Safa vs Sunday Times

Complainant: Safa

Lodged by: Robin Petersen

Article: Where the Safa millions went – Soccer’s dirty war hots up as report reveals abuse of World Cup money

Author of article: Rob Rose, Stephan Hofstatter and Mzilikazi wa Afrika

Date: 15 June 2013

Respondent: Sunday Times

Complaint

Safa complains about a front page story in Sunday Times on 28 April 2013, headlined Where the Safa millions went – Soccer’s dirty war hots up as report reveals abuse of World Cup money.

The soccer body complains that the following sentences were inaccurate and misleading:

·         “…suspicions deepened that soccer bosses had dipped into World Cup cash to keep Safa afloat”;

·         “…proof may lie in the KPMG audited financial statements of Safa for the year to June 2012”;

·         “…even though this (the buying of Mercedes-Benzes for SfA’s executives in 2011) was not budgeted for”; and

·         “…he admitted that Safa had spent money it should not have on various items…”

Safa also complains that the:

·         story omitted material information; and

·         the headline and sub-headline were not substantiated by the story and that it was inaccurate, misleading, malicious and defamatory.

Analysis

The story, written by Rob Rose, Stephan Hofstatter and Mzilikazi wa Afrika, said: “The ‘dirty campaign’ in South African soccer escalated this week as new details emerged about how the local game lost out on millions in World Cup money meant for development.” The words “dirty campaign” was a quote from Safa’s CEO, Mr Dennis Mumble, and it referred to a campaign for the upcoming elections in September.

Dipped into World Cup cash

The part of the sentence in dispute read: “…suspicions deepened that soccer bosses had dipped into World Cup cash to keep Safa afloat”.

Safa complains that this statement created the false impression that some malfeasance (Wikipedia: “malfeasance” is the commission of an unlawful act, done in an official capacity, which affects the performance of official duties) had been committed by soccer bosses.

Petersen argues that all profits from the World Cup belong to Safa, while the story made it seem that that was not the case. “There is nothing at all wrong in SAFA using World Cup money for football development in ways it sees fit.” It adds that the payment of salaries was part of the development of the game.

Sunday Times replies that the story did not allege anything illegal.

The newspaper adds that:

·         the phrase “suspicions deepened” was used by various sources;

·         “suspicions deepened” was also prompted by the KPMG report that said that Safa’s salary bill alone accounted for R17.1 million out of a total of R27.5 million spent – “this left only R2.9 million in the bank at a time when sponsorships were being slashed”;

·         it did not suggest that malfeasance was committed, only that this was money earmarked for development, but spent differently; and

·         it gave Safa the opportunity to respond to this allegation.

I agree with the newspaper.

Moreover, after reporting about the deepening of suspicions, the sentence reads that “soccer bosses had dipped into World Cup cash to keep Safa afloat” (own emphasis).

My observations on the above are the following:

·         There is no mention or implication of malfeasance or anything untoward in this sentence;

·         The story did not say that soccer bosses “dipped into” cash for their own benefit; and

·         The statement that World Cup cash was used is not in dispute.

Therefore, read with the phrase “suspicions” (which implied that the allegation was not stated as fact), I cannot find anything wrong with the sentence in dispute.

Possible proof

Safa complains about the following words: “Part of that proof may lie in the KPMG audited financial statements of Safa for the year to June 2012”.

Petersen says: “Surely if there was a misuse of funds, as alleged, any reputable auditor would signal this.”

I believe that Safa fundamentally misinterprets this sentence. The “proof” that the story mentioned, did not refer to the misuse of funds, but rather to the allegation of suspicions that had deepened (that soccer bosses used World Cup money to keep Safa afloat). I also take into account that the story did not say that there was proof (in the AFS), but that that may have been the case.

Not budgeted for

The story quoted Safa’s CEO (Mr Dennis Mumble) as saying, “…even though this (the buying of Mercedes-Benzes for Safa’s executives in 2011) was not budgeted for”.

Safa denies that this statement was true.

Sunday Times says that Mumble himself told it that these vehicles had not been budgeted for. It says his exact words were: “It wasn’t possible in 2010, when the budget was passed, to see how much money would be available because the decision to buy those vehicles was taken in 2011.”

I note that the story did not present the statement in dispute as fact, but indeed ascribed it to Mumble – and that Safa did not complain that Mumble did not say those words.

I therefore conclude that Sunday Times was justified in reporting what Mumble told the newspaper.

Spending money it should not have

Safa complains about the “admission” of its president, Mr Kirsten Nematandani, that “Safa had spent money it should not have on various items…” Petersen explains that Nematandani said that there were various items of expenditure, “as in every situation”, that need to be questioned in the light of the financial situation, but that this has been done. “This is a positive statement, which, again, is twisted into a negative.”

The newspaper points out that Safa could have bought cheaper cars, and that a fleet of buses was purchased without a proper business plan.

The same argument applies here as is the case in the one above (under the sub-heading “Not budgeted for”).

Omitting information

Safa complains that the story omitted to report on several “positives” about Safa, including the unqualified audit report that it has received.

The newspaper says that it was under no obligation to report Safa’s “positive interpretation of the results”. It adds that it did not find it necessary to mention that the audit was unqualified and that the money had been accounted for.

Even if it is true that the money was accounted for and that the audit was unqualified (and I have no reason to doubt it), the newspaper was still not obligated to mention this as it would not have changed the gist of the story.

Unfounded headline, sub-heading

Safa complains that the headline and sub-heading were not substantiated by the story and that they were inaccurate, misleading, malicious and defamatory.

Petersen also argues that these headlines:

·         left the reader in no doubt that the story would expose corruption and dishonest practices by Safa; and

·         made it clear that this was about the abuse of World Cup money, and that there was a report that revealed this “abuse”.

He adds that the word “report” in the sub-heading can only refer to the Audited Annual Financial Statements from KPMG (the only report that the story referred to). This implied that the report revealed abuse of World Cup money, “which is clearly false and intentionally slanderous (sic) and damaging” – as the report was unqualified. He says: “All money received from the World Cup can and has been accounted for, and all has been invested into football development…”

Sunday Times says that the headline was a “straightforward reference to how Safa spent the money it received from the World Cup local organizing committee”. It says that the first part of the sub-headline referred to Mumble’s statement that a dirty campaign was being waged in soccer. “This is backed up by the numerous off-the-record sources we spoke to, who made allegations against Safa.” It says that the word “abuse” was justified, because Safa itself had said that the money would be used for development – “only for it to be blown on salaries and Mercedes-Benz cars.”

The newspaper concedes that the sub-headline was “a robust interpretation of the information in the KPMG report”, yet also maintains that this interpretation could be sustained.

The Press Code requires that headlines should reasonably reflect the content of the story (Art. 10.1). In this case, I am satisfied that Sunday Times fulfilled this requirement – and that the newspaper’s argument as outlined above is reasonable.

General comment

Sunday Times says that it published in the same edition a leader on the matter which was largely sympathetic to Safa. It also told Safa that it would consider publishing its response of about 300 words.

I trust that this offer still stands and recommend that Safa accepts it.

Finding

The complaint is dismissed in its entirety.

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