Fikile Mbalula vs Mail & Guardian

Compliant: Fikile Mbalula

Lodged by: Themba Langa

Article: Kebble ‘mentored’ Mbalula

Author of article: Mandy Rossouw

Date: 24 June 2011

Respondent: Mail & Guardian

Complaint

Sports and Recreation Minister Fikile Mbalula complains about a story in the Mail & Guardian, published on April 8, 2011, and headlined Kebble ‘mentored’ Mbalula.

Mbalula complains that the newspaper:
• simply relied on privileged statements made in a court process in which he was not involved (and implies that that is unfair);
• should have dispelled the statement that he was “coached” by Kebble;
• did not verify the butler’s “false and defamatory allegations” as it wanted to undermine his (Mbalula’s) integrity; and
• repeated “false and defamatory statements” made in the book.

Analysis

The story, written by Mandy Rossouw, is about a new book called Killing Kebble by Mandy Wiener. Rossouw focuses on the relationship between slain mining magnate Brett Kebble and Mbalula and reports that the former was one of Mbalula’s earliest mentors – his butler, Mr Andrew Minnaar, reportedly said that Kebble would “coach” Mbalula on what to say and how to say it at ANC Youth League rallies.

The story also says that Kebble was a known benefactor of YL leaders at the time and that Mbalula was then preparing to become the YL’s leader. Minnaar reportedly said that Mbalula had some “scandalous recollections” of Mbalula’s behaviour at Kebble’s house, where he had spent much time.

I shall now consider the merits of the complaint:

Court process

Mbalula complains that the article relies on privileged statements made in a court process in which he was not involved. He says that he did not have the opportunity to dispute allegations in court and that the newspaper therefore should have reported fairly and accurately and not simply have focused on what it perceived to be a “sting”. The implication is that the reportage was unfair.

The M & G denies that it simply relied on privileged statements made in court; it says that the story is based on Wiener’s book. Her book itself, the newspaper adds, does not rely on court testimony only but also on two on-record interviews with sources who had direct experience of the events in question. It says: “The Mail & Guardian was not reporting on the court process (that is something we, like other newspapers, did at the time) but on the contents of Killing Kebble.” The newspaper adds that it reported accurately on the contents of the book and that it recorded Mbalula’s response.

Mbalula replies that the newspaper should have provided the “legal context” as he was not in court to defend and disprove the allegations.

From the story it is clear that the story is not reporting on court proceedings; it is clearly an article on Wiener’s book (that largely contains information about the murder trial). Surely, it was the newspaper’s right to report on the book, which was sold out four days after publication.

There is also nothing unfair about a practice such as this.

It would have been unfair if the reporter did not ask Mbalula’s views, given the nature of the story. But his views are adequately reflected in the story.

Dispelling butler’s version about ‘coaching’

The story’s intro says that Kebble was one of Mbalula’s earliest mentors, “coaching him on what to say and how to say it at ANC Youth League rallies”. This is reflected in the headline Kebble ‘mentored’ Mbalula.

The story also contains Mbalula’s denial that he was “coached” by Kebble or that he was his mentor. It says: “I couldn’t be coached by anyone. Kebble was well versed and well informed, he had views that he would share with us, but that doesn’t amount to coaching.”

Mbalula complains that the M & G should have dispelled Minnaar’s version about his alleged “coaching” by Kebble; the newspaper therefore acted unreasonably by elevating and exclusively relying on the butler’s knowledge of “coaching” in politics.

He also says that he was a mercurial and accomplished speaker at rallies long before Minnaar knew about him. He argues that the M & G should have known that Minnaar failed to understand the nature of the discussions, or that he was simply biased and naïve, or that he over-estimated his appraisal of Kebble’s political prowess.

The M & G replies that:
• it is aware of Mbalula’s record;
• even the most accomplished individuals receive coaching from time to time;
• it is not the newspaper’s claim that Mbalula was coached (it is Minnaar’s claim);
• the claim is in the public interest, given the people involved;
• Wiener corroborated this allegation with court testimony and a second source;
• it reported what Wiener’s best-selling book said; and
• it gave Mbalula an opportunity to respond.

Mbalula replies that people read the “scandalous context that intentionally ridiculed” him, which is the basis on which the newspaper found it to be a “new” and “groundbreaking” report.

It is in the nature of journalism to gather information, to decide which parts of the information is newsworthy, and then to report these parts. For example, newspapers very rarely publish press reports exactly as they are – it picks out newsworthy angles and focuses on them.

In this case, the M & G decided to concentrate on the relationship between Kebble and Mbalula. Given the latter’s public profile this “concentration” is reasonable. There was therefore no reason to “dispel” the butler’s views – not even if it was true that Minnaar did not understand the nature of some discussions, or that he was biased and naïve, or that he over-estimated his appraisal of Kebble’s political prowess.

Also note: The statement that Kebble coached Mbalula does not come from the newspaper – the M & G is merely reporting what Minnaar according to the book said. The butler had the right to say that (even if he was wrong – it is not for me to decide whether Kebble coached Mbalula, as my role is merely to decide if the newspaper was breaching the Press Code) and the newspaper was justified in reporting it.

No verification; undermining integrity

Mbalula says the newspaper was not interested to verify the butler’s false and defamatory allegations as it wanted to defame and undermine his integrity and that of the Office of the Minister of Sport. He says that the M & G adopted or affirmed the defamatory imputation that Wiener made against him.

He adds that the newspaper should have known that they should not rely on a butler’s views regarding “coaching” and that it was unreasonable to aggravate the “defamatory imputation” by putting it on its front page and on street posters.

The M & G argues that Mbalula does not explain why the suggestion of “coaching” is defamatory and adds that there indeed is nothing defamatory about receiving coaching. The newspaper adds that it merely reported on a widely publicized book that relied on two sources and court testimony.

The newspaper denies that it relied on a butler’s views; it says that it reported on the contents of a popular book. It adds: “Our street-pole posters were not misleading in relating to the content of the story.”

As the newspaper was merely reporting on what the book said, it could not reasonably be expected to verify what Minnaar said. That was not the purpose of the story.

There is also no reason for me to believe that the M & G wanted to defame and undermine Mbalula’s integrity, or that the newspaper “adopted” or “affirmed” allegations in the book.

Repeating false, defamatory statements

Mbalula complains that the hurried way in which the book was compiled and its “inferior research quality” should have alerted the newspaper that they “cannot repeat allegations from such a manifestly failed and dangerous literary project”. He adds: “Therefore, Mail & Guardian made a choice to be malicious in its repetition of the false and defamatory allegations…”

The M & G says it is not required to assess the speed at which the book was compiled – its “sales and wide publicity made it a news event regardless”. It also says that the book was grounded in primary research.

The newspaper also says that the claims made in the book may have been potentially controversial, but that they were not defamatory. It says: “We recorded accurately the contents of the book and Mr Mbalula’s comments. In other words, we did what was required by both the code and the law.”

Mbalula replies that the repetition of defamation is also defamation – and that the newspaper is guilty of this.

Unfortunately Mbalula did not spell out which statements in the story he deemed as defamatory of him. Surely, it cannot be the reference to coaching or mentor, as this would not seriously harm his public image and reputation.

Perhaps he meant the “scandalous recollections” that the story refers to, for example for reporting:
• that Mbalula used to finish a bottle of Whiskey in an hour’s time;
• Minnaar’s allegation that Mbalula was “arrogant”; and/or
• Ms Laura Sham’s (Kebbles former personal assistant) allegation that he behaved like an “absolute hooligan”.

However, Mbalula never complained that these allegations were false.

In light of the above, it is not reasonable to find that the story defamed Mbalula.

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 reached at khanyim@ombudsman.org.za.

Johan Retief
Deputy Press Ombudsman