James Evans vs Sunday Times

Complainant: James Evans

Lodged by: James Evans

Article: ‘Dysfunctional’ Athletics SA hierarchy under fire

Author of article: David Isaacson

Date: 15 December 2013

Respondent: Sunday Times

Complaint

Evans complains about the story headlined ‘Dysfunctional’ Athletics SA hierarchy under fire, published on 10 November 2013 in the Sunday Times.

He complains that he was not given sufficient time to respond before the story had been published.

Please note that I cannot entertain the rest of his complaint in which he states that the journalist has a grudge against him and that calling him a “white Chuene” was racist. Firstly, this office can hardly be expected to investigate “grudges”; secondly, the reporter did not call Evans a “white Chuene” in the story (which is the focus of my attention).

Also, in later correspondence Evans adds new complaints (such as him getting paid). It would be unfair of this office to entertain such matters.

Analysis

The story, written by David Isaacson, reported that pressure was mounting on Evans “with a move to oust him” before ASA’s general meeting.

Not enough time

Evans says that the journalist gave him less than 48 hours to respond and that he refused to listen when told that the time was too short to do that adequately. He adds that some of the questions required some consultation with staff members who were on leave (such as an allegation which amounted to theft or fraud against him).

Despite the above, he says that the reporter then sent him two more emails with more questions. “It was accordingly impossible to know what was to be answered in the limited time available…” He explains that while some of the questions were of a personal nature, others were about the ASA (which needed consultation).

Evans adds that the ASA’s presidency was not his full-time job and that the journalist did not reply to his request for clarity on one of the questions.

Smuts responds that:

  • two days was ample opportunity to respond – the questions did not require forensic research, files to be retrieved or legal opinion to be sought. The questions were within Evans’s personal knowledge and “relatively easy for him to answer”;
  • Evans has previously disdained the opportunity to respond to questions;
  • one of his duties was to liaise with the media – if he was unable to do so at any given time, he should have delegated the duty to somebody else (who, in this case, could have responded to many of the questions); and
  • Evans made no effort to answer any of the questions – if he had responded to those that he was able to answer and asked for more time to check his facts about others, the newspaper would have regarded this as acting in good faith and may have treated requests for further time with more sympathy. In the circumstances, the newspaper regarded his refusal to answer as a cynical attempt to derail publication.

Evans replies to the above as follows:

  • Consultation was indeed necessary before he could respond. For example, there was a question which only its attorneys could answer (they were in Johannesburg, while he lived in Cape Town);
  • He disputes that the journalist gave him two days to respond – Isaacson sent his queries at 7:04 on a Friday morning, with further questions the following day. He notes that a Saturday was not a business day, which meant that ASA was closed during that time. “In effect, less than 10 hours during a business day were given to a national federation to answer. That is grossly unreasonable and is certainly not 2 days”;
  • The newspaper’s argument that he was trying to derail publication was unsubstantiated – in fact, he did not make any threats of legal or any other action, but actually offered to answer “if the time was given”;
  • Media liaison was not part of his responsibilities – Isaacson should rather have directed his questions to his office, adding that he was too busy to contact his office to deal with the queries; and
  • The newspaper’s response to his complaint was more an attack on him than it addressed the complaint.

Smuts then again responds, saying that:

  • it would be useful if Evans could identify the question that only the attorneys could answer and point out how it prejudiced him in the story;
  • Evans was pedantic about the time he had to respond – he had the whole Friday and Saturday to answer the questions; and
  • for stories concerning the political side of athletics Evans was always the person to contact; after the person who had been responsible for the sporting side of athletics resigned, he remained ASA’s only spokesperson. Evans sends out press releases and the first time he referred a matter to somebody else for comment was only after the publication of the story in dispute. Besides, the fact remained that Evans did not refer Isaacson to anybody else when approached for comment on this story.

My considerations

After having studied the list of questions posed by Isaacson to Evans at 7:04 on November 8, I have to agree with Sunday Times that the nature and extent of the questions were not such that it was unreasonable to expect of Evans to at least have responded to some of them, if not all, by the end of Saturday.

I also take into account that he did not refer the questions to somebody else, which implied that he was taking responsibility in this matter.

Finding

The complaint is dismissed.

Appeal

Our Complaints Procedures lay down that within seven working days of receipt of this decision, either party may apply for leave to appeal to the Chairperson of the SA Press Adjudication Panel, Judge Bernard Ngoepe, fully setting out the grounds of appeal. He can be contacted at Khanyim@ombudsman.org.za.

Johan Retief

Press Ombudsman