Appeal Decision: Maritzburg Sun and Public Eye vs Melanie Veness

Decision: Application for leave to appeal

Applicant: Maritzburg Sun and Public Eye

Respondent: Melanie Veness

Matter No: 73/2014

DECISION: APPLICATION FOR LEAVE TO APPEAL TO THE APPEALS PANEL

[1]    The applicants, Maritzburg Sun and the Public Eye (Media 24) apply for leave to appeal to the Appeals Panel against the Ruling of the Press Ombudsman dated 25 March 2014.  The respondent is Melanie Veness, who is the Chief Executive Officer (“CEO”) of the Pietermaritzburg Chamber of Business (the “PCB”).

[2]     The Ruling followed a complaint by the respondent.  This was as a result of the stories and headlines carried by the two newspapers.  The contents of the stories were the same in the two papers, headlined “City Chamber forced to retract bulletin”.  The Maritzburg Sun reported: “The Pietermarizburg Chamber of Business has been forced to make a grovelling apology to The Witness’s new owners Media 24…..after reporting in last week’s E-Biz-Blitz that 17 more Witness staffers face retrenchment…” Public Eye used the same opening sentence, but left out the word “grovelling.”  In each paper, there was a cartoon of the respondent on her knees apologizing to the editor of the Witness. The E-Biz-Blitz is an electronic newsletter of the PCB.

[3]     This is a brief background to the story complained about: The newsletter of the PCB reported that the owners of the Witness were retrenching staff and, secondly, were shifting the focus of the newspaper from Pietermaritzburg to Durban.  It reported that a lot of staff members were uncertain about their future.  There was also doubt expressed about the paper’s commitment to Pietermaritzburg.  Shortly thereafter the respondent, in her capacity as CEO of the Pietermaritzburg Chamber of Business, contacted the editor of the newsletter. She expressed concern that the newsletter might convey that the PCB had taken up the issue of labour against its own member, The Witness /its owners. She was also of the view that the owners of the Witness have repeatedly demonstrated commitment to Pietermaritzburg.  As a result of her intervention, the editor of the newsletter published an article apologizing and, as alleged by the applicants, made a 180 degree turn.  It was as a result of this apology that the headlines and the stories emerged.  The respondent says that she spoke to her editor as she felt the article in their newsletter was wrong.  She says it was the editor himself who thereafter decided to apologize; and she denies that the PCB (or her editor for that matter) was forced to apologize, let alone in a “grovelling” manner.  The Witness never asked the Pietermaritzburg Chamber of Business to apologize, she says.

[4]     The respondent’s complaints were accurately summed-up by the Ombudsman.

4.1    The stories and the headlines were factually incorrect in saying that the Pietermaritzburg Chamber of Business was forced to apologize.

4.2    The cartoon which accompanied the story reinforced this lie, and it was sexist and defamatory of respondent.

4.3    The Pietermaritzburg Chamber of Business was not contacted for comment.

[5]     The Ombudsman made no finding with regard to the issue of the Pietermaritzburg Chamber of Business having been allegedly forced by the Witness or its owners to apologize.  The complaint that the cartoon was sexist and defamatory was dismissed.  However, the Ombudsman found that the use of the word “grovelling” was unjustified, and therefore that articles 2.1 and 2.2 of the Press Code were violated. The depiction of the respondent representing the PCB in a grovelling position in front of the editor of the Witness was found to be unjustified as, in the words of the Ombudsman, there was no indication of such subservience. The complaint that the BCP had not been asked to comment was also upheld, the Ombudsman finding that article 2.5 had been breached; the sanction imposed was reprimand. Maritzburg Sun was directed to apologize to the PCB for saying in the story that the apology was grovelling. Both newspapers were directed to apologize to the respondent and the PCB for presenting the respondent in a grovelling position in the cartoon in front of the editor of the Witness. The applicants were directed to publish PCB’s views as part of an apology. The text had to be approved by the Ombudsman.  It is against the above Ruling that the applicants seek leave to appeal.

[6] There is little to gainsay the argument that the applicants did not ask the PCB to comment. The fact that the papers did publish its views did not cure the defect. It is true, as the applicants contend, that the issue of job losses is a matter of public interest, as also the allegation that the owners of the Witness were tending to shift the focus of the business of the paper to Durban. Equally cogent is their argument that much as the Witness or its owners (Media 24) were members of the PCB, the latter was obliged to take up issues of job losses and the shift of business focus. The need to have asked for comment has been demonstrated by the kind of the subsequent responses received from the respondent, namely, that the owners of the Witness had on a number of occasions publicly stated the paper’s commitment to Pietermaitzburg. She says at no stage did anyone from the applicants contact her to find out what had actually happened. The respondent has also pointed out that the editor of their newsletter decided on the apology himself after she had explained the position to him. I mention in passing that, in not making a finding (against the applicants) that the applicants did in fact convey that the apology had been forced and that they had no justification to say so, the Ombudsman was generous to them. I say so because, as the Ombudsman puts it, for the applicants to say that the editorial independence of the editor of the PCB’s newsletter was compromised, is to suggest that pressure was brought to bear on the editor or indeed the PCB or respondent. Regarding the issue of a grovelling apology and the cartoon, the Ombudsman was also right. While it is true, as the applicants argue, that respondent is a public figure by virtue of her position as the CEO of the Chamber, the depiction was not justified at all.

[7] For the reasons given above, together with those by the Ombudsman, I hold that the applicants have no reasonable prospects of success before the Appeals Panel, and the application for leave to appeal is therefore refused.

                  Dated this 17th day of June 2014.

                       Judge B M Ngoepe, Chair, Appeals Panel.