Melanie Hatjigiannakis vs. Timeslive

 

Ruling by the Press Ombudsman

June 28, 2013

This ruling is based on the written submissions of Melanie Hatjigiannakis, general manager of the Vacation Ownership Association of Southern Africa, and Susan Smuts, legal editor of the Sunday Times.

Complaint

Hatjigiannakis complains about a story headlined Timeshare Bandits: Thousands of timeshare owners have been short-changed for years – but all that is about to change, in the TimesLive, published on 4 June 2013.

She complains that the:

  • story unfairly portrayed the timeshare industry in a negative light, either by the text or by omission;
  • headline and subheading added to this perception; and
  • journalist used her comment out of context.

Analysis

The story, written by Leonie Wagner, said that the National Consumer Commission (NCC) was investigating 545 complaints from disgruntled holidaymakers.

Unfair story – negative light

Hatjigiannakis mentions the following parts of the story in her complaint:

  • The NCC had investigated alleged complaints from holidaymakers relating to the timeshare industry;
  • The NCC had been inundated with complaints relating to holiday contracts; and
  • Those found guilty of contravening any provisions of the Consumer Protection Act faced fines of up to R1-million or 10% of their annual turnover.

She adds that she provided the publication with statistics – which it omitted, but which would have presented the industry “in a different light to that which appears in the article”.

TimesLive says that Hatjigiannakis was not in a position to deny that the NCC was investigating the matter, or that the commission had been flooded with complaints about the timeshare industry, “or any other details about the investigation”.

The publication is correct on the above. In her complaint, Hatjigiannakis did not elaborate on why the matters that she mentioned were in dispute, and I cannot find any trace of evidence that the story was either inaccurate or unfair towards the industry.

Also, the story did use the relevant parts of the statistics that she had provided TimesLive with – it stated that the NCC were investigating 545 complaints of the more than 740 000 holders of timeshares (the story also referred to 741 775 owners – information supplied by Hatjigiannakis herself).

Surely, the readers would have been able to make up their own minds if these complaints represented a significant percentage of owners or not.

Headline, subheading

Let me repeat the headings here: Timeshare Bandits: Thousands of timeshare owners have been short-changed for years – but all that is about to change.

Hatjigiannakis complains that the headlines portrayed the timeshare industry in a negative light.

The newspaper replies that the headlines accurately reflected what was in the story.

I beg to differ. The story is about an investigation that was underway. Wagner also quoted some dissatisfied clients – but their comments were still untested. There is nothing in the story that even remotely pointed to wrong-doing that had been committed.

Therefore, calling timeshare people “bandits” (read: outlaws, robbers, gangsters, cheaters, exploiters) was not based on the story. This was a conclusion, stated as fact, prior to the outcome of the NCC’s investigation.

The same goes for the sub-headline.

This was both inaccurate and unfair to the timeshare industry, and it did not reflect the content of the story (as prescribed in the Press Code) – and they certainly had the potential to cause the industry some unnecessary harm.

Using comment out of context

Hatjigiannakis complains about the following sentence which quoted her as saying: “The association (Vacation Ownership Association of Southern Africa, VOASA) had advised all timeshare companies not to comment on the matter until the investigation was completed.”

She says that this comment was taken out of context. In an email by her, addressed to TimesLive on 3 June 2013, she stated: “Due to the recent media frenzy that has resulted, more so inaccurate, and at times, malicious statements made we have advised our industry members to refrain from commenting on any matters which fall within the scope of the NCC investigation in order to ensure that the investigation be conducted impartially. However, we are at liberty to share some industry statistics which hopefully will give you a better understanding of our industry’s size, economic contribution; and place into perspective the issue of complaints.”

She concludes that VOASA, in requesting its members to refrain from commenting actually aimed at facilitating the NCC’s investigation “as opposed to hindering it”.

While I can understand that Hatjigiannakis was unhappy because the story did not state her good/positive intentions regarding the withholding of comment, I also do not believe that the story portrayed a negative message (read: withholding comment in order to hinder the investigation).

Finding

Unfair story – negative light

This part of the complaint is dismissed.

Headline, subheading

The headings are in breach of the following sections of the Press Code:

  • 10.1: “Headlines…shall give a reasonable reflection of the contents of the report…in question”; and
  • 2.1: “The press shall take care to report news truthfully, accurately and fairly.”

Using comment out of context

This part of the complaint is dismissed.

Sanction

TimesLive is directed to apologise to VOASA in general and to Hatjigiannakis in particular for its incorrect and misleading headline.

The publication is directed to publish the following text:

TimesLive apologises to Vacation Ownership Association of Southern Africa and to Ms Melanie Hatjigiannakis (VOASA’s general manager), for publishing a headline that was both inaccurate and unfair to the timeshare industry, and which was not based on the content of the story.

Hatjigiannakis lodged a complaint with the Press Ombudsman about a story in TimesLive headlined Timeshare Bandits: Thousands of timeshare owners have been short-changed for years – but all that is about to change (published on 4 June 2013).

The story, written by Leonie Wagner, said that the National Consumer Commission (NCC) was investigating 545 complaints from disgruntled holidaymakers.

The Ombudsman, Johan Retief, said that the headlines “certainly had the potential to cause the industry some unnecessary harm”. He stressed the fact that the investigation was still underway. “Therefore, calling timeshare people ‘bandits’…was a conclusion, stated as fact, prior to the outcome of the NCC’s investigation.”

He dismissed Hatjigiannakis’s complaints that the story had put the timeshare industry in a negative light and that we have quoted her out of context.

Visit www.presscouncil.org.za for the full finding.

End of text

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