The South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) is appealing against last month’s Broadcasting Complaints Commission of South Africa’s (BCCSA) ruling in a matter concerning the broadcaster, the Mail & Guardian newspaper and investigative journalist Sam Sole.
The broadcaster was instructed to air a statement summarising the ruling on prime-time television, “on or before Wednesday March 30 2011”, after the BCCSA found the SABC failed to give the newspaper adequate right of reply to a news bulletin that alleged corruption and racism on the part of M&G reporter Sole.
On the November 3 2010 7pm news bulletin, SABC3 aired an insert in which businessman Robert Gumede claimed that Sole — while an employee of investigative magazine noseweek in 2001 — received corrupt payments from Gumede’s former business partner, John Sterenborg. Gumede said this had influenced Sole’s subsequent coverage of him in the M&G.
The insert failed to include the M&G‘s explanation that “the payment” concerned Sterenborg’s reimbursement to Sole of R900 for an air ticket. This followed an arrangement with Sole’s then-editor, Martin Welz, that Sterenborg would pay for Sole’s travel to Johannesburg for an interview with Sterenborg. Sole paid for the flight himself and Sterenborg then reimbursed him. No story resulted from this interview.
The only reference to the M&G‘s response was in the form of two incorrectly paraphrased sentences read by the reporter at the end of the insert, “The Mail & Guardian rejected the bribe allegation, saying the R900 payment was for an air ticket. The newspaper says Sole repaid the amount to Sterenborg.” Most of the two-and-a-half minute news report was dedicated to Gumede’s allegations.
M&G editor Nic Dawes at the time was contacted for comment on Gumede’s press release about allegations, which he had not seen, an hour and a half before the news broadcast was due to begin.Although the M&G was told the SABC would wait for its formal statement, this was not done.
The BCCSA, in its judgement, said the M&G response was reported “in such a way that it is open to conjecture as to what exactly transpired … The newspaper’s reply, as summarised by the SABC itself was, accordingly, fundamentally flawed.”
The ruling was not broadcast as directed, and when asked last week on what grounds the broadcaster was appealing the ruling, SABC spokesperson Kaizer Kganyago said, “The matter is on appeal,” and refused to give any further comment. The M&G has since received copies of the appeal, which was lodged with the BCCSA by the broadcaster on March 31.
The broadcaster, in its appeal papers, said, among other things, it believed that the BCCSA’s ruling “is not fully within the jurisdiction of the BCCSA” because the commission “has no factual evidence to substantiate its statements that, ‘The fact is that Mr Sole did not receive a bribe’ and ‘Mr Sole had merely been reimbursed for an air ticket that he had purchased in order to interview a potential news source.’
“This is an allegation that has been put forth to the media tribunal of appeal and thorough investigation would be needed to prove that Mr Sam Sole did or did not receive a bribe.
“We would argue that a decision on whether such allegations were factual or not is the terrain of the courts in a civil or criminal case, and that the tribunal exceeded its authority by pronouncing on this. By extension, we also submit that the ruling to make a statement on air about the facts of the allegation is unfair and incorrect.”
The M&G, in papers in reponse to this, said there was no basis to suggest that the tribunal “ought not to have made any rulings on the facts”.
‘In good faith’
The broadcaster also maintained that the news broadcast of November last year “was done in good faith and a right of reply was afforded to Mr Sam Sole … The SABC believed that Mr Dawes, as the editor and accountable person of the Mail & Guardian, was speaking for both the publication and its staff.”
Said M&G editor Dawes of the SABC appeal: “As far as I can tell from their appeal papers they [SABC] are simply repeating their claim that the Mail & Guardian was given adequate right of reply in the original broadcast. Saying this again, with added emphasis, does not make it right, and I can’t see it gaining any more traction in the appeals process than it did at the original hearing. The SABC erred wilfully, and very seriously. They simply need to make that right.”
The SABC also argued that the “crux of the news item was to address and highlight the allegations of bribery that are being put forth to the media appeals tribunal”. The M&G, in its papers, said: “This characterisation of the ‘crux of the news item’ is incorrect. Mr Gumede’s unfounded allegations of bribery were never put forth to the media appeals tribunal. The media appeals tribunal did not exist at the time of the report and does not exist now.”
Asked what the broadcaster’s appeal meant for the newspaper and the BCCSA ruling, Dawes said: “We are disappointed that the SABC felt it necessary to appeal. In my view the ruling was an opportunity for them to review their newsroom practices, and correct what was a very serious error. It is of course their right to appeal, but in my view it will simply delay the rectification of a very serious breach of journalistic ethics.”