Larry Lipschitz vs Sunday Times

Compliant: Larry Lipschitz

Lodged by: Billy Gundelfinger

Article: Getting paid to go away – Robert Laing introduces the boys who made a mint out of quitting (page 5).

Author of article: 

Date: 14 February 2011

Respondent: Sunday Times

Complaint
Dr Larry Lipschitz complains about a story in Sunday Times, published on December 5, 2010 and headlined  Getting paid to go away – Robert Laing introduces the boys who made a mint out of quitting (page 5).
The complaint is that the expression used with reference to him, namely that he was “on the skids”, is defamatory and false.
Lipschitz says the statements in the story that he was reportedly dissatisfied with his R6.4 million severance package and that he disputed the settlement with Super Group were “settled amicably” between him and the newspaper.
Analysis
The story starts by making the following statements:
  • “Getting fired can produce a particularly bountiful payday for a CEO…”
  • “Indeed, he (the CEO) can ‘earn’ more in that single day, while cleaning out his desk, than an American worker earns in a lifetime of cleaning toilets.”
  • “Forget the old maxim about nothing succeeds like success: today, in the executive suite, the all-too-prevalent rule is that nothing succeeds like failure…”
The story later refers to Lipschitz who was “reportedly dissatisfied” with his R6.4 million severance package. It adds: “The company’s new management team, which had to salvage Super Group…told Business Times last year that its former CEO was disputing the settlement if offered him.”
Next to the story a picture of Lipschitz is accompanied by this caption: “On the skids: Larry Lipschitz, former CEO of transport company Super Group”.
 We shall now consider the merits of the complaint:
Lipschitz complains that it is not true that he was “on the skids” – this expression, he says, is defamatory and false. He adds that he has been humiliated and embarrassed before the general public.
He argues that the expression in dispute has the following dictionary definitions:
  • declining fortunes, a movement toward defeat, or downfall;
  • in the process of decline or deterioration; and
  • in serious decline and trouble.
The Sunday Times says that the caption “On the skids” should be read together with the fact that Super Group is in the transport business. It says that the expression is word play that should not be taken literally. It argues that no reasonable person would believe that Lipschitz was literally on the skids, given the fact that the initial severance package offered to him was R6.4 million.
To this, Lipschitz replies that the:
  • caption carries the message to the general public of a truck that is out of control and about to crash;
  • average reader of the Sunday Times would not know that Super Group is in the transport sector – hence the newspaper’s “word play” cannot serve as a justification; and
  • caption should be seen in the context of the article, “which alludes to the negative performance or actions of various businessmen”.
Firstly, the argument by Lipschitz that the average reader would not know that Super Group was in the transport sector cannot hold water – the caption clearly says that he is a former CEO of transport company Super Group.
This means that, at least theoretically, the newspaper’s argument regarding “word play” may be valid.
Given the fact that Super Group was in the transport business and also that it was mentioned as such, it is reasonable to accept the newspaper’s argument regarding “word play”.
However, the mere use of “word play” does not by default justify the use of the words in dispute. Surely, one can play with words and go too far in the process…
So the question is: What message does this expression carry? If it was not meant literally, then what was it supposed to mean?
This is where the problem starts, because the Sunday Times, in its reply to the complaint, does not make any attempt to explain what exactly it meant by this expression.
The newspaper also does not deny that the words “on the skids” can mean declining fortunes, a movement towards defeat, downfall, in the process of decline or deterioration, in serious decline and trouble – all negative words and expressions.
Furthermore, its denial that the expression was meant literally implies to me that the newspaper accepted that, if the words “on the skids” were meant literally, it would have portrayed an unfair negative message regarding Lipschitz.
Based on the above-mentioned considerations and given the context of the story (which is, rightly or wrongly, negative regarding the people mentioned in it), it is reasonable to accept that the expression portrayed a negative message regarding him (word play or no word play) – and probably unjustly so because it is (by the newspaper’s own admission) most likely not literally true.
The newspaper’s argument that no reasonable person would believe that Lipschitz was literally on the skids (given the initial severance package of R6.4 million offered to him) may have some merit. However, it is risky to use (negative) word play and then to hope that the public would not interpret it wrongly – based on a sentence somewhere in the middle of the story.
The fact remains that it was written that he was “on the skids” – and that that expression can probably only be interpreted in a way that unfairly portrays him in a negative light.
Finding
 
It is reasonable to believe that the expression “on the skids” falsely and unfairly portrayed a negative message regarding Lipschitz – whether it was meant literally or figuratively. This is in breach of Art. 1.1 of the Press Code that says: “The press shall be obliged to report news truthfully, accurately and fairly.”
 
Sanction
The Sunday Times is directed to publish the following text on page 5:
Dr Larry Lipschitz complained about a story in Sunday Times, published on December 5, 2010 and headlined Getting paid to go away – Robert Laing introduces the boys who made a mint out of quitting. He said that the expression used underneath a picture of him, namely that he was “on the skids”, was defamatory and false.
The story was about CEOs who were getting millions after getting fired or after quitting.
Deputy Press Ombudsman Johan Retief found that it was reasonable to believe that the expression “on the skids” falsely and unfairly portrayed a negative message regarding Lipschitz – whether it was meant literally or figuratively (as we argued). This was in breach of Art. 1.1 of the Press Code that says: “The press shall be obliged to report news truthfully, accurately and fairly.”
We retract the expression “on the skids” and regret any embarrassment caused to Lipschitz.
Visit www.presscouncil.org.za (rulings, 2010) for the full finding.

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