The SAJR vs the Press Council: What's going on?

Jeremy Gordin on why the relations between the publication and the regulator irreparably broke down

I went down to the crossroads, tried to flag a ride
I went down to the crossroads, tried to flag a ride
Nobody seemed to know me, everybody passed me by.

- Eric Clapton (version of Robert Johnson’s original), 1966.


In the late 60s or thereabouts, my brother Joel, whom some readers might have previously encountered here, occasionally used to moonlight as a subeditor on one of the former “mouthpieces” of SA Jewry, the Zionist Record [1] .

One of the most frequent headlines about which Joel and his compadres were wont to chortle – one which, needless to say, they had never penned or would ever pen – was: “The community is at the crossroads”.

The reason for mirth was that it was a headline that was very regularly favoured by the newspaper’s then powers-that-were – but it needs to be a very serious issue to bring a whole community “to the crossroads,” does it not? And yet generally, the issues in question weren’t all that serious (or the part-time subs didn’t think so, anyway).

But now we (by which I mean the SA Jewish community [2]) are faced with what seems to be an apparently serious issue that we need to discuss in detail and then decide whether we have indeed reached some sort of crossroads.

The matter was brought to our attention by a statement issued by the Press Council of SA on 27 May, announcing that the PCSA had expelled the SA Jewish Report (SAJR), the community’s main newspaper – and, what’s more, that this was apparently a very portentous event.

“It is the first time that the Press Council has expelled a member,” intoned Latiefa Mobara [3], PCSA Executive Director, and you could hear those kettle drums rolling – as in act 1 of Hamlet when murderous King Claudius “drains his draughts of Rhenish down – and the kettle drum and trumpet bray out the triumph of his pledge.”


However, given what this statement omitted, it was a trifle confusing – because it led one to believe that the SAJR had in very recent times committed some grievous sin.

As it turned out, once one had read the response from two days later (29 May 2022) by Howard Sackstein, chairman of the SAJR, one realised that the overall bone of contention had been the subject of “discussion” (to put it politely) since (as best as I can tell) Thursday, January 28, 2021, 16 months before [4].

As Sackstein writes inter alia: “Six months after the SA Jewish Report withdrew from the South African Press Council, the Press Council [has] decided to expel the newspaper from a body of which it was no longer a member.”

It’s difficult to tell from Sackstein’s lengthy response precisely which letter was the one giving official notice that the SAJR had terminated, or was terminating, its PCSA membership.

It doesn’t matter though. What is apparent is that during the course of 2021, the SAJR stated more than once that it was unhappy and was not renewing its PCSA membership [5].

So why has Press Council Chair Judge Phillip Levinsohn taken the seemingly far-reaching and thoroughgoing step of expelling the Jewish community’s sole newspaper from the Press Council – especially when there already existed correspondence indicating that the SAJR had quit, or was quitting?

Surely if you have a recalcitrant and noisy child jumping around in the house, you give it a good patsch on the tuchis and call it a day? You don’t need to put the child out in the cold without any supper, forever.

The ostensible answer to my questions has been given in the PCSA statement – Levinsohn said the decision was taken after lengthy correspondence and after the SAJR had refused to obey the rulings against it. He added: “The SA Jewish Report ... attempted to withdraw from the Press Council rather than publish [our] rulings [6]. You cannot do that.”

But something or things don’t quite jell. And, with respect, I’d like to make three “observations”.

First, the Press Council doesn’t control any big battalions, as Joseph Stalin might have said – or any battalions at all. And when you have no meaningful punitive powers and someone keeps sticking his/her tongue out at you, you might tend to kneejerk irritatedly with such sanctions as you do have.

Second, readers will probably be familiar with “Hanlon’s razor,” an adage that states “never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity”. I have formulated, especially for the South African context, the following adage (“Gordin’s razor,” if you will): “never attribute to malice, political action or stupidity that which is adequately explained by bureaucratic balls-ups or broken telephones.”

Looking at the PCSA statement and the SAJR response, I recalled that I have had more than one set of “professional” dealings/correspondence with the ombud and the PCSA [7]; dealings, that is, with the “secretariat,” (then) ombud Johan Retief, and judges Levinsohn and Bernard Ngoepe [8].

And I was reminded that dealing with the PCSA offices was not exactly dealing with a well-oiled and efficient machine. What’s more, a look at recent internet material reveals that after the departure of ombud Pippa Green at end-2020 (she’d replaced Retief in 2019), there was no ombud until May 2021 (when Carmel Rickard was appointed) – which is why it was an “acting” ombud (Retief, obviously called back temporarily) who dealt with the SAJR matter in January 2021[9] . There is also mention in the correspondence of illness on the part of the PCSA chairperson (Levisohn).

In short, I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the apparent “non-connection” between Levisohn’s statement and Sackstein’s response – actually the overall “non-connection” in this whole matter – was partially the result of a species of broken telephone. Did Levisohn see everything he needed to see? Did he fully comprehend how aggrieved (and why) the SAJR felt, etc.? (I’m just asking.)

Third, at the end of SAJR’s response, a letter from Editor Peta Krost Maunder [10], dated 12 November (2021), is appended. Part of it runs as follows:

“Although we are no longer members of the Press Council, we would be happy still to meet with you and your chairperson.

The agenda would be as follows: ...

How we believe the Press Council allowed itself to be used as a political weapon against the South African Jewish community;

How we believe the Press Council became party to perpetuating anti-Jewish hatred and antisemitic stereotypes; ...

How we believe the Press Council fails to protect its members against persons who complain in the guise of a constructed complainant organization in order to avoid personal responsibility for fanciful complaints; and

Suggestions on how the Press Council could reform to better suit the needs of the people of South Africa.”

Now that’s what I call a Putin-type olive branch!

Can you imagine how Levinsohn, former deputy judge-president of KZN, now chairman of the PCSA, felt when he saw a letter from these pishers (my poetic phrase, not his) setting out an agenda in terms of which they would explain to him what needed to be done at the PCSA? You’re familiar with the Yiddish word chutzpah? Okay.

One final point, if I may. If Levinsohn is Jewish – which to the best of my knowledge he is – can you imagine how he felt, even if sub-consciously, by being cornered thus? What was he supposed to do? Write to Ngoepe, chair of the PCSA Appeals Panel, and say, “Listen up, Bern, this overly strait-laced Retief decision against the SAJR is causing all kinds of sturm und drang – can’t we just dump it?”

He couldn’t, of course; as understanding as Ngoepe might (or might not) be, the unspoken (or worse, the spoken) subtext would be: “Ah, Levinsohn’s gone out to bat for his co-religionists”. Ach, man, we poor Jewish people; we get shtupped if we do and shtupped if we don’t.


Let’s now turn to (i) the actual issue, (ii) the ombud’s judgment, (iii) the ombud’s sanction, and (iv) Judge Ngoepe’s dismissal of the appeal.

In October 2020, the SA Jewish Report ran a story about a cartoon that – for its editors (and it was therefore presumed for its readers), for others, and for at least one world “expert” – was clearly antisemitic.

It depicted a fat, gross man shovelling money into his mouth – and looked like so many other antisemitic cartoons of this sort used by the Nazis and others. (So much so, in my opinion, that you’d have to have been living under a rock for the last 100 years not to have recognised it for what it was.)

The cartoon related to a labour dispute at Clover Dairy, where the union Giwusa was leading a strike after Clover had been permitted by the Competition Commission and the department of trade and industry to be owned by Central Bottling Company (CBC), in turn owned by Milco, an Israeli concern allegedly [11] operating in Israel’s occupied territories.

Following the publication of the cartoon on the SA BDS Coalition Facebook page, the SAJR ran the cartoon, and its reporter (Tali Feinberg) wrote a story introduced as follows: the BDS movement “has always insisted that it isn’t antisemitic, but the newly formed SA BDS Coalition … showed its true colours this week by posting what clearly looks like an antisemitic cartoon on its Facebook page”. The headline on her story was “Antisemitic Clover cartoon is BDS’s sour ‘last gasp’” [12].

She noted that “The cartoon was posted to encourage South Africans to boycott Clover Industries after about 2 000 workers at the dairy company went on an indefinite nationwide strike. It depicts a greedy, overweight giant of a man eating a pile of money while the ‘man on the street’ is drawn as a small, insignificant figure sitting in front of an empty plate. The image of a Clover product fills the rest of the frame.”

She also cited the following caption on SA BDS Coalition’s Facebook page: “Greedy bosses connected to apartheid Israel. Blood curdling milk [and cheese, yoghurt, etc.]. Every reason to boycott Clover! Change your brand. Viva GIWUSA … and the struggle for a living wage!”

Additionally, she added (audi alteram partem) the SA BDS Coalition’s denial that the image used was antisemitic: “…we are very concerned at the SA Jewish Report’s assumption that the portrayal of a greedy capitalist is a portrayal of a Jew. Insinuating that any fat capitalist is Jewish is, without question, an antisemitic assumption!”

Enter Hassan Lorgat, a member of the Palestine Solidarity Alliance, who, on behalf of the SA BDS Coalition [13] and Giwusa, complained that the SAJR had breached the Press code inter alia by wrongly portraying Giwusa and the BDS as antisemitic and asked for (what the ombud himself referred to as) “a harsh reprimand” (a retraction of the headline from both the print and online versions of the SAJR, and a clear apology).

In 2017, I wrote in an article about another matter (“The HuffPost hoax”) that I thought ombud Johan Retief had, in making a certain ruling, evinced a “breath-taking mixture of banality and anality”. I meant it sort of affectionately albeit sarcastically (though I suppose Retief didn’t find it affectionate) – but anyway I now have to say that in dealing with this SAJR matter, I found him even more breath-taking.

To cut a long story (a little) shorter, what Retief did was simply to rule out just about everything (context, background, community interests, politics, you name it) and then to find that, in terms of the Press code [14], the SAJR had indeed erred – it had “unfairly” called BDS, etc. antisemitic because it hadn’t differentiated between “opinion” and factual news – i.e., the article in question hadn’t been labelled “opinion”.

And then, notwithstanding his earlier comment, Retief went ahead and handed the SAJR the maximum sanction.

Well, goody for Retief; I suppose someone could argue that he stuck to the letter of the law (who cares about the spirit?) and shouldn’t therefore be faulted.

But this does bring us to the appeals process; and the point about an appeal is that it comes before a full-on judge who is expected – in fact it’s his or her duty – to apply his or her mind carefully to all aspects of the case, its background, significance, wider ramifications, and so on.

However, it’s palpably clear that Judge Ngoepe, Chair of the PCSA’s Appeals Panel, did not bother himself too much about this. All he had to say was: “For the reasons given above as well as those by the Ombud, I am of the view that the applicant has no reasonable prospects of success on appeal. Regarding an appeal against the sanction imposed by the Ombud, there are also no reasonable prospects that the Appeals Panel would consider it to be so severe as to warrant interference. The accusation of anti-Semitism is a serious one and may not be taken lightly. The application for leave to appeal is therefore dismissed.”

Well, given the issues, people and newspaper at play in the matter, all I have to say is this: the fact that Ngoepe denied the SAJR the right even to appeal strikes me as the height of insensibility (for serious want of a better word).

Just a little bit of thought would have – or ought to have – suggested to Ngoepe that there was simply no way the SAJR could (or would) ever comply with such a ruling and sanction – because it would effectively mean the end of the publication; the end of its very raison d’etre and its credibility.

In short, the matter has been handled moronically by the PCSA. Quite obviously, more thought should have been given as to how the matter might have been resolved – instead of knee-jerking around to please a member of BDS who just wanted to score of couple of smartass points.


So, is the community finally at the proverbial crossroads?

Well, before I answer (and if you can bear it) just a few more observations. Why do we have a press council?

To cut a long story short, the institution exists in its current form because about 20 years ago, when the ANC seemed to be in charge, there were those ANC members and various other big mouths who felt that ‘the media” ought to be more stringently controlled by the government – for its own good, of course (get rid of white hegemony, give black people a fair chance, etc., etc.).

The “media” and other good people responded by saying No, no, don’t be mean Stalinists, let us regulate ourselves by putting together a new structure that will have greater public participation – that is, in the words of Levinsohn, “a voluntary, co-regulatory, public-dominated body which, inter alia, mediates and adjudicates complaints against its members in terms of the Press Code”.

Two things though. The main medium in which the political players are now most interested – and on which they conduct their business – is Twitter, on which people can say pretty much what they like, and do. It’s not regulated – insofar as it is – from South Africa. Nor are the various other apps and programs on the Internet regulated.

In short, it seems to me that no one here cares much about the PCSA. Which means No, I don’t think the community is at the crossroads. The SAJR will carry on and the heavens will not fall.

But it does feel a little sad. As Krost Maunder wrote today in the SAJR: “I believe in the need for an independent ombud who [is not] swayed by politics and racial hatred”.

If so, seems to me the PCSA needs to do some self-examination, as the ANC keeps on saying it’s doing, and needs to keep in mind that it’s supposed to serve all communities with sensitivity and proper attention.


[1] The Zionist Record was launched in 1908; what later happened to it I’m not fully au fait with, but it seems to have been allowed to “fade away” by about 1998, when The SA Jewish Report was founded.

[2] Of which I can claim full membership due to my matrilineal descent.

It might also be apposite to mention at this point that the Talmud, in discussing the domino effect of sin, concludes a particular section with the famous Aramaic phrase, Kol yisrael arevim zeh bazeh, which means “all Israel [all Jewish people] are responsible for one another” (Shevuot 39a). This phrase is the basis of the notion of communal responsibility, not only in terms of Jewish law, but above all implies an obligation on all Jews to ensure that other Jews have their basic needs for food, clothing, and shelter taken care of, etc.

The point I want to make, however, is that one of the many ways “Kol yisrael arevim zeh bazeh” plays out in modern Jewish communities is that – even though people might not be observant or might not consider themselves community members or might not admire for example the SA Jewish Board of Deputies [God forbid!] – many Jewish people do nevertheless concern themselves, passionately, with matters relating to their community.  

[3] Caveat lector: While no one would call us bosom buddies, Latiefa and I are colleagues of many years’ standing.

[4] The original offending SAJR article – which we’ll hopefully get to sooner rather than later – appeared in the SAJR of 22 October 2020.

[5] From editor Peta Krost Maunder to PCSA, dated 27 September 2021: “The SA Jewish Report’s membership with the Press Council has now lapsed ...” And from Maunder on 22 October 2021: “Our membership of the Press Council has expired. ... ... we see little point in continuing our membership of the Council.”

[6] This seems not quite accurate

[7] When I was publisher and de facto editor-in-chief of the Daily Sun and Sunday Sun (2013-15).

[8] And besides being an acquaintance of exec director Latiefa Mobara (as mentioned above), I was previously a former colleague and am still (as far as I know) a friend of (later) ombud, Pippa Green.

[9] As Mobara explained in May 2021, the PCSA needed to restructure “to ensure that we have a faster turnover of resolving complaints and to ensure efficiency,” adding that “[e]ach year we receive between 500 and 600 complaints from the public, including complaints from business and politicians”. This also explains the appearance in Sackstein’s response of one “Fanie” – apparently Public Advocate Fanie Groenewald who initially receives complaints and attempts to mediate between the complainant and the title. Only if he is unable to resolve the matter, does he refer it to the Ombud.

[10] Caveat lector (2): Also a colleague of many years’ standing – and still (I believe) a good friend.

[11] There was an unresolved (and, for our purposes, irrelevant) dispute between the parties about whether Milco was in fact operating in the occupied territories.

[12] For some reason, appeals Judge Ngoepe, whose ruling I will deal with later, has this down as “Anti-Semitic Clover cartoon is BDS’s sour ‘last grapes’”.

[13] The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS) is a Palestinian-led movement promoting boycotts, divestments, and economic sanctions against Israel.

[14] 6.1: “Members are justified in strongly advocating their own views on controversial topics, provided that they ...[make] fact and opinion clearly distinguishable…”.