have the right to dignity, and once a reputation is sullied, it is extremely difficult to restore it.

“In the result the broadcasting code has not been complied with and the complaint is upheld. The broadcaster is reprimanded for the ambiguity in its reporting of the reply.”

Seeking an apology
Meanwhile the M&G has also taken the SABC to the BCCSA on the same issue.

Last month, advocate Matthew Chaskalson, acting for the paper, argued that “the broadcaster did not report accurately on certain facts of the matter; did not give the M&G sufficient time to respond to the allegations before running its story; did not approach Sole, the primary target of the allegations, for comment”.

The M&G is seeking an apology from the broadcaster to be aired at the same time-slot as the original story with Gumede, with the same prominence.

Dawes said he was looking forward to the BCCSA’s finalisation of “our complaint about the same story, which traverses very similar ground”.