Compliant: Allen Jones
Lodged by: Allen Jones
Article: High-flier takes low road
Author of article: Mark Thomas
Date: 27 April 2012
This ruling is based on the written submissions of Mr Allen Jones and the Noseweek magazine, and a hearing held on 24 April 2012 in Johannesburg.
Jones represented himself and Martin Welz represented the magazine. The two members of the Press Appeals Panel who assisted me were Peter Mann (press representative) and Brian Gibson (public representative).
Former senior executive of Bond Exchange of South Africa (Besa) Allen Jones complained about an article in Noseweek, written by Mark Thomas and published in January 2012 and headlined High-flier takes low road.
Jones’ complaint, expressed through voluminous correspondence between January and the present, is that a number of statements in the article were untruthful, unverified, unfair, distorted, exaggerated and/or malicious, including:
• The reference to him having at least three homes in South Africa and one in France, as well as a farm near Franschhoek;
• The reference to him being a “sociopath”;
• Repeated references to him “defrauding the state”;
• The amount refunded by him to the UIF was wrong;
• Questioning his ethics relating to his early retirement from Besa and contractual arrangement with Safe;
• Incorrect spelling of Garth Greubel’s name;
• That he dressed as a “hobo” when drawing his UIF payments;
• Him “playing the system”;
• A suggestion that he had attempted to bribe the journalists when he offered: “Please don’t publish anything about this yet, I’ll pay you to come see me in Johannesburg so that we can discuss this further”.
• The caption – “Allen Jones off-duty from his bumming activities.”
Prior to the hearing, Noseweek had conceded and offered to correct errors in respect of Garth Breubel’s name and the amount repaid to UIF.
The thrust of article, written by Mark Thomas, was that Jones had defrauded the Department of Labour by claiming Unemployment Insurance Fund (UIF) benefits that were not due to him because he had retired from Besa (rather than being dismissed) and/or been employed by South African Financial Exchange (Safe); and that it was immoral for him to have done so because he was relatively wealthy while the UIF was intended for “the poor”.
The bulk of the five hour hearing was taken up by an examination of the facts relating to the legitimacy of Jones drawing UIF benefits.
Noseweek called two witnesses, Messrs Jannie Botha and Francois Venter from Safe.
The Panel heard evidence from Venter and Botha that they were involved in a protracted and rancorous commercial legal dispute with Jones, that they were the source of the Noseweek article, and that they had reported Jones to the UIF. They justified their action on the grounds of “public interest” and “good governance”. The Panel noted that they had not reported the alleged fraud to the prosecuting authorities – although they indicated at the hearing that they might still do so.
The Panel decided that it was not necessary to make a ruling on the legality or otherwise of the UIF payments to Jones. Nor was it equipped to do so. The Panel’s job was to determine if Noseweek was justified in reporting on the matter (it was) and whether the article complied with the Press Code.
The Press Code requires the media to be fair, avoid distortion and exaggeration and take exceptional care in matters involving dignity and reputation.
Welz conceded that, in the absence of a criminal charge, prosecution or court finding, Noseweek should have “alleged” that Jones had acted fraudulently rather than reporting it as a fact. However, he strongly defended Noseweek’s right to infer that, at best, it was morally inappropriate for Jones to draw UIF benefits.
The Panel found that Noseweek was remiss in not acknowledging the potentially malicious motives of its source and/or allowing the source to influence the hostile style of the article, including the potentially defamatory reference to Jones being a “sociopath” (which was stated as a fact and not as an opinion or attributed to a source).
Welz conceded that Thomas had “gone too far” in calling Jones a sociopath (many dictionaries are agreed that a “sociopath” is a person with a psychopathic personality whose behaviour is anti-social, and who lacks a sense of moral responsibility or social conscience).
Botha and Venter said that they informed Noseweek that Jones dressed as a hobo when drawing his UIF funds. They gave evidence that five colleagues in the Safe offices had seen this. However, these witnesses had now turned in favour of Jones. Jones denied the claim, saying that he had worn “collar and tie”. The Panel was therefore not in a position to make a finding on the truthfulness of the statement.
However, in the interests of balance and fairness, we found that Noseweek should at least have revealed that the allegation came from a source that was involved in a major dispute with Jones – the story simply states the “hobo” reference as a fact. Also, the caption states it as a fact that Jones was off-duty “from his bumming activities”, again without attribution.
Welz insisted that Jones’ offer of an air ticket to the reporter was an “improper inducement” while Jones claimed that it was intended as a genuine offer of co-operation in order that the journalist could review his copious files on the nature of his dispute with Safe. Given the overall tone of the article, the Panel was inclined to accept that the journalist had read too much into Jones’ offer.
The Panel found that there was nothing untoward in Jones negotiating a new employment contract with Safe while still in the employ of Besa.
Based on the evidence, the Panel found that Jones did indeed own a home in France, but not a farm in Franschhoek. His alleged part ownership of three homes in South Africa was moot: although the journalist got it wrong that he was married in community of property (he showed us his Ante-nuptial Contract), but declined on the grounds of privacy to reveal details relating to the accrual system.
The Panel has decided to make no formal finding, and to revert to an agreement with both parties – Welz will craft an Editor’s Note that takes into account the arguments of the Panel as outlined above. He will submit this to the Deputy Press Ombudsman who will seek the comment of the panellists and Jones. Once the Editor’s Note has been agreed to by all the parties, it will be published in a prominent position in the next edition of Noseweek.
Deputy Press Ombudsman