Allister Sparks vs. Cape Times
Mon, Feb 23, 2015
Ruling by the Press Ombudsman
23 February 2015
This ruling is based on the written submissions of journalist Allister Sparks and those of Gasant Abarder, editor of the Cape Times newspaper.
Sparks is complaining about a letter to the editor, written by Abarder in the Cape Times of 16 January 2015, headlined Sparks scant with facts.
He complains that Abarder has called him a liar in this letter (in response to Sparks's column in Business Day two days earlier, in which the latter was quite critical of Independent Media); he also complains that Abarder failed to publish a letter he wrote in response to the editor.
In his letter, Abarder wrote that Sparks was "rather scant with the facts when he uses the guise of freedom of expression to wage a personal battle" after the latter's long-standing relationship with the Cape Times had been terminated. He also called Sparks's statement that the executive chairman of Independent Media, Dr Iqbal Survé, had a hand in the termination of his relationship with the newspaper a "lie".
Abarder's response to the complaint
Abarder replies that the decision to publish a letter or not does not fall under the ambit of this office. Still, he argues that he did not run Sparks's letter because it was "even more inflammatory and insulting to me as an editor...than his original piece." He says that the letter implied that editors appointed by Independent Media were puppets who take direction from Survé, and that it repeated the "inaccuracy" that it was somehow the latter's decision to end the relationship with Sparks. "So in the interests of accuracy, it would have been unwise for the Cape Times to run his letter and further perpetuate a gross inaccuracy."
He adds that the newspaper ran views, by way of letters and opinions, contrary to those of Survé in the wake of the former editor's (Alide Dasnois's) departure from the newspaper.
In his complaint, Sparks does not specify which parts of Abarder's letter are of concern.
In this regard, Abarder referred to the following:
The reason for terminating Sparks's column in the newspaper (he said he was "refreshing our offering of columnists" as more than 70% of these people were white males - in stark contrast to the demographics of this country);
The "truth" that Sparks was happy to write for the newspaper well after Tony Weaver had left (part of the reason Sparks gave to Abarder for withdrawing his column from the Cape Times);
Sparks's "assumption" that he had known about the contributor's intention to withdraw his column; and
Sparks's allegation that Survé had a hand in the termination of his relationship with the newspaper.
Section 7 of the Press Code deals with comment. It reads:
7.1: "The press shall be entitled to comment upon or criticise any actions or events of public interest provided such comments or criticisms are fairly and honestly made";
7.2: "Comment by the press shall be presented in such manner that it appears clearly that it is comment, and shall be made on facts truly stated or fairly indicated and referred to"; and
7.3: "Comment by the press shall be an honest expression of opinion, without malice or dishonest motives, and shall take fair account of all available facts which are material to the matter commented upon."
To call someone a liar could unnecessarily harm that person's reputation and dignity.
While in law defamation is determined by the question of whether a statement was true (with the onus on the person who made the statement to provide proof), in addition to whether it was made in the public interest, I rather need to operate within the ambit of the Code, as cited above. (It is noteworthy that the matters of truth and public interest also are mentioned in the relevant section of the Code.)
Therefore, this matter boils down to the questions whether Abarder's comments were:
- made fairly and honestly (7.1);
- made on facts truly stated (7.2);
- malicious (7.3); and
- taking fair account of all available and material facts (7.3).
Given the nature of the issues that I have outlined above, there is no reasonable likelihood for me to establish whether Survé indeed had a hand in the termination of Sparks's relationship with the Cape Times (which is the core of the complaint) - no self-respecting editor would ever admit to taking editorial directions from an owner. It would therefore serve no purpose to hold a hearing on this matter, and from my point of view, I have no basis to make any concrete decision in this regard on written submissions.
I also have to be careful not to curb freedom of speech. The Press Code does provide for such instances, but I need to have ample evidence to do so.
I note that Sparks wrote in his letter to Business Day (20 January 2015, the same letter he sent to Abarder for publication in the Cape Times): "Abarder accuses me of being untruthful in my BDlive column, yet he is blatantly economical with the truth himself."
Refusing to publish
I am not voicing my opinion on Abarder's refusal to publish Sparks's letter, as it is not part of my mandate to interfere with decisions belonging to editors only.
There is no finding on this particular issue, as there is insufficient evidence to come to a reasonable conclusion either way.
Refusing to publish
This part of the complaint is dismissed.
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 [email protected].
Johan Retief, Press Ombudsman
Issued by the Press Council, February 23 2015
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