Sagie Naicker, Si School (Chatsworth) vs Sunday Tribune

Complainant: Sagie Naicker, Si School (Chatsworth)

Lodged by: Sagie Naicker

Article: Parents fight with Sai school over fee hikes

Author of article:  Charmel Bowman

Date: 14 May 2013

Respondent: Sunday Tribune

Complaint

Mr Sagie Naicker, a director of the Sai school in Chatsworth, complains about a story in the Tribune Herald (Sunday Tribune) on 10 February 2013, headlined Parents fight with Sai school over fee hikes.

He complains that the:

·         headline was inaccurate;

·         statement that Sai schools elsewhere in South Africa charged R35 per month was false;

·         story falsely stated that a complaining parent’s children were not re-admitted at school this year;

·         story states that a parent refused to pay school fees to get management to be transparent on what it spent the money on – yet that parent had never engaged with the school regarding its financial management;

·         story omitted important information; and

·         quoted statement was unsubstantiated (that charging more than R6 000 was wrong and against the religious teachings of Sai schools).

He adds that he should have been given the opportunity to respond to the allegations.

Analysis

The story, written by Charmel Bowman, was about parents’ complaints over the increase in school fees at the Sai school at Chatsworth. She wrote: “The school is one of many around the world based on the principles of the late Bhagavan Sri Sathya Sai Baba, that are intended to offer affordable education and promote an ethos of truth, peace and non-violence.”

Inaccurate headline

Naicker says that only one parent complained about the headline and complains that the headline therefore misrepresented and sensationalised the story.

Sunday Tribune says that it spoke to a number of other parents who corroborated the claims. It adds that it has received a number of letters from ex-parents confirming these allegations, and states that these letters were in the public domain.

I note that the:

·         headline was clearly based on the words “irate parents” in the intro – yet the body of the story quoted only one parent (Mr Neville Pillay); and

·         reporter did not include the information about other parents in the story – the reader was left with the view that the headline and the introduction were unsupported by the facts in the story itself.

R35 per month

The story said: “While Sai schools elsewhere in the country charge a small maintenance fee (in South Africa it is R35 per month), the Sai School in Chatsworth has steadily raised fees from R1 200 in 2010 to between R6 000 and R6 600 in 2013, while receiving a state subsidy and donations from devotees.”

Naicker complains that the statement about R35 is false, as Sai schools in Newcastle and Lenasia charge R125 and R400 respectively. He adds that the story did not specify the frequency of the payments.

Sunday Tribune says that:

·         Naicker did not challenge the fact that the fees have doubled every year since 2010. The newspaper says: “This is important because it also forms the basis of the article and the complaints by current and former parents of pupils at the Sai School”;

·         the amount of R35 was used to merely compare the amount some Sai schools charge, which fall under the umbrella of the school in question;

·         other such schools charge a few hundred rand per month; and

·         the story clearly stated that the Chatsworth fees were for 2012, 2011, 2012 and 2013 – “creating no confusion that the fees may be monthly”.

In his response, Naicker says that the school that charged R35 per month for school fees catered for Grades 0 – 4 and that it has since closed down, while his school provides for Grades 0 – 12. He argues that this amounted to an unfair accentuation of the differences in fee structures.

Here are my considerations:

·         The statement that “in South Africa it’s R35 a month” is clearly false;

·         It may be true that the story made it clear that Naicker’s school fees were per year and not per month, but the fact remains that the article compared monthly fees (R35) to yearly ones;

·         The story also compared a school that catered for Grades 0 – 4, with one that provided for Grades 0 – 12, but without informing its readers about this fact;

·         It therefore appeared from the way in which the comparison was made that Naicker’s school was charging an exorbitantly inflated fee – which was not necessarily true; and

·         Bowman did not appear to have made an attempt to find out what the other Sai schools were charging. She could have asked Naicker for those figures.

I therefore conclude that the reporting of the R35 per month was inaccurate, and the comparison with R6 000+ was unfair and out of context – even though Naicker’s school fees have apparently doubled over the last few years.

Children not re-admitted

The sentence in dispute read: “Parent Neville Pillay, who has been vocal about the fee increases, said his two children were not readmitted this year and he was considering legal action if they were not immediately reinstated.”

Naicker says that Pillay had only one child admitted to the school, and complains that the story failed to mention that the father did not re-register his child for the 2013 academic year.

The newspaper replies that it got this information from Pillay himself.

While I am willing to accept the newspaper’s word on this issue, it also appears that the reporter did not verify Pillay’s statement with Naicker.

No engagement by parent

The story stated that Pillay refused to pay school fees to get management to be transparent on what it spent the money on – yet that parent had never engaged with the school regarding its financial management.

Even if the latter allegation is true, surely that cannot be interpreted as a breach of the Press Code.

Information omitted

Naicker complains that the story omitted the information that some children whose parents cannot afford school fees (thirty in total) were either completely or partly exempt from paying these fees. He says that these learners received free food, transportation to and from the school, as well as books, study materials, stationary and uniforms – he adds that the journalist had this information.

The newspaper does not respond to this part of the complaint.

The gist of the story is about the relatively high school fees at Naicker’s school. The omission of this information would have put the matter in a different light and context.

Unsubstantiated allegation

The story quoted an unnamed member of the SA Sai school organisation, who reportedly said that charging more than R6 000 was wrong and against the religious teachings of the school.

Naicker complains that Bowman included this statement in the story without any thought of accuracy. He says that the religion has not set any threshold in respect of salaries of educators in Sai schools. In fact, these teachers were remunerated in line with market-related salaries and in keeping with fair labour practice.

Sunday Tribune replies that the source was involved with the running of a Sai school similar to the one in question “without increasing the fees”.

This source had the right to say what he or she had allegedly said, and the newspaper was justified in reporting that statement. But again, Bowman apparently did not ask Naicker’s comment on the source’s statement.

Right of reply

Naicker asks that the Sunday Tribune gives him a right of reply “in the interest of fairness…so that the community will get a balanced view”.

It should be noted this matter could have been resolved if the newspaper granted the opportunity which Naicker requested. As this offer was rejected, a decision on the complaint must now be made.

General remarks

Here are two more observations:

·         Fact-checking is the basis of solid journalism and reporters must observe this rule religiously. Bowman clearly did not adhere to this rule; and

·         I have little doubt that the mistakes made by the newspaper have caused Naicker and his school unnecessary harm.

Finding

Inaccurate headline

The headline did not reflect the bulk of the story. This is in breach of Art. 10.1 of the Press Code that says: “Headlines…shall give a reasonable reflection of the contents of the report…in question.”

R35 per month

The statement that Sai schools in South Africa charge a monthly fee of R35 is inaccurate. This is in breach of Art. 2.1 of the Code that states: “The press shall take care to report news …accurately…”

The comparison between one (former) school’s monthly fees which catered for Grades 0 – 4, and Naicker’s school’s yearly fees (which provided for Grades 0 – 12) was out of context and created the impression that the latter was charging an exorbitantly inflated fee – which was not necessarily true. This is in breach of the following articles of the Code:

·         Art. 2.1: “The press shall take care to report news…fairly”; and

·         Art. 2.2: “News shall be presented in context and in a balanced manner…”

Children not re-admitted

The complaint about the alleged inaccuracy of the statement in dispute is dismissed.

The reporter did not verify this information with Naicker as she should have. This is in breach of the following clauses of the Code:

·         Art. 2.4: “Where there is reason to doubt the accuracy of a report and it is practicable to verify the accuracy thereof, it shall be verified…”; and

·         Art. 2.5: “A publication shall seek the views of the subject of critical reportage in advance of publication…”

No engagement by parent

This part of the complaint is dismissed.

Information omitted

The omission of the information that Naicker’s school had a policy of exemptions and concessions, and that the personal needs of such children were borne by the school, would have put the matter in a different context.

This is in breach of Art. 2.2 of the Code: “News shall be presented in context and in a balanced manner, without any intentional or negligent departure from the facts whether by …material omissions…”

Unsubstantiated allegation

The complaint about the newspaper’s justification to have quoted the source is dismissed.

Bowman apparently did not ask Naicker’s comment on the source’s statement, which is in breach of Art. 2.5 of the Code.

Right of reply

Naicker will get the right of reply that he asked for.

Sanction

Sunday Tribune is directed to apologise to Naicker for the:

·         misleading headline;

·         inaccurate statement that Sai schools in South Africa charge a monthly fee of R35;

·         unfair and out-of-context comparison between two schools that left the reader with the  impression that Naicker’s school was charging an exorbitantly inflated fee – which was not necessarily true;

·         lack of verification and of getting comment from Naicker on various important matters;

·         omission of the information that Naicker’s school had a policy of exemptions and concessions, and that the personal needs of such children were borne by the school; and

·         unnecessary harm that the above-mentioned issues have caused him and his school.

The newspaper is directed to publish the following text, in which it should include comments from Naicker (approximately 250 words, to be approved by both Naicker and this office):

Beginning of text

Sunday Tribune apologises to Mr Sagie Naicker, a director at a Sai school in Chatsworth, for a story that was unfair, out of context and misleading – and for the unnecessary harm that this have caused him and his school.

Naicker lodged a complaint with the Press Ombudsman about a story on 10 February 2013, headlined Parents fight with Sai school over fee hikes.

The story, written by Charmel Bowman, was about parents’ complaints over the increase in school fees at a Sai school. She wrote: “The school is one of many around the world based on the principles of the late Bhagavan Sri Sathya Sai Baba, that are intended to offer affordable education and promote an ethos of truth, peace and non-violence.”

Press Ombudsman Johan Retief directed us to apologise for the:

·         misleading headline – the story quoted only one dissatisfied parent, while the headline used the word “parents” (plural);

·         inaccurate statement that Sai schools in South Africa (other than Naicker’s one) charge a monthly fee of R35;

·         unfair and out-of-context comparison between two schools that left the reader with the  impression that Naicker’s school was charging an exorbitantly inflated fee – which was not necessarily true;

·         lack of verification and of getting comment from Naicker on various matters; and

·         omission of the information that Naicker’s school had a policy of exemptions and concessions, and that the personal needs of such children were borne by the school – that would have put the matter in a different light and context.

He said: “Fact-checking is the basis of solid journalism and reporters must observe this rule religiously. Bowman clearly did not adhere to this rule.” He added: “I have little doubt that the mistakes made by the newspaper have caused Naicker and his school unnecessary harm.”

Retief dismissed three other parts of the complaint.

NAICKER’S COMMENTS….

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

End of text

Appeal

Please note that our Complaints Procedures lay down that within seven 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