Sadmon vs Spotlight

Finding Complaint 4257

Sadmon vs Spotlight

Date of articles: 19/11/18; 20/1118;21/11/18;22/11/18;23/11/18

Headlines: The Sadmon Files 1: Government pushed R352m to controversial communications company; The Sadmon Files 2: How not to manage a government contract; The Sadmon Files 3: Red Ribbon or red flag?; The Sadmon Files 4: Autopsy of the Phila communications campaign; The Sadmon Files 5: When social media doesn’t go viral

Page: NA

Online: Yes

Author: Anneliese King

1.Particulars

1.1 This ruling is based on a written complaint from Sadmon’s legal representatives, D&K Inc Attorneys (Ms Nina Botha), a written response from the online publication, Spotlight, as well as interviews with Mr Cyril Sadiki, CEO of Sadmon, Mr Marcus Low, editor of Spotlight, and various other knowledgeable sources such as office holders in SANAC, key players in previous health campaigns undertaken by the Khomanani Communications Consortium, and consultation of various official documents.

1.2 It should be noted that this complaint was filed extremely late in terms of the Press Code, only on 8/2/19. The Press Code stipulates that a complaint should be filed 20 working days after the publication of a contentious article. This means the complaint should have been filed by the 24/12/18 (given the fact that the 17/12 was a public holiday) Even allowing for the Christmas period, it was still over that time by more than a month.

On this basis the Public Advocate dismissed the complaint; however, my predecessor, Mr Johan Retief, gave condonation for the lateness in March.

2.Complaint

2.1 Sadmon complains about a five-part series of articles in the online publication Spotlight. Spotlight is a publication that focuses on health issues. It is published by Section 27 and the Treatment Action Campaign, both civil society NGOs that are active in campaigns around health, including HIV and AIDS. Section 27 describes itself as a “public interest law centre that seeks to achieve substantive equality and social justice in South Africa.”

2.2 Sadmon is a communications company that for the past approximately 12 years has been either part of a consortium or worked on its own on public health campaigns around HIV/AIDS and has received contracts from the national Department of Health. (DoH)

2.3 Sadmon complains on several grounds against a series published in Spotlight, that it was “devoid of objectivity”, painted it as a “controversial company”, used judgmental language such as describing it as “having a record of snagging juicy health communication tenders” or having produced “less than stellar results”, ignoring evidence of good results, implying it (Spotlight) had received “secret documentation” about the tender, and charging that the Khomanani campaign (which Sadmon was part of) was “characterized by incompetence and nepotism.”

It charges serious omissions of coverage: positive research results were ignored in favour of others that painted a more critical picture, and the publication ignored a ruling by a regulatory authority that exonerated it for a slogan described as “controversial”.

2.4 The company also complains that the headline of the second article in the series: “How not to manage a government contract” gives the impression that the company itself, and not the DoH, was responsible for managing the contract. “The Respondent angles the article to give an impression that the applicants did something wrong.”

2.5 The publication also reports “falsely” that Khomanani materials were “destroyed…regardless of a response [given] that no materials were destroyed.” This was to “deliberately profile Sadmon as an inefficient organization.”

2.6 The fourth part of the series covers reports given by Sadmon to the Department of Health, which show “operational challenges…[that] were outside the Applicant’s control.” However, Spotlight ‘tries hard to perpetuate a profiling exercise aimed at discrediting” Sadmon.

2.7 Most seriously, Sadmon charges Spotlight with a conflict of interest, citing previous conflict over an earlier Khomanani campaign with Mark Heywood, then deputy chair of the SA National Aids Council (SANAC), and Sue Goldstein, who heads the HIV/AIDS NGO, Soul City. Until 2017, Heywood headed Section 27, which grew out of the AIDS Law Project, and he was also a major figure in the Treatment Action Campaign. The TAC and Section 27 are the publishers of Spotlight, although it carries a disclaimer that proclaims its editor/s have full editorial independence which is “jealously” guarded.

There is another complicating factor in the complaint about conflict of interests that relate to former journalist, Ms Jo-Anne Collinge, who sat on the board of the journalistic enterprise Health-e News and was one of the recipients of an email in 2010 from the then editor of Health-e, Ms Kerry Cullinan, asking for “any info on Sadiki and his Khomanani crew.” Ms Collinge was then (and now) a consultant/employee of Meropa communications, which tendered for the same Khomanani contract as Sadmon in 2006 and 2009, according to Sadmon’s Mr Cyril Sadiki.

2.8 In summary, Mr Sadiki and Sadmon say Spotlight has transgressed the following clauses of the Press Code:

The media shall:

1.1 take care to report news truthfully, accurately and fairly;

1.2 present news in context and in a balanced manner, without any intentional or negligent departure from the facts whether by distortion, exaggeration or misrepresentation, material omissions, or summarization;

1.3 present only what may reasonably be true as fact; opinions, allegations, rumours or suppositions shall be presented clearly as such;

1.4 obtain news legally, honestly and fairly, unless public interest dictates otherwise;

1.9 state where a report is based on limited information, and supplement it once new information becomes available;

As well as:

  1. Independence and Conflicts of Interest

The media shall:

2.1 not allow commercial, political, personal or other non-professional considerations to influence reporting, and avoid conflicts of interest as well as practices that could lead readers to doubt the media’s independence and professionalism;

And

  1. Privacy, Dignity and Reputation

The media shall:

3.1 exercise care and consideration in matters involving the private lives  of individuals. The right to privacy may be overridden by public interest;

3.2 afford special weight to South African cultural customs concerning the protection of privacy and dignity of people who are bereaved and their respect for those who have passed away, as well as concerning children, the aged and the physically and mentally disabled;

3.3 exercise care and consideration in matters involving dignity and reputation, which may be overridden only if it is in the public interest and if:

3.3.1. the facts reported are true or substantially true; or

3.3.2. the reportage amounts to protected comment based on facts that are adequately referred to and that are either true or reasonably true; or

3.3.3. the reportage amounts to a fair and accurate report of court proceedings, Parliamentary proceedings or the proceedings of any quasi-judicial tribunal or forum; or

3.3.4. it was reasonable for the information to be communicated because it was prepared in accordance with acceptable principles of journalistic conduct; or

3.3.5. the article was, or formed part of, an accurate and impartial account of a dispute to which the complainant was a party;

And

  1. Advocacy

The media may strongly advocate their own views on controversial topics, provided that they clearly distinguish between fact and opinion, and not misrepresent or suppress or distort relevant facts.

And

  1. Headlines, Captions, Posters, Pictures and Video / Audio Content

10.1 Headlines, captions to pictures and posters shall not mislead the public and shall give a reasonable reflection of the contents of the report or picture in question; 

3.The Text

3.1 This is a lengthy five-part series on one company, Sadmon Projects and Consulting, which was awarded a three-year communications contract by the Department of Health in 2015 to handle the departments’ “mass media communications and social media mobilisation campaign” relating to HIV and AIDS, tuberculosis, and maternal child and women’s health, as well as the promotion of healthy life-styles.

3.2 Spotlight used the Promotion of Access to Information Act (PAIA) to access scores of documents that related to this tender. It described this as an “unprecedented perspective on one of South Africa’s most critical communication projects and a unique insight into the interface between a service provider and government.”

3.3 The first part runs under the headline: “The Sadmon Files 1: Government pushed R352m to controversial communications company.” In the intro, the publication states: “It is not a pretty picture. While there are some moderate successes over the 36-month contract period and no evidence of corruption, there is an undercurrent of wasteful expenditure and lack of communication.” To back this, it reports that sign-off and approvals “take months to wind through the system and there seems to be no governance or oversight structure to efficiently manage delivery on the contract.”

3.4 The sub-head on the first part of the series is “A history of controversy.” It reports that Cyril Sadiki, Sadmon’s MD, has already been “at the helm of a string of communication projects in the public healthcare sector.”

It recounts his CV, which states that he was “headhunted” by Johnnic Communications in 2004 to project-lead SA’s flagship HIV/AIDS behaviour change campaign, Khomanani.’

3.5 This tender expired in 2006 and Sadiki then established Sadmon before assembling a new consortium known as KCC that was awarded a R190-million two-year tender in May 2007. It was extended for nine months at a cost of a further R130 million.

3.6 In 2010, “whispers and rumours in the health world about poor delivery of the campaign burst into the open in a range of explosive media reports calling for a forensic audit into Khomanani.”

3.7 In the run-up to World Aids Day in 2009, SANAC had written to the Health Department warning  that the AIDS Day event could “severely embarrass” the President and Health Minister and asked that SANAC be given responsibility for it.

Sadiki’s response was to “double down against SANAC”; he asked the DoH to observe their contractual agreement “thereby protecting us from dealing with the SANAC secretariat”. This was a “mystifying and deeply problematic position”, considering SANAC’s status as a government entity.

3.8 After World AIDS Day, SANAC again wrote to the DoH expressing unhappiness with the event and the “large fees” paid to strategic advisors and companies in the consortium. It cites two 2010 articles, one written by then SANAC deputy chair, Mark Heywood, saying R90 million of the budget had not been spent and the campaign was “virtually invisible “. The other article, in the Natal Witness, was written by Kerry Cullinan and Anso Thom, then both of Health-e News saying that KCC was charging “over R2 million a month for administration and management and R2.5 million for strategic advice although no-one seems to know what advice is being given.”

3.9 The article quotes the DoH as saying it was never provided with “any information that necessitated the need to conduct forensic investigations into the finances and contracts.” The department also says there was no information “to support the view that the campaign were controversial and characterised by shambles.” Sadmon had bid openly and it was “on the strength of their offering” it was awarded the tender.

3.10 Under the sub-head “How effective was Khomanani?”, Spotlight reports that “AIDS activists and health NGOS” say Khomanani’s campaign was ineffective and did not deliver on its primary mandate to “change behaviour…to arrest the spread of HIV and TB.

It cites surveys to show that Khomanani had “little impact” including the 2015 Millennium Development Goals Country Report, and a 2009 HRSC report. The MDG report found the proportion of the population aged 15-24 with “comprehensive and correct” knowledge of  HIV/AIDS had “dropped massively” from 2002 to 2012, while the HSRC report found that the Khomanani programme had the “lowest reach” compared with other programmes.

3.11 It then quotes Sadiki saying the KCC “which was Sizwe Ntsaluba led with advertising luminaries Hunt Lascaris, Sadmon and Izwi Multimedia, did a great job on Khomanani…Sadmon was the project management and social marketing consortium member, not the sole operator of the campaign.”

He goes on to say: “Regardless of certain people turning HSRC ’08 results and utilize them to further their ulterior motives, we were proud that we were able to move Khomanani’s reach from 38.4% (in 2006) to 56.8% (in 2008), with even a greater increased reach amongst our younger audiences

He pointed to two other surveys that were much more “positive” about Sadmon’s work and says the company had won (although the article spells it “one”) a Loerie award for its work.

3.12 Under the sub-head, Sadmon score again in 2015, Spotlight reports that “despite all of the above”, the DoH gave Sadmon “another mega-deal” in May, 2015 for similar health campaigns.

Records from the DoH showed that deputy director-general, Dr Yogan Pillay chaired the bid adjudication committee; Sadmon scored third on “functionality” and presentation, but was awarded the tender based on its BBBEE status and costing. It was about R3.5 million cheaper than the next nearest bidder.

3.13 The article says it is “worth noting” the tender’s “opaque terms of reference.” The companies were required to provide costings for various categories (which it mentions in some detail), but the requirements were not specified, leading to “wildly different” costings.

Although Spotlight had asked for financial documents, such as invoices, in its PAIA request, it did not get them. Most of the documents were Sadmon’s monthly activity reports.

3.14 The publication says it is “curious” that the department refused to provide it with “actual invoices”. The DoH explained this would mean a form “of irregular audit.”

3.15 Spotlight says it can deduce from the documents: a letter of acceptance issued in September, 2015; three signed Service Level Agreements; by August 2017 – 27 months into its 36-month contract – Sadmon had invoiced for about R241-million.

3.16 It then mentions as an “aside” that Sadmon had worked on Eskom’s Operation Khanyisa campaign although Eskom itself was not aware of this.

3.17 Under a sub-head, Women on top, Spotlight reports that the company “again…courted controversy in September 2017 with billboards that read, ‘Who says girls don’t want to be on top.’ “ Both the DoH and Sadiki defended these, saying there was no sexual inuendo.

The documents obtained through PAIA show that even more “controversial” wording was suggested (but never used ) in the campaign, such as G-STRING (Girl-String) and SLUTT (So Let’s Unite Together)

3.18 Under the last sub-head in Part 1, “An  (sic) R24-million snapshot in time”, Spotlight reports that the “actual deliverables” of the contract are difficult to extract from “what seems like a deliberately convoluted reporting format. The ‘narrative’ reporting style preferred by Sadmon is different to the standard consulting practise where a succinct list of deliverables, with supporting samples of all work produced, is usually submitted.”

3.19 In this period, Sadmon invoiced about R7,3 million for services to the SA National AIDS conference in Durban, mainly for its exhibition stand at the conference staffed by 16 people. The company reports it was a “show-stopper

But although it was supposed to handle “all media-related activities”, only three media outlets visited the stand’s opening and its report “makes no bones about the fact that it did not manage to generate any quality in-depth coverage”. It blamed the conference organisers for this.

Spotlight comments that the “PR fail is baffling” as there were three PR practitioners and two digital media specialists who were part of the support team. Yet Sadmon still claimed media coverage was “worth over R1.5 million.”

3.20 At the end of this first part, the editors run a footnote stating: “We have not edited Mr Sadiki’s comments for grammar or spelling given that he heads a major communications company.”

3.21 Part 2 of “The SADMON files” runs under the headline, “How not to manage a government contract”

It summarises monthly reports from 2016 and 2017 “studded with incidences of frustration and finger pointing”

It says the DoH is clearly “highly ineffectual” and adds that “Sadmon does not come across as the innovative mass media communication ..experts they profess to be.”

3.22 In summary, the monthly reports show tension between Sadmon and the DoH; they paint a “bleak picture”; Sadmon complains in the reports that it takes “too long” for resolutions to be reached by the Department; and that late approvals of plans mean they miss “valuable opportunities”, citing the cancellation of interviews for Breastfeeding and Universal Test and Treat events.

Radio interviews for the “stuttering” Phila (a public health) campaign had “fallen through due to “unconfirmed interviews”, artwork for billboards and taxis were approved a month after TV and radio ads started flighting, it did not receive feedback on press releases; the DoH did not honour appointments for radio interviews; it was not provided with sufficient information from the Breastfeeding conference etc.

Spotlight comments that the “finger-pointing is puzzling since any communication agency worth their (sic) salt would be monitoring media impact..” Also, a “professional PR agency would attend and monitor events” such as the Breastfeeding conference to develop media briefs.

3.23 It says Sadmon failed to leverage “bulk-buying media space to negotiate additional space, discounted pricing or free editorial.” Sadmon itself conceded the R56-million media budget was not “utilized effectively”; and “unbelievably”, according to Spotlight, “media bookings were made ‘weekly’ instead of following a “well-planned bulk-buying strategy

3.24 “Lost opportunities” are a “constant theme” in Sadmon’s reports although in two of the three cases listed, last-minute cancelations were the fault of the DoH and the Presidency, incurring wasteful expenditure. In the third case, in May 2017, “another prime example of how bad planning and lousy nous for PR and the media led to lost opportunities and waste…” a two-day NHI workshop for editors was moved at the last moment from Johannesburg to Pretoria, with only half of those who confirmed attendance turning up.

3.25 Spotlight quotes the DoH saying it has received “value for money” and that the company “was able to raise challenges in a professional manner… At all times the relationship with Sadmon remained cordial and professional.” Sadmon in its response used the same phrase “cordial and professional”. Spotlight notes the similar phrasing.

3.26 Part 3 runs under the head, Red Ribbon or red flag?

It deals the oversight and management of the Department’s Red Ribbon Resource Centre, which warehouses its condoms, branding and communications materials. Described as a “critical cog”, it is “integral to getting health messages out.”

3.27 The documents show that Sadmon cleared the warehouse of “expired goods” in February 2016. It provides a long list of material cleared out, including banners, folders, posters and 8000 expired condoms.

When asked about this, Mr Sadiki says it is “incorrect” than any materials were discarded” He says some required updating, eg treatment protocols, while some materials are still in use.

3.28 Spotlight reports: “..a deeper dive into Sadmon’s deliverable reports reveals a faltering operation consistently hamstrung by lack of stock (or wrong stock), and no courier capacity to ship out ordered material. It also shows extraordinary unresponsiveness from the Department of Health to concerns raised by Sadmon on a continuous basis”

This part of the article then proceeds to summarise the monthly reports from June 2016 to July 2017 (accessed through the documents obtained through the Promotion of Access of Information Act ) that deal with among other things:

  • An over-supply of Choice condoms – “end-users have made it repeatedly clear” they don’t like them.
  • An unresolved issue over a courier service; dwindling stocks of Information Education Committee material
  • New stock of the more popular “Max condoms”
  • An order by “Mpumalanga:” for 10.5 million condoms still leaving 87 million in the warehouse. Yet in November 2016, “a huge number of clients” come to collect orders for the upcoming World Aids Day
  • An “enormous task” of delivery, distribution and branding for the World AIDS Day event in Daveyton on the East Rand
  • More “positively”, a taker for the “languishing” Choice condoms with 12.450 million destined for the City of Cape Town
  • 23 000 female condoms and 8.49 million more male Max condoms received

3.29 Part 4 runs under the headline: Autopsy of the Phila communications campaign

It reports that the campaign was designed to generate “motivational health messages through innovative mass media communication” It focused on knowing health status, increasing physical activity, eating healthier food, adhering to treatment and good sexual health and encouraging a violence-free society.”

The Phila campaign was “launched” at an event in Pietermaritzburg in June 2016 with Max scented condoms “but then the momentum was lost.”

The reports from Sadmon to the Department show delayed approvals and sign-offs.

The campaign is finally launched by then Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa in October 2016.

3.30 Most of the reports concern DoH “missed opportunities”, for example non-confirmed radio interviewees, delayed approval for billboards and taxi artwork, and other interviewees “not confirmed on time”.

The DoH in a comment confirms that the delays were due to “departmental scheduling and other factors that were beyond Sadmon’s control

3.31 In July 2017, a new attempt is made to get Phila “out of the doldrums” with a R40-million advertising campaign called “Phila Thursday”, a play on “Phuza Thursday”.

The idea was to “feature short, punchy messages to capture people’s attention”, aligned with digital platforms. But, Sadmon complains to the DoH, the strip ads were “repurposed for longer format public health messages” at odds with the output on social media platforms. Spotlight notes the campaign costs R17 million

Other campaigns include those for breast and cervical cancer, a “She Conquers” event in Mpumalanga, a TB screening campaign, and PR for voluntary male circumcision.

3.32 The article also mentions that Sadmon outsources one aspect of the Phila campaign, a “Safer Holidays” booklet to a company called Auto Reach but still bills 42 hours for the task.

Spotlight notes it is not possible to break down the R17 million invoice because there are no individual invoices provided by the DoH.

3.33 Sadiki is quoted as saying: “An evaluation of the Phila campaign will be able to make further objective determination in terms of value and impact…To the extent that there were challenges and competing priorities that were experienced along the process of implementation those challenges were raised and handled accordingly.”

3.34 Part 5 of the series runs under the headline When social media doesn’t go viral

It reports that from August 2016, Sadmon began to implement a social media strategy.

Two years after the launch of this strategy the DoH has “a mere” 47 000 Twitter followers. This compares unfavourably with most other departments,. In two years under Sadmon’s management, the DoH’s Twitter following increased by about 29 000, making their “much vaunted social media strategy…relatively ineffective.”

It then reports on a monthly basis the increase in Twitter and Instagram followers and Facebook “likes”.

3.37 In September 2016, with Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa’s introduction of Max condoms in Parliament that make “less noise”, there was a “sensation” on Twitter. This event, reports Spotlight, had “nothing to do with the social media strategy itself.”

3.38 In October 2016 the top Twitter post with 22 engagements related to Mental Health Day and featured “less-than-gripping content…accompanied by a graphic showing a skeleton with a red brain.”

Spotlight’s conclusion under the sub-head Value for money? says that while its management of the DoH’s twitter account “is not disastrous, there is little evidence of the kind of sophisticated media campaigns one would expect as part of a R352 million contract”.

It reports Mr Sadiki as being “dismissive” of the suggestion that Sadmon did not provide the DoH with value for money.

4.The arguments

The complainants: Sadmon and Mr Cyril Sadiki

Sadmon, through its attorneys, makes the following arguments:

4.1 Spotlight approached the Department of Health for comment on the documents obtained through PAIA on the 19 October. 2018. The questions were then sent to Mr Sadiki by the Department. It was only on the 7 November that the Spotlight editor, Mr Marcus Low, approached Mr Sadiki for comment. This, they argue, showed the intention to publish an article “without having the inclination to obtain input from the First and Second applicants “(Sadmon and Mr Sadiki)

4.2 Sadmon’s attorneys also note that “there is a long-standing relationship fraught with controversy and a deliberate attempt by the publication to disqualify [Sadmon] as a reputable social marketing company that obtains tenders based on fair trade, competitive pricing and excellent service delivery.” They back up this claim by referring to an email sent by Kerry Cullinan, then head of Health-e News, in 2010, in the wake of an article on the Khomanani contract [which Sadmon was part of] to the board of Health-e, asking for “any info” on Mr Sadiki. This was after he had complained about an article she had published in the Natal Witness which was critical of the Khomanani campaign. The co-author of the article was Anso Thom who until recently was the co-editor of Spotlight.

4.3 Sadmon’s attorneys sent a letter to Spotlight after the publication of the first article in the series. It claims it was “devoid of objectivity” and reflects views “fraught with malice and slander”.

They complain about the language used, such as “snagging juicy health communication tenders”,  or “producing less than stellar results”; yet this is not backed up by information of how many tenders have been awarded.

4.4 Evidence of positive results provided is ignored by Spotlight.

4.5 The phrase referring to “hundreds of pages of fascinating information usually not in the public domain” implies it was secret, yet this was documentation relating to the tender. It was not confidential. The fact that the documents were obtained through PAIA “could itself cause prejudice and harm as… the information…also included information that was privileged and would give a competitor an unfair advantage.

The phrase: “It’s not a pretty picture” paints a negative picture although there is no evidence of corruption (which the publication acknowledges, as it does “moderate successes”.)

4.6 In the discussion on the Khomanani consortium, there is no information on other members of the consortium. It focuses only on Sadmon, “ignoring available evidence of KCC success”.

4.7 The headline and sub-head, which refer to “controversy” is unfair. It neglects to report that Dr Sue Goldstein, head of Soul City and an erstwhile Communications Task team member, “actively contributed” to this controversy. She wrote an open letter to SANAC, then headed by Mark Heywood, alleging that KCC did not want to co-operate with SANAC for World Aids Day in 2010. Soul City also competed against the KCC for the same tender so she was also “conflicted”. (This also relates to the 2010 article by Health-e published in, among others, the Natal Witness). There is also, by Spotlight’s own admission, no evidence of corruption in either the awarding of the tender nor its operations.

4.8 The Spotlight article, which quotes the 2010 article saying that the Khomanani campaign was “characterised by corruption and nepotism”, shows “deliberate misinformation: it was intended to damage Sadmon’s reputation. Although Sadmon shared research studies showing positive results of the campaign, Spotlight ignored this.

4.9 Spotlight deliberately ignores the finding “by the BCCSA” that cleared Sadmon of a complaint about its “Women on Top” slogan.

4.10 The reporting that Sadmon was third during the bidding process but won the tender on BBBEE status and costing gives an impression that there “was something wrong” with the tender award but this is government’s “standard procurement process”. The phrase “opaque terms of reference” also creates a “negative perception” about the company but the DoH, not it, drew up the terms of reference.

4.11 The reference that Eskom did not know of work Sadmon had done for it created an impression that the company was “lying”

4.12 The footnote that Spotlight carried that it had not edited Mr Sadiki’s comments for grammar or spelling as he is head of a communications company was “a deliberate personal attack”.

4.13 In the second article, “How not to manage a government contract”, the impression given is that Sadmon itself was in charge of appointing and managing the contract. “The Respondent angles the article to give an impression that the Applicants did something wrong.”

4.14 In the third article, the publication “tried to sensationalise” the value of the tender as if it is “a new discovery,” whereas it was public knowledge when the tender was awarded in 2015.

4.15 The allegation that Khomanani materials were destroyed is false and was printed “regardless” of Sadmon’s response that no materials were destroyed.

4.16 The publication of the monthly reports to the DoH is intended to “profile Sadmon as inefficient”.

4.17 The fourth part of the series repeats the monthly reports sent to the DoH which show various “operational challenges”, which were outside Sadmon’s control. However, the publication “tried hard to perpetuate a profiling exercise aimed at discrediting the Applicants.”

4.18 The fifth article, which analyses the digital performance of the Phila campaign, also repeats the monthly reports, which Spotlight  “tries hard to conveniently analyse…to perpetuate their own desired negative angle”

4.19 Despite not getting invoices in its PAIA application, Spotlight still draws a conclusion that the DoH has “not received value for money and that the social media strategy was not managed well.”

The respondent: Spotlight

4.20 Spotlight notes that the complaint has been filed “inexcusably out of time,” despite the complainants having made legal threats against the publication since the first story in the series appeared in November 2018. This was a sign that it should have been aware of the Press Code Procedures. It also notes that it did not get an opportunity to make representations on the reasons for condonation.

It also notes that the cover letter of the complaint is dated 21 December 2018, but it was delivered only seven weeks later, and submits that condonation for lateness could not “properly” have been granted..

4.21 In addressing the actual complaint, Spotlight says Sadmon “simply references large swathes of the Press Code without tying the provisions to the contents of the article.”

4.22 The publication argues the articles were in the public interest. Spotlight’s mandate is to monitor responses to TB and HIV/AIDS in South Africa, including the development and implementation of government policies. The series of articles fall within its focus. The specific tender awarded to Sadmon, worth R352 million, “formed a significant part of the government’s response to the health crisis in the country relating to HIV and AIDS, TB, and maternal child and women’s health..” By taking on the tender, Sadmon had committed to certain deliverables and outcomes.

However, the documents show there were several shortfalls in delivery.

4.23 Spotlight argues freedom of expression is critical for “robust debate”, citing previous Appeals and Ombudsman rulings.[1] Information about health and health care services go to the heart of people’s fundamental rights and dignity.

4.24 Spotlight also cites the Constitutional Court ruling in the Cash Paymaster crisis around the delivery of social grants that said private entities, when they contract to render public services, also “become accountable to the people of South Africa”, and are “subject to public scrutiny both in its operational and financial aspects.”[2] In the same way, Sadmon must be open to public scrutiny.

4.25 In terms of the Press Code, the articles were truthful, accurate fair and balanced. It is clear the articles were presented as a sequence – a five-part series being clearly numbered and so should be read as a whole. However each article in its own right complies with the Code.

As explained in the series, Spotlight obtained through the Promotion of Access to Information Act of 2000, a “significant” number of documents relating to the tender awarded to Sadmon to run a public health communications campaign..

The monthly reports submitted to the DoH by Sadmon form the basis of the series. The reports contain Sadmon’s own assessment of its performance and the challenges it experienced.

4.26 Both the DoH and Sadmon were provided with the right of reply, the Health Department on 19 October, 2018, and Sadmon on 7 November, 2018. Responses were received from the Health Department on the 26 October, 2018 and from Sadmon on the 9 November, 2018.

The first four articles in the series contain comments from both Mr Sadiki and the DoH, and the firth article references these remarks.

4.27 The facts are “fully substantiated” by the source materials, being the documents themselves.

4.28 There is also nothing in them that infringes on privacy or dignity.

4.29 It is also not true that the reference to “controversial company” in the headline of the first article was done with malice. Each article sets out the grounds for “controversy”. These include historic reasons – going back before the 2015 contract to the Khomanani Communication Consortium, which was criticized in “SA’s leading HIV survey” in 2008 and was the subject of the critical newspaper articles cited above, as well as being reportedly in a dispute (in 2010) with SANAC. In the current time, the controversy refers to the “dubious results” of the campaign, the operational challenges and the “Women on top” billboard.

4.30 The first article also indicates “moderate successes” and says there was no evidence of corruption, indicating it was fair and balanced.

The fact that the articles did not refer to how many previous tenders have been awarded to Sadmon is not relevant. The articles refers to Mr Sadiki establishing Sadmon and “assembling” the KCC and being awarded a R190 million tender in May 2007.

4.31 The phrases “less than stellar results” and “not a pretty picture” are substantiated by, among other things, the results of the 2015 Millennium Development Goals Country reports that showed a drop in the proportion of young people with correct knowledge of HIV/AIDS from 2002 to 2012, and the HSRC survey that showed that the Khomanani programme had the lowest reach in comparison with other HIV/AIDS information programmes. Moreover, Mr Sadiki responds to these in the articles by citing other surveys which showed  more positive results. The “not a pretty picture” phrase is followed by evidence of shortcomings in the project, including wasteful expenditure, a lack of communication, and lack of oversight. This “picture” is painted by Sadmon’s own reports. Sadmon itself, for instance, notes in its reports that its R56 million media budget “has not been utilized effectively”. The reliance placed on the HSRC survey was a “fair journalistic judgment-call based on this being the largest, most robust survey” addressing the impact of various campaigns.

4.32 On the complaint that the phrase “information usually not in the public domain” implies secret documentation is not borne out by the articles, which state clearly that the documents were received after a request made in terms of PAIA. This means the documents were not “readily” available to the public. This point is underscored by the fact that the process of obtaining documents through PAIA is a “long and protracted” one. Spotlight submitted the first request to the DoH on 8 June, 2017. On 16 October, 2017, the Director-General of the Department said the request had been granted but that Sadmon had objected to the release of the service level agreement. A follow-up request for additional documentation was made and these documents were provided on 27 November.

The fact that the process took five months shows that these documents were not “readily accessible” to the public.

4.33 On the complaint that the articles focus only on Sadmon and not on other members of the (past) KCC, Spotlight says Mr Sadiki’s own CV claims he was “head-hunted” to “lead” the KCC; he was also the public face of the campaign, and he refers to the fact that Sadmon won a Loerie award for its work.

4.34 In 2015, the DoH contract was awarded to Sadmon alone as the KCC no longer existed; it thus made sense to focus on Sadmon’s role. Moreover, it is within the “editorial discretion” of Spotlight to determine the focus of articles.

4.35 Spotlight “firmly denies” the allegation of a conflict of interests. It discloses at the bottom of each article that it is published by Section 27 and the Treatment Action Campaign but states that “its editors have full editorial independence – independence that the editors guard jealously.” There are three people allegedly at the source of this conflict of interest: Mark Heywood, the former executive director of Section 27 and executive member of the Treatment Action Campaign; Kerry Kullinan (sic), former managing editor of Health-e News, and Dr Sue Goldstein, the former executive of the Soul City Institute.

Spotlight’s arguments deal with each of these three thus: There are no facts offered to support the claim that Mr Heywood wanted to discredit Sadmon or Mr Sadiki; furthermore it enjoys “full editorial independence”; the only reference to Mr Heywood in the article is his critique, in his capacity as then SANAC deputy chair, of KCC’s management of the 2010 World Aids Day; Kerry Cullinan is not affiliated with Spotlight and did not influence its reportage. Health-e is a separate publication and published its own reports regarding KCC. Her erstwhile colleague and joint author of the 2010 report is Anso Thom, who at the time of publication was Spotlight’s co-editor (she has since left, I am informed); Sue Goldstein runs an independent organisation not affiliated with Spotlight and her views are her own. The argument about the conflict of interests is a “red herring” put forward by the complainants to “impugn the credibility of Spotlight.”

4.36 The claim that the description in the first article that the KCC campaign was “characterised by incompetence and nepotism” was not “deliberate misinformation” intended to damage Sadmon’s reputation. It is a direct quote from the article (authored by Cullinan and Thom) published in the Natal Witness in 2010.

4.37 Sadmon’s complaint about the article referring to the billboard, “Who says girls don’t want to be on top?” references a ruling by the Broadcasting Complaints Commission of South Africa having adjudicated and approved it. However Spotlight says it can find no record of a ruling on this by the BCCSA (neither could I) but did find a ruling by the then Advertising Standards Authority ( I found a news article)[3], which approved it after a complaint that it contained “sexual innuendo”. The ruling is irrelevant but the point is the article was justified in saying the slogan created “controversy”.

4.38  Sadmon complains about the reference to it having been “third in the bidding process”, but this is “entirely factual and accurate” and that it was awarded the contract based on its costing and BBEEE status.

4.39 The phrase, “opaque terms of reference” was not a slight on Sadmon, as the company suggests. “It is obvious that Sadmon could not have drafted its own terms of reference for a project in which they were bidding.” Any reasonable reader would understand the terms of reference to have been drawn up by the DoH.

4.40 The complaint that Eskom seemed unaware of its sub-contract with Sadmon did not state that the company was lying, as argued. It simply reflected what the media desk of Eskom conveyed.

4.41 On the footnote saying Mr Sadiki’s comments were “not edited for spelling or grammar”, the publication says this was not a personal attack, but that as he heads a “major communications company…it is fair to presume that [he] would communicate his message to the media in precisely the manner in which it was intended.” Moreover there is no obligation on Spotlight to edit his comments.

4.42 The headline of the second article: “How not to manage a government contract” does not give the impression that Sadmon manages the contract. The first sentence stating that the contract was from the DoH, which was responsible for oversight and governance, makes this clear. Many of the monthly reports also highlight the difficulties experienced with the DoH – the “hurry up and wait projects” that adversely affected momentum and morale, the lack of written briefs and the failure to give feedback. Likewise the claim that the second article disregards the “operational challenges” experienced by Sadmon is not true as it contains “various references” to such challenges taken from the monthly reports and from the responses by Mr Sadiki. [4]

4.43 On the complaint that Spotlight “sensationalises” the bid award total budget as if it were a new discovery”, Mr Low argues the publication factually references this as R353 million over three years.

4.44 On reporting that KCC materials were destroyed, despite Mr Sadiki’s comments in this regard: the article reports both sources of information: the documents obtained through the PAIA request, that indicate that “Sadmon cleared out the warehouse of expired goods in February, 2016”, and Mr Sadiki’s comments that say is incorrect.

4.45 Recounting the monthly reports was not “aimed at discrediting” the complainants, but were a factual account of its “own assessment of the work that was undertaken, based on their own reports.” The monthly reports are “an important and credible source, central to the investigation” and references to them are “entirely justifiable.” Likewise, complaints about the reporting that invoices that were asked for were not provided did not mean that Spotlight “draws the conclusion that the NDoH did not receive value for money.” It could not do so in the absence of these invoices; however it received payment schedules with dates and amounts that could be matched to information in Sadmon’s monthly reports.

4.46 In the fifth article, which focused on social media, it stated: “It is hard to assess whether the Department of Health received value for money for Sadmon’s social media work since the Department declined to provide Spotlight with invoices that would show what part of the R352 million budget went towards social media management.” Yet the article quotes from Sadmon’s monthly reports and provides readers with “an accurate overview of the quality of service” the company provided.

4.47 “The question of whether the public is receiving value for money is a relevant and important public interest question that we believe should be asked of all large government contracts,” argues Spotlight. Moreover, Spotlight says it put this question of value for money to both the DoH and to Mr Sadiki and their responses are included in the publication.”

Further arguments

In its response to the Spotlight arguments, Sadmon and Mr Sadiki’s attorneys make a few extra points:

4.48 On the PAIA legislation: it is not a “free for all” law; it recognises the principle of unfair competition and privacy and this is why it opposed some documents being given to Spotlight. The “negative” way in which it was reported that not all documents were released is a “ground of complaint” because the “entire tone” of the articles where reference is made to PAIA is that Sadmon “wanted to hide something.” This is a misconstruction of how the legislation operates. Thus the article’s phrasing, “Curiously, the department refused to provide Spotlight..” is misleading. There is nothing “curious” about the refusal in terms of PAIA “and the protection it affords.” Sadmon did not make “efforts to limit disclosure”; it simply used the protections available to it and every other  institution and individual in the country available in the law.

4.49 The description “high-value tender” is made without comparison: “In layman’s terms R352 million seems like a large amount of money but there is no context given to the statement.” The attorneys point out that the average value of tenders awarded by the DoH is not reported, nor were similar tenders of other departments. The applicants argue that in a recent Spotlight article about the Limpopo air ambulance service [5],  no mention is made of the value of the tender, only that R3 million had been paid “to date”. Why no PAIA request for this information?

4.50 The articles were not “fair and balanced”, but “coloured” with descriptive words to “create a negative impression”. The “sole focus” of the series was “to create a negative image of Sadmon.” For instance, the sub-head, “Sadmon scores again in 2015” could “simply have stated that Sadmon is awarded another tender..” (emphasis in original). Likewise the passing reference to Eskom, and stating that “Eskom doesn’t know about it”, is “a blatant attempt to put Sadmon in a negative light.”

4.51 On the billboard, “Women on top”, the content was referred to the “correct forum” for adjudication (it doesn’t say which) and the Department of Health found it to be a “suitable message”. The sentence in the article that states that “Sadmon did not anticipate the controversy….raises serious questions about their communications expertise”. This showed the publication made a “unliteral adjudication” on the communication capabilities of the company. In addition, its mention of other suggested slogans for the campaign – none of which were used – could only have been done to “discredit” Sadmon.

4.52 Also, there is nothing wrong with a “narrative” reporting style, as Spotlight claims. This “simple concept has been ‘coloured” as creating the impression that Sadmon reports in a manner aimed at hiding.”

4.53 In reference to the term “controversial”, they argue controversy “did not follow Sadmon” but was rather created by Health-e News  (in the 2010 article) and Spotlight. The complainants also specifically mention the timing of these reports as being “questionable”. In both cases, the articles appeared as the current bid came to an end and a new bid “stood to be advertised…in an aim to discredit them as possible competition for the next bid.”

4.54 The complainants also provided copies of various surveys, including the HRSC survey cited in the article, saying they had “skewed” the results. The reach of the Khomanani campaign improved among youth aged 15-24 from about 45% in 2005 to 65% in 2008.  (Soul City, in contrast, has the furthest reach in the same age group at about 80% and 75% respectively, and loveLife is at around 68% and 79% for the respective years in that age group). Likewise the reference to the MDG Country report finding that the proportion of the population aged 15-24 with correct knowledge of HIV/AIDS had dropped “massively” between 2002 and 2012, implies that this is due to Khomanani’s failures, whereas there is no evidence that this is attributable to Sadmon’s communication work.

4.55 Lastly, the Phila campaign has not been subjected to any formal research to determine its impact. “Spotlight also knows that the standard practise is that Phila campaign (or any new social/health campaigns) requires to be consistently implemented at least five years before measuring impact.”

5.Analysis

5.1 As noted above, this complaint was filed very late, but given condonation by my predecessor. That being done, the Press Code procedures call for it to be adjudicated.

5.2 The documentation was also very lengthy – more than 100 pages, including the complaint, the responses, and the five-part series of articles.

Focus

5.3 I asked Mr Low why Spotlight had chosen to devote so much space and time to one particular company, which obtained a contract from the DoH. He replied that the communications tender awarded to Sadmon, worth R352 million, was the largest such tender awarded to a private communications company. This justified the focus and the request to access documents associated with it under the PAIA legislation.

This seemed a reasonable editorial explanation, even though the five-part series, judged editorially, may be rather long-winded and perhaps “overkill”.

It may have been the publication was looking for corruption or wrongdoing – which it would have been entitled to do – but did not find it. Thus, instead the focus was on what may have gone wrong in the campaign or where ideas – for billboard or campaign slogans – may have been misplaced. But the articles say clearly there was no evidence of corruption.

Spotlight is entitled to choose its editorial foci. There was nothing untruthful in the series of articles published.

Background to Khomanani

5.4 The Khomanani Communications Consortium was in existence for several years. It was probably the government’s biggest HIV communication programme. Three sets of tenders were awarded in 2001, 2004 and 2007. The largest tender was awarded to a consortium that included Johnnic, Hunt Lascaris, and various other firms, in 2001 and 2004, with smaller tenders awarded for “below the line” work to a consortium that included Meropa.  The third tender was awarded to Sadmon, a company begun by Mr Sadiki, who had previously worked on the Johnnic tender.

In 2015 a new tender was awarded that Sadmon won. Meropa was also a contender for that tender.

Accuracy , fairness and truthfulness

5.5 The article reports factually details of the tender and of the campaign. It is littered with judgmental sentences such as “It is not a pretty picture”, particularly as the documents show that many of the delays or botched opportunities for interviews etc emanate from the Department of Health and not Sadmon.

However, these sentences are backed up by details and facts.

Spotlight may have missed a crucial aspect of the story by not interrogating the DoH’s apparent inability to meet commitments. However, it is not part of the Ombud’s duties to suggest alternate foci for articles but to determine whether the one published meets the standards of fairness and accuracy.

5.6 Spotlight also defended its right to rely on the HSRC survey rather than those Sadmon provided, particularly as it had referenced the other surveys that Mr Sadiki referred to in a quote from him.

5.7 Mr Low argues this is the biggest public health communications contract awarded to a private company by the DoH and as such scrutiny is justified.

Scrutiny of how public money is spent is indeed an essential ingredient of the media.

In this respect there was no departure from clauses in the Press Code

Conflict of interest

5.8 Because Spotlight is a publication that focuses on HIV/AIDS and TB issues and policies and is published by organisations that have deep roots in this ongoing campaign, the TAC and Section 27, I was most concerned about the allegation that there was a “conflict of interest.”

According to a source who worked in the first Khomanani  consortium, some of its members were “surprised” when Sadmon won the third and fourth tenders.

But this alone does not denote a conflict of interest. Mr Sadiki specifies one particular source of a conflict and that is the email that then editor of Health-e, Kerry Cullinan sent  to her board in 2010 asking for “any info” on Mr Sadiki after Sadmon had complained about the 2010 article she co-authored with Anso Thom, for a time a co-editor on Spotlight. On the board at the time, Mr Sadiki points out, was Jo-Anne Collinge, who formerly worked at the Department of Health and later joined Meropa, a PR firm that was part of one of the Khomanani consortia and bid for the 2015 contract, along with several other organisations.

However, this in itself is not enough to implicate Spotlight in a conflict of interests. I took the charge seriously as it is one of the most serious transgressions of the Press Code.

I spoke to Ms Collinge as well as to a member of a previous Khomanani consortium. Ms Collinge told me that being on the Health-e board did not enable board members to interfere in specific articles or in general editorial independence. But more pertinently, she pointed out that two other members of the board at the time had gone to work in related enterprises – one to the Health Department and the other to Sadmon itself, a reflection that the board comprised a “diverse” group.

That there may be overall competitive tension, possibly for resources, possibly over policy, among those in the HIV/AIDS community may be true but this is not proof of conflict of interest.

5.9 Other prominent organisations in the campaign to build awareness around HIV/AIDs such as loveLife, Soul City and SANAC, are also recipients of annual grants from the Department of Health; in fact, according to the Estimates of National Expenditure, in the three-year MTEF period from 2018/19, they, and other smaller NGOs in this field will receive about half a billion rand from the department.[6] These grants are annual. The executive head of SANAC Mr Sandile Buthelezi told me he’d found Sadmon’s communication campaign satisfactory. So this is hardly a basis for conflict.

Right of reply

5.10 Mr Sadiki’s attorneys complain that questions had been sent to the Department of Health some three weeks before they had been sent to Sadmon. This showed the “intention” to publish an article without the input of either Mr Sadiki or Sadmon. But no article was published before their input, and as no clause in the Press Code relates to “intention”, this complaint cannot stand up.

Headline

5.11 Mr Sadiki complained about the headline of the first article in the series: “Government pushed R352 million to controversial communications company.”

He says that if people google his company, which works in PR and communications, the word “controversial” will stand out and this is unfair to his reputation.

Mr Low argues that the campaign was marked by various “controversies”, such as the billboards and suggested billboards. However, the final slogan passed the muster of the advertising authority and the suggested slogans – which Spotlight gleaned from the PAIEd documents – were merely proposals that were not adopted. Two major surveys, too, found its reach was less than other campaigns.

Mr Low says that in addition to the slogans, the 2010 article had suggested that the company had run “a pretty amateurish operation”.

But the 2010 article cannot be used as the basis to proclaim it “controversial”, particularly as this was the time when a number of other companies were competing for the tender. The member of a previous consortium told me that many of them were “surprised” when Sadmon was awarded the contract as its campaign had “not shot the lights out.”

5.12 This may be true but it is equally true that Mr Buthelezi , executive director of SANAC, found Sadmon satisfactory. So there seems to be a flimsy basis for using the term “controversial” in a headline, as though it were uncontested fact. Mr Sadiki’s point about the possible damage to his reputation is a valid one.

5.13 The preamble to the Press Code invoke the media to “strive for the truth” and “avoid unnecessary harm.” This seems to be a deliberate attempt to harm a reputation with not enough solid evidence to do so.

5.14 So the headline is unfair and misleading.

Dignity

5.15 Mr Sadiki complains about the footnote on the first article in the series noting his comments have not been edited for “grammar or spelling given that he heads a major communications company.

In an interview with the Ombudsman, he said he found this comment “bordering on racism” . His first two languages are Sepedi and Tshivenda.

5.16 I may have been more forgiving of this had I not found grammatical and spelling errors in Spotlight’s own series. For instance , it spells “won” as “one” ( in the first article) and “forensic” as “phorensic” in questions to the DoH. It also consistently refers to Sadmon as “they” (it is a singular noun).

In any event, in a multi-cultural, multi-lingual country, I found it unfair; this comment impinged on Mr Sadiki’s dignity and reputation.

  1. Finding

6.1 Spotlight should apologise for the headline; at the very least the word “controversial” should have been in inverted commas. There were a number of other creative and informative ways to alert readers that the publication had gained access to documents that opened a window onto a major communications tender without using a word that may cause “unnecessary” harm.

The headline also does not give a “reasonable reflection of the contents” of the article, particularly as no corruption or untoward behaviour was established.

6.2 The publication should also apologise for not exercising sufficient consideration for Mr Sadiki’s dignity. It seemed a gratuitous and ad hominem attack to point out fairly minor errors of grammar. The only relevant sentence that I could find was the following: “Regardless of certain people running HSRC ’08 results and utilize them to further their ulterior motives, we were proud that we were able to move Khomanani reach from 38,4% [in 2006]..to 58,6% [in 2008] with even a greater increased reach among younger audience (-24 years).”  Spotlight itself made minor grammatical and spelling mistakes and although these should always be avoided as much as possible to enhance clear communication, in a country with 11 official languages, some sensitivity may be required when a person’s first language is not English.

6.3 This is a Tier 2 offence. The publication should publish an apology to Sadmon and to Mr Sadiki for the use of the word “controversial” in the headline in a manner that portrayed it as undisputed fact. It should also publish an apology for harming Mr Sadiki’s dignity by unnecessarily criticizing grammatical mistakes in his comments.

The apology should be published online with an appropriate headline and must be approved by the Ombudsman.

The rest of the complaint is dismissed.

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.

Pippa Green

Press Ombudsman

October 15, 2019

[1] Appeal Hearing Decision: Pillay Verashni vs Afriforum and MMA and SANEF; Appeals Panel of the Press Council Case no. 3239/04/2017;

 

[2] Allpay Consolidated Investment Holdings and Others vs Chief Executive Officer of the SA Social Security Agency and Others, Concourt of SA, CCT 48/13

[3] https://www.news24.com/SouthAfrica/News/girls-on-top-billboard-misinterpreted-health-department-20170913

 

[4] See summary of text

[5] See https://www.spotlightnsp.co.za/2019/03/06/health4sale-limpopo-air-ambulance-service-grounded-after-dodgy-contract/

[6] National Treasury, Estimates of National Expenditure, Vote 16:Health, 2018/19