South African Airways vs The Times

Complainant: South African Airways

Lodged by: Viwe Soga

Article: SAA ‘abandons child’ – A 12-year-old boy was left in the care of a stranger at Hong Kong airport by a South African Airways representative

Author of article: Rea Khoabane

Date: 5 September 2014

Respondent: The Times


The SAA is complaining about a story published in The Times of 29 July 2014, headlined SAA ‘abandons child’ – A 12-year-old boy was left in the care of a stranger at Hong Kong airport by a South African Airways representative. The article also appeared on its website.

The airline complains that:

·         the reporter neglected to reflect its detailed comments, leading to a story that was factually inaccurate and unbalanced;

·         allegations in the article were presented as fact; and

·         both the headline and the sub-heading were misleading.


The story, written by Rea Khoabane, reported that an SAA representative had left a 12-year-old boy in the care of a stranger at Hong Kong International Airport. The boy’s mother reportedly requested the SAA to escort her child on and off an SAA aircraft flying from Hong Kong to Johannesburg, through immigration and then to her. However, the boy “was left alone on a bench with an ‘unoccupied minor’ tag around his neck for almost five hours, until 4am”.

A “concerned passenger” reportedly asked an SAA representative about the child – and was told that he was in the airline’s care. However, as passengers prepared to board a bus to a hotel, the same passenger noticed that the boy was following her. The boy said the SAA employee told him to follow this woman.

Khoabane also quoted the boy as saying that the women took care of him for the next two days, asserting that no one from SAA came to check up on him. The airline reportedly also did not inform the mother that the child’s incoming flight had been delayed.

She recorded that SAA spokesman Tlali Tlali apologized for the boy’s plight, adding that Asiana Airlines was responsible for the incident “and that responsibility for the child had not been handed over to SAA” at the time of the incident.


SAA explains the background to this incident as follows:

·         The boy arrived at Hong Kong International Airport on an Asiana Airlines flight, and was booked on a connecting SAA flight to Johannesburg;

·         The Asiana Airlines flight was delayed and arrived late;

·         It is the responsibility of the first carrier to ensure that passengers who have connecting flights do not miss those flights;

·         The same goes for unaccompanied minors;

·         An Asiana Airlines agent approached SAA’s counters with the boy, but was informed by representatives manning the counter on SAA’s behalf that:

o   the counter had been closed;

o   SAA had cancelled the flight on that day; and

o   SAA would only be able to accept the boy as a passenger once an alternative flight had been sourced;

·         This meant that Asiana Airlines was responsible for the boy’s well-being and safety at that time;

·         This was not disputed by the Asiana Airlines representative and the latter did not leave the boy in SAA’s care and custody; and

·         SAA was not made aware that the boy was left on his own – otherwise, it would have taken him into its care.

Soga continues: The mother emailed SAA, which was acknowledged the next day. An investigation into the incident was then launched immediately. The mother also contacted the reporter, who in turn asked comment from Tlali. Four days prior to publication, Tlali sent the newspaper a “comprehensive” response.


Neglecting to reflect detailed comments

SAA complains that the journalist largely omitted (the substance of) its response (Tlali is only quoted at the very end of the story), and that this had led to a story that was factually inaccurate and unbalanced. Soga argues: “This article is prepared in a plainly adversarial, opinionated and highly unbalanced tone and content.”

SAA adds that the story largely relied on the testimony of the mother and her child, which led to inaccurate and unfair reporting.

The airline concludes that, while it has explained in detail that Asiana Airlines had been the cause of the incident, the story nevertheless suggested that SAA was to blame.

The Times replies that SAA’s investigation “revealed different facts from what we were told…We could not have known at the time of publication about the other side…which became known a week after we published”.

The editor adds that SAA should have provided the newspaper with the “new information” and states that it would have written a follow-up story to reflect these data. Mahlangu says that the SAA’s initial response was “generic”. He offers SAA a right of reply.

In later correspondence the newspaper admits that the story did not reflect the entire response by the SAA – however, the editor says that the story did state their side of the matter. “It was impossible to publish their full response… We still argue that we contacted all sides affected and tried to reflect a balanced article.”

He also notes that SAA apologized for the incident.

SAA rejects the newspaper’s offer of a right of reply, and insists on a retraction and an apology with the same prominence as the story in question.

The airline also denies that its response was “generic” and that the truth was known only a week after publication. Soga refers to an email by Tlali to the journalist, dated four days prior to publication (July 25), to refute this statement.

My considerations

Did Khoabane adequately reflect Tlali’s response dated July 25?

In his email, Tlali used the words “deeply regrets” and “apologises profusely” (twice). He then gave an explanation, most of it identical to the information Soga later provided to me (as recorded above, under “Background, according to the SAA”). His response cannot therefore justifiably be described as “generic”.

Tlali ends off his correspondence by admitting that there had been a “service gap we should have picked up…much earlier”. He says SAA could have provided the necessary care and support to the minor “in spite of the airline rules”.

In this regard, the editor’s statement that the newspaper could not have known about the other side of the story at the time of publication – because it “became known a week after we published” – is rather puzzling. Tlali fully informed The Times four days prior to publication.

I do not believe that Tlali’s recorded statement right at the end of the story, and consisting only of one sentence, adequately portrayed the gist of his timely response to the newspaper. Admittedly, the story did state that the boy had not been handed over to SAA – but the reasons should also have been recorded in order to give the public enough information to decide for itself.

Tlali gave the newspaper credible information, indicating that Asiana Airlines was responsible for the incident. I therefore believe that the whole story is unbalanced and fundamentally unfair. Responsible journalism would have demanded at least equal space for the SAA’s version of the matter as for those of the mother and the boy.

The end-result of this lopsided story is that the impression remains that SAA is to blame for the incident – which is probably not true and, given Tlali’s response, certainly not fair.

Allegations presented as fact

SAA complains that the “adversarial, opinionated and highly unbalanced” story was not portrayed as opinion, but that it was presented as fact.

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

My considerations

All statements of fact relating to the airline were ascribed to sources.

The closest the story came to presenting an allegation as fact, is the following sentence: “A concerned passenger, who asked not to be named, asked an SAA representative about the child and was told that he was in the airline’s care.” (Emphasis added.) However, from the context it can justifiably be inferred that these words came from the “concerned passenger”.

Misleading headline, sub-heading

SAA complains that, while it has explained in detail that Asiana Airlines was the cause of the incident, the headline and the sub-heading nevertheless suggested that it was to blame. It says that these words contain only the allegations and do not reflect the views of SAA.

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

My considerations

Sect 10.1 of the Press Code requires that a headline should give a reasonable reflection of the contents of the story. However, if a story is untrue or unfair, and the headline reflects that, the headline would also be untrue and unfair.

I have already argued that it was probably untrue that the SAA abandoned the boy, and that it was certainly not fair to create that impression (given Tlali’s detailed response, which was at the newspaper’s disposal). The main headline (SAA ‘abandons child’) is therefore also not fair, and probably untrue.

The sub-heading (A 12-year-old boy was left in the care of a stranger at Hong Kong airport by a South African Airways representative) stated as fact that the boy was left in the care of a stranger by an SAA representative. This is also probably not true, and certainly not fair. Besides, the story presented this as an allegation and not as a statement of fact (as the sub-headline did).

General comment

I have little doubt that both the story and its headlines were unfair (if not also untrue) towards SAA, and that the reportage unnecessarily tarnished SAA’s name and reputation.


Neglecting to reflect detailed comments

The story is in breach of the following sections of the Press Code:

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

·         2.2: “News shall be presented in context and in a balanced manner, without any intentional or negligent departure from the facts whether by…material omissions, or summarisation”; and

·         4.7: “The press shall exercise care and consideration in matters involving…reputation…” (this clause makes provision for some exceptions – none of which applies in this case).

Allegations presented as fact

This part of the complaint is dismissed.

Misleading headline, sub-heading

Both headlines are unfair, and in breach of Sect. 2.1 of the Press Code.

The sub-heading is also in breach of Sect. 10.1 of the Code that says: “Headlines…shall give a reasonable reflection of the contents of the report…in question.”


The Times is directed to:

·         apologise to SAA for its unfair reportage which has led to the unnecessary tarnishing of its reputation;

·         publish a summary of my arguments and finding, together with this apology, on the same page and with the same prominence as the story in question;

·         specifically include in this text a summary of the background to the incident, as supplied by the SAA and described above; and

·         end the text with the words: “Visit for the full finding.

The newspaper is also directed to publish this text on its website.


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

Johan Retief

Press Ombudsman