Appeal Decision: Pistorius Family vs City Press

Decision: Application for leave to appeal

Applicant: Rapport and City Press

Respondent: Oscar Pistorius and others

Matter No: 205/2013

Application for leave to appeal to the Appeals Panel: Decision

1. The appellants seek leave to appeal the Ruling of the Ombudsman dated 24 August 2013 on complaints submitted by the respondent and his family. The complaints followed reportage in the applicants’ editions of 30 June 2013 on Oscar Pistorius (respondent). As the same story was carried in both newspapers, their application will herein be treated as one; indeed, the applicants themselves approached the matter in that way, not separately. This Decision is based on the coverage in Rapport; however, same considerations apply with regard to the one in City Press. Furthermore, I will only deal with complaints in respect of which the Ombudsman ruled against the Applicants, as well as the sanction.

2. In broad terms, the story was that respondent went to an Audi dealership to buy an R8 Audi; it also said that respondent, while at the dealership, was brash and demanding and was accompanied by bodyguards and a woman, with an impression given by the applicants that the woman was his girlfriend. As it later turned out, respondent did not by an Audi R8, nor was he accompanied by any bodyguards. The allegations that he was brash and demanding, and that he was with a girlfriend, also turned out not to be true. These allegations were the substance of the complaints by the respondent and his family against the applicants.

3. That the story was inaccurate: The Ombudsman found that the story was inaccurate. As said earlier, respondent did not go to the dealer to buy an Audi R8, but a different Audi. Documentary proof was provided to this effect. A statement by an employee was also submitted, denying that respondent was brash, demanding, had bodyguards or came with a girlfriend; he came with his male and female relatives. Applicants contend that the Ombudsman erred in accepting this document, and also not showing it to them for comments or response. It is hard to see what difference this would have made, given the fact that the written statement was real evidence; furthermore and very importantly, applicants declined the offer from the Ombudsman to disclose to him, on condition of confidentiality, their source. On the contrary, respondent did take the offer. In the end, the credibility of applicants’ sources was compromised. I agree with the Ombudsman that the inaccurate publication unfairly tarnished respondent’s public image. However, I do not agree with him that the applicants were justified in reporting all these allegations; I do not see any diligent effort on the applicants to verify the allegations, or an indication of the extent to which they tried. I do not agree, as applicants argue, that the Ombudsman was wrong in the manner in which he handled the written statement and the weight he attached to it. It contained a first hand account of what transpired; it can hardly be an opinion to say someone was not brash or demanding when one relates to an interaction they had with the other. I any case, there was no contrary evidence; there would have been no rational basis on which to disbelieve the account given. Finally on this point, I think the request for information on the basis of confidentiality was appropriate; it is a salutary step in the attempt to resolve matters as expeditiously as possible.

4. Regarding the headlines, photograph and the story’s structure. Respondent’s picture was superimposed on that of an Audi R8. The first headline read: “Oscar vry glo na nog ‘n vuurwa-“ and the second one was “Vuurwa vir Oscar? ‘Parmantige Pistorius daag glo met lyfwagte op en is veeleisend oor aflewering van voertuig.” While the headlines were an accurate reflection of the contents of the report, the Ombudsman found them to be falling foul of the Code in that the content of the report itself was inaccurate as already pointed out above. I agree with the Ombudsman, as also with the reasons he gives.

5. The online version reflected the content of the story as fact instead of putting it across as a mere allegation. Again, the Ombudsman was right.

6. I do not agree with the applicants that the sanction imposed by the Ombudsman is “unduly harsh.” I appreciate that City Press report was on page 2. But one must take into account the fact that respondent was a well known person, even beyond the borders of the country. The inaccuracy was gross, and the headlines, as they often are, very sensationalist. I don’t think the severity of the sanction, if any, is so incongruous with the deed, that it would warrant intervention.

7. For the reasons given above, I hold that the applicants do not have a reasonable chance of success on appeal; leave to appeal is therefore refused.

Given on this 18th day of October 2013.

Judge B M Ngoepe, Chair, Appeals Panel