SA Post Office vs MyBroadband

Complaint 4337

 Complainants: Mr Bongani Diako and Mr Johan Kruger for the SA Post Office
Publication: MyBroadband

Date of publication: 14 March 2019

Headline: The SA Post Office is truly delusional

Page: online publication

Online: yes

Author: Kevin Lancaster

Respondent: Kevin Lancaster for MyBroadband

Particulars

This ruling is based on a written complaint from Mr Bongani Diako of the SA Post Office and a written response from Mr Kevin Lancaster, an editor and journalist from MyBroadband, as well as interviews with both Mr Lancaster and Mr Diako.

Complaint

Mr Diako, representing the SA Post Office, complains that an article published in the online publication, MyBroadband, under the heading “Post Office truly delusional”, transgressed three sections of the Press Code:

  • 8: “The media shall seek the views of the subject of critical reportage in advance of publication; provided that this need not be done where the institution has reasonable grounds for believing that by doing so it would be prevented from reporting; where evidence might be destroyed or sources intimidated; or because it would be impractical to do so in the circumstances of the publication. Reasonable time should be afforded the subject for a response. If the media are unable to obtain such a comment, this shall be reported.”
  • 1: Headlines and captions to pictures shall give a reasonable reflection of the contents of the report or picture in question.
  • 2 Posters shall not mislead the public and shall give a reasonable reflection of the content of the reports in question”

The Post Office claims it was not contacted by MyBroadband for comment on this story. It also says the content of the story – which focuses mainly on whether e-commerce businesses would use the Post Office – does not justify the headline.

The Post Office complains, too, about the image used in the article, which it says “appears to be an old-era home mail box” that does not reflect the Post Office’s new brand identity.

  1. The text
  • Under the headline, “The SA Post Office is truly delusional”, MyBroadband, an online publication that covers mainly broadcasting, telecommunications, e-commerce, IT, and science stories, ran an article about the Post Office wanting to become “the preferred delivery partner of South African online shops.”
  • The introduction to the story stated that to do this it was “investigating drone deliveries of packages.”
  • It cited an interview in Moneyweb with SAPO CEO,Mark Barnes as its source for this information. It reported that the Post Office would launch an “ecommerce platform in April 2019, investing in the organisations’ infrastructure and working with ‘local and international online retail players.’”
  • This move would constitute a big revenue stream for the Post Office, the report quoted Moneyweb as saying.
  • Its third paragraph read as follows: “While SAPO’s plan may sound promising, there’s one big problem: the organization must be delusional if they think South African ecommerce stores will even consider using them.”
  • Under the sub-head: “No way Post Office”, the article reports that the Post Office (SAPO) has a “bad reputation”. The publication had received “scores of complaints” from readers who say their letters and parcels “often never arrive.” This included parcels ordered over the internet.
  • MyBroadband then referred to previous articles it had run where it had tracked the amount of time letters took to be delivered from Pretoria to Durban – some took over three weeks.
  • It pointed out that good and reliable delivery services are a crucial part of e-commerce businesses, so much so that some of the leading ecommerce companies, such as Takealot.com, had invested in its own courier service.
  • It also mentions that even this is not foolproof and cited the case of Makro, which “has set out to improve its service delivery.”
  • Under a second sub-head, “We won’t use them”, the article reports that ecommerce businesses it had spoken to said they “have no plans whatsoever to use SAPO for deliveries.”
  • One, Rebel Tech, is quoted as saying: “At this stage we would not use the Post Office for any deliveries. The lack of service and the outright ‘don’t care attitude; from tellers and telephone staff has completely ruined the Post Office as an option for us.”
  • The other, Wootware, is quoted as saying: “We aren’t considering using the Post Office for deliveries to our customers. We’re happy with the service of the courier partners that we use and can’t see any clear benefit to switching the Post Office (sic) for deliveries to our customers. We’re happy with the service of the courier partners that we use and can’t see any clear benefit to switching the Post Office for our customer deliveries.” (sic)
  • Another three, Raru, Loot and Parcelninja also said they had no plans to use the Post Office. Loot cited “the prohibitive costs involved and below-par customer experience”.
  • It did, however, add that “a small volume of orders, based on customer demand, go through Speed Services Couriers – an independent division of the Post Office – for counter-to-counter deliveries, and the customer experience has been good.”
  • The article concludes: “This feedback is in line with what industry players have previously told MyBroadband: with customer satisfaction and market share on the line, using the SA Post Office is a big risk to their business.”
  1. The arguments
  • The Post Office argues that the headline of the story, “Post Office is truly delusional”, as well as the sub-head (cross-head) “No way Post Office” is “misleading and in violation of Section 10.1 of the Code “in that it does not accurately reflect the story’s contents.”
  • The four online retailers who have been quoted in the piece do not say anything that reflects this headline, nor the sub-head “No way Post Office.”
  • Mr Bongani Diako, on behalf of the Post Office, also complains that the image used “appears to be of an old-era home mail box that does not form part of the Post Office brand identity artefacts that are viewable and accessible on the SAPO website (and MyBroadband has itself used in the past)”.
  • Mr Diako has also provided this office, with several previous stories about the Post Office going back to 20 February 2018.
  • Although these are outside the timelines of articles that may be complained about, he has provided them, he writes, to show they “contain similar violations” of the Press Code.
  • In his written response, Mr Kevin Lancaster of MyBroadband writes it is “simply not true” that the publication did not “seek the views of SAPO in its reportage.”
  • MyBroadband has made multiple attempts to contact SAPO for comment and feedback for inclusion in the articles the company listed [the list of previous articles SAPO has provided]. We have emailed SAPO spokespeople, its CEO Mark Barnes, and website administrator staff in an attempt to obtain comment for the articles in question.”
  • Mr Lancaster lists those in the Post Office to whom MyBroadband has sent emails. These are:
  • Bongani Diako
  • Johan Kruger
  • Mark Barnes
  • Mr Lancaster added: “My Broadband also called SAPO spokespeople and even tried to call the SAPO contact centre in a bid to obtain comment or additionally contact information for staff members who could provide feedback, but we were unsuccessful. Unfortunately, the SAPO spokespeople and its CEO Mark Barnes opted not to respond to our emails and calls to the SAPO and its spokespeople were not answered.”
  • Mr Lancaster says the first time MyBroadband became aware that SAPO was taking issue with its reporting is this current complaint before the Press Ombudsman.
  • We would have gladly included comment from SAPO and offered it a right of reply to any article we have written, if it was submitted to us.”
  • He adds MyBroadband has a “long track record of excellent journalism” and it was always asked for feedback from companies it is reporting on, and with whom it has “strong editorial relationships”.
  • He says the publication has tried to open a line of communication with the Post Office but has been unsuccessful.
  • On the issue of the headline: he argues it is an accurate reflection of the article reflecting the sentiments of the ecommerce industry. All of those interviewed “told us they will never use the Post Office for deliveries as it holds too much risk for them.”
  • He adds that some even indicated that SAPO is “delusional” and in “the stone age” when it comes to ecommerce.
  • On the headline: he says this reflected the feedback from industry players “perfectly”.
  • On the image: he explains that it was a “stock image” of a post box, upon which it placed a SA Post Office logo. It was simply intended to show the article was about the Post Office.
  • This is a common technique in the illustration of MyBroadband stories – it puts the logos of companies on images of objects which indicate the industry they are in, such as the logos of cellphone companies on cellphones.
  1. Further arguments
  • In response, Mr Johan Kruger, writing on behalf of Mr Diako, made the following points:
  • Neither of them have any record of any written request for comment (email, SMS text or WhatsApp message) relating to the article that is the subject of complaint.
  • Neither the Post Office CEO, nor the Contact Centre listed on the website can be construed as “the first line of contact in relation to media inquiries.”
  • In relation to the headline, none of the quotes elicited from online retailers bore a relationship to the headline.
  • Some of these quotes included the following:
  • At this stage we would not use the Post Office for any deliveries. The lack of service and the outright ‘don’t care attitude’ from tellers and telephone staff has completely ruined the Post Office as an option for us,” said Rebel Tech. 
  • “We aren’t considering using the Post Office for deliveries to our customers. We’re happy with the service of the courier partners that we use and can’t see any clear benefit to switching the Post Office for our customer deliveries.” ()
  • “There are no plans to use the traditional SA Post Office service based on the prohibitive costs involved and below-par customer experience.” (Loot.)  It added that a small volume of orders, based on customer demand, go through Speed Services Couriers – an independent division of the Post Office – for counter-to-counter deliveries, and the customer experience has been good.
  • It does not use the Post Office and has no plans to do so. The company uses courier services to send packages, based on its previous experiences in the market. (Parcelninja)
  • On the image: Mr Kruger said MyBroadband has used the correct Post Office image in previous articles. (“It cannot be correct and in line with the spirit of the fair and accurate news reporting that a web stock-image of a rusted United States farm post box…can be accepted to be an accurate reflection of the SA Post Office.”)
  1. Analysis
  • MyBroadband is a small publication, consisting of a staff of three, according to writer/editor Kevin Lancaster.
  • It has covered the Post Office in some detail in the past, doing some innovative stories such as tracking how long letters take to arrive from one city to another and comparing the actual times with the guidelines the Post Office puts on its website
  • Its reporting showed that the quickest delivery was 19 days, although the Post Office guidelines stipulated four days between cities in different provinces (published on 26/2/19;3/9/2018; 8/10/2018)
  • In a follow-up article, it reported that one letter took 81 days to arrive at its destination, 48km from the postal point . “Slower than the Roman Empire’s delivery service 2000 years ago”, it reported in a sub-head (24/10/18)
  • It also tested the responsiveness of customer services in relation to slow delivery of letters, sending an email to the customer services address on the Post Office website every morning for two weeks. It did not receive “a single reply”, it reported (1/9/2018)
  • The Post Office has used this trail of stories as evidence to show bad faith and previous violations. However these cannot be the subject of adjudication.
  • What they do show, however, is that MyBroadband has focused on the performance of the Post Office as a key element in the success or otherwise of emerging ecommerce businesses and has undertaken reporting that goes beyond opinion to do this.

I looked at each of the three complaints in some detail:

4.1 Right of reply

  • Mr Lancaster, in an interview with me, complains that the Post Office “never” answers emails.
  • He says reporters have tried to contact Mark Barnes, the CEO, by phone and email to no avail.
  • These emails have been copied to the communications team, Mr Kruger and Mr Diako. “But it seems like we are ignored.”
  • The problem is he has no record of asking for comment on the particular article in question.
  • The Post Office’s Mr Diako insists that there is no record of a text or WhatsApp message or an email in connection with this article. “I admit that sometimes things could have fallen through the cracks but we’ve dealt with MyBroadband before and it is improbable that we would not respond to their queries.”
  • Mr Lancaster’s frustration with the Post Office may be understandable. He has provided me with several emails that show the publication has tried to contact the Post Office for many of the stories enumerated above.
  • The last email sent was on 17/4/2019 about the Post Office website being down.
  • He says the Post Office has not replied to these emails.
  • However, there is no record of an email to the Post Office for the article in question.
  • Notwithstanding the apparent lack of response to other queries, it does not exonerate a publication from the responsibility of trying to elicit a response from an institution it is reporting on for every article where it does so.
  • It appears, from previous articles, that when MyBroadband has quoted Mr Barnes or the Post Office, it is usually from other publications or from radio interviews or from formal Post Office statements.
  • From the above, it appears that a professional communications relationship between MyBroadband and the Post Office is weak.
  • I cannot blame either party for this: both need to take some responsibility.
  • From my own experience, the Post Office communications team were tardy in replying to a request for a telephone conversation. I wrote to Mr Diako on the 25/4/19 and to Mr Kruger and Mr Barnes on the 26/4/19 but received a reply only on the 29/4/19.
  • Mr Diako and I eventually spoke on the 29/4/19.
  • For a publication with deadlines, this kind of delay can be very frustrating.
  • However, the Press Code clearly states that if a comment is not forthcoming from the subject of critical reportage, this should be stated.
  • The fact that it was not in this article indicates that no comment was sought.
  • Notwithstanding the history, this is not acceptable in terms of the Press Code.

4.2 Headline and image

  • Headline
  • I asked Mr Lancaster where the headline on the story, “The SA Post Office is truly delusional” came from.
  • It is not reflected in any of the quotes, nor even in the reported speech of the article in question.
  • In his written response, Mr Lancaster says the headline “reflects the sentiment of the market. All the ecommerce players we spoke to told us they will never use the Post Office for deliveries as it holds too much risk for them.”
  • However, the article itself, although it references some of its historical reportage, does not reference any quote with the word “delusional” in it.
  • Mr Lancaster concedes that “perhaps this was not an accurate reflection but it juices it up a bit; its sexy.”
  • That may be, but “sexy” headlines still need to reflect the substance of the article.
  • I would have had less trouble with this if the piece were purely an opinion, editorial or commentary piece but it straddles both reportage and commentary rather uncomfortably.
  • It also shows that, notwithstanding the previous frustration in the relationship between MyBroadband and the Post Office, that preconceptions can inhibit reporting.
  • The article, after all, starts with a Moneyweb report quoting CEO Mark Barnes that the Post Office might use drones to deliver packages. A curious enough reporter may have asked how this is possible and asked the Post Office for more details. This in itself would probably have given a more apposite headline.
  • Partly, too, the article is a victim of its own structure: it starts with drones, but quickly moves to its own opinion. The third paragraph read thus: “While SAPO’s plan may sound promising, there’s one big problem: the organization must be delusional if they think South African ecommerce stores will even consider using them.” There is no attribution for this sentiment.
  • There is no exploration of the idea of using drones at all – a pity because it may have made an interesting news story.
  • The word “delusional” must be the opinion of the reporter because although the ecommerce retailers interviewed in the piece are lukewarm about the Post Office’s capacity, none of them express this sentiment.
  • Extra care needs to be taken with headline writing both to convey the kernel of an article and not to mislead readers. “Headlines and picture captions must give a reasonable reflection of the contents of the news reports or articles over which they appear…Firstly, they must not exaggerate and secondly, they must reflect fairly the …articles to which they refer.[1]

4.2.3. The image

  • MyBroadband says it uses images that depict both brand logos and the type of businesses the subjects of its coverage are in.
  • The Post Office complains that it is in violation of Section 10.2 of the Code, but in fact this section refers to “posters” that “shall not mislead the public and shall give a reasonable reflection of the contents of the report in question.”
  • Section 10.3 refers to pictures and/or video or audio content and says they should “not misrepresent or mislead nor be manipulated to do so.”
  • To restrict the use of images because they are critical of a brand or a company would be highly problematic in my view.
  • The image never purported to be a picture: it was a graphic to illustrate an article that reported that the Post Office does not feature strongly as an option in the minds of modern ecommerce players.
  • The image did not mislead in that it gave readers a sense of what the article was about, whether one agreed with it or not.
  1. Finding

5.1 Right of reply

  • I find MyBroadband is in breach of Section 1.8 of the Code on the right of reply. Even if the Post Office has not responded to previous requests, the provision is relevant to each story, especially if the coverage is critical.
  • On a journalistic note, a conversation with the Post Office about possible drone deliveries may have engendered interesting new information for MyBroadband’s readership.
  • I should also say here, though, that the historic emails provided to me by MyBroadband show it has been difficult to elicit comment from the Post Office in the past.
  • In its response to this complaint, it said it would be “happy to publish SAPO’s views or feedback as the basis for new articles referencing our previous reporting.”
  • The Post Office would be well advised to take up this offer.

5.1.2 Headline

  • None of the quotes in the article nor the substance justifies the word “delusional” in the headline. This is a sentence thrown in by the writer and it is not justified in a piece of reporting.
  • I find MyBroadband is in breach of Section 10.1 of the Code, which states that headlines and captions “shall give a reasonable reflection of the contents of the report or picture in question.”

5.2.2. Image

  • The Post Office may not like the image that was used to illustrate the article – it is a stock picture of a postbox with an SA Post Office logo on it – but there is nothing in the Press Code that says it is not permissible for publications to use images that may not be flattering to the subject of their reportage.
  • This part of the complaint is

Seriousness of breaches

Under the headline Hierarchy of sanctions, Section 8 of the Complaints Procedures distinguishes between minor breaches (Tier 1 – minor errors which do not change the thrust of the story), serious breaches (Tier 2), and serious misconduct (Tier 3).  The breaches of the Press Code as indicated above are all Tier 2 offences.

Sanction

MyBroadband is directed to:

  • Apologize to the SA Post Office for not affording it the right of reply in this article.
  • Publish its reply, which should be forthcoming within two working weeks of this ruling. If it is not, the publication is within its rights not to publish.
  • Apologise for the misleading headline “The SA Post Office is truly delusional” as not reflecting accurately the contents of the article.
  • The apology should be published online with the same prominence as the original story.

It should:

  • be published at the earliest opportunity after the time for an application for leave to appeal has lapsed or, in the event of such an application, after that ruling;
  • refer to the complaint that was lodged with this office;
  • end with the sentence, “Visit presscouncil.org.za for the full finding”;
  • be published with the logo of the Press Council (attached); and
  • be prepared by the publication and approved by me.

Appeal

The 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.