Carlton Adams vs Plainsman

ComplainantCarlton Adams

Lodged by: Carlton Adams

Article: Dad has to pay for son’s bicycle accident

Author of article: Brian Joss

Date: 13 December 2011

Respondent:  Plainsman

Complaint
Mr Carlton Adams complains about a consumer column in the Plainsman (called Off my Trolley), published on October 26, 2011and headlined Dad has to pay for son’s bicycle accident.
Adams complains that the:
  • journalist did not properly introduce himself;
  • publication of personal information has put his family in danger; and
  • story is not fair and balanced.
Analysis
The column, written by Brian Joss, is about a case in the Wynberg Small Claims Court in which Adams and a 15-year-old boy (with the surname of Johnson) were involved after the former’s car and the latter’s bicycle had collided. The court ruled in Adams’ favour.
I shall now look at the merits of the complaint:

Journalist not properly introducing himself

Adams complains that he did not believe that the person who had phoned him (Joss) was a journalist as the latter told him that he (Adams) did not have to answer his questions, thereby “passively encouraging” him not to give his side of the story. He says that Joss then asked him why he did not claim from his insurance company directly, and argues: “I found this question very strange and immediately thought that the person on the other end of the telephone line was maybe a family member…” (of the boy). Adams says that he then said that he had no comment and that he (Joss) should call his insurance legal department. He adds that he suspects that Joss may be a member of the Johnson family.

Although Adams admits that Joss did tell him he is a journalist who works for Media 24, he says that the reporter never mentioned a specific newspaper and that he intended to write an article about his involvement in the court case. He concludes that he would have given his side of the story, had he believed that Joss was a journalist.
Joss replies that he always identifies himself, as he says he did in this case. He says he told Adams that:
  • his name was Brian Joss (he says he spelled it out for Adams, arguing that he could not have mistaken him for a member of the Johnson family);
  • he works for Cape Community Papers;
  • he is a news editor;
  • he writes a column called Off my Trolley, which appears in the Plainsman;
  • he was writing about the accident; and
  • would like to hear Adams’ side of the story.
The journalist denies that he told Adams that he did not have to answer his questions, saying: “If I phone someone for comment why would I tell them they don’t have to answer the question?”
Joss admits that he does know Johnson, who used to work at Independent Newspapers as a storeman. He says that he has “only had a nodding acquaintance” with him and denies that they were related.
Adams disputes most of what Joss has replied.
As there is no tape recording of the conversation between Joss and Adams, I am left with precious few indications to work with.
Here are my considerations:
  • Adams has admitted that Joss told him that he was a journalist;
  • Even if Joss did not tell him for what specific newspaper he was working, Adams could have asked him that question;
  • If somebody phones you and tells you he is a journalist, you should expect something to be published; and
  • It is unlikely that Joss called Adams merely to “passively encourage” him to not respond.
I conclude that the impression that Adams says he had of Joss as not being a journalist can reasonably be ascribed to a misunderstanding.
Identification endangering family’s life
The sentence in dispute reads: “…he (the boy) was involved in a collision with a BMW 330ci (2001) driven by Carlton Adams of Belair Crescent, Westgate.”
Adams says that he is a policeman and complains that this information makes it easy for criminals to trace him. He adds that he has two toddlers, whose life is now in danger. He says that he has “no choice” but to have his wife and children live somewhere else. He also remarks that Joss did not mention the street name of where Mr Ebe Johnson (the boy’s father) lives.
Joss says if Adams had spoken to him, he would probably have learned that he was a policeman and that he would then have left out his street address. He says: “There was no intention of putting anyone’s life in danger and there was certainly no malice intended…”
Adams replies that Joss has invaded his privacy by publishing his personal information. He says that there are many criminals who have a score to settle with him and adds that his street is less than 200 meters long (making it easy for people to trace him). He also states that he is not a public figure and argues that the story was not in the public’s interest.
I take into account the fact that the information that Adams complains about was in the public domain as the case was held in a court of law. It is unfortunate that Joss did not know that Adams was a policeman, but the journalist cannot be blamed for this as Adams cut short the telephone conversation. The personal harm what Adams has to endure is unfortunate, but not the reporter’s mistake – it could have been prevented if Adams spoke to Joss.
Story not fair, balanced
Adams complains that the mentioning of all his personal information makes the column unbalanced, untruthful and unfair.
Joss replies that he believes his column was fair and adds that, if there are any inaccuracies, he shall correct it speedily. He says leaving out Johnson’s street address “was an oversight”.
Adams responds that the following considerations convince him that the column was unfair:
  • The mere fact that there is common cause between Joss and Johnson; and
  • Joss has published an issue that has no bearing on consumer issues in a consumer column – he says that he believes that Johnson has used his friend to name and shame him.
I am not going to comment on the content of the column – even if the text was inappropriate, this cannot by default represent a breach of the Press Code. Moreover, the column mainly contains opinion, to which everybody is entitled.
I also take into account that Joss not only tried to contact Adams, but that he also reportedly spoke to both Sansure (more than once) and Santam. Those actions, I submit, represent a reasonable attempt to be fair and balanced.
As far as the “untruthful” part of the complaint goes, Adams has in fact not pointed to any inaccuracy in the column.
Finding
The complaint is dismissed in its entirety.
Sanction
There is no sanction.
Appeal
Please note that our Complaints Procedures lay down that within seven days of receipt of this decision, anyone of the parties may apply for leave to appeal to the Chairperson of the SA Press Appeals Panel, Judge Ralph Zulman, fully setting out the grounds of appeal. He can be contacted at Khanyim@ombudsman.org.za.
Johan Retief
Deputy Press Ombudsman