Monday, October 6, 2014


Dear Rob Rose,

         In your column in the Sunday Times you told us that the media is kept on a tight leash in South Africa by the Press Ombudsman Johan Retief who is the main adjudicator for the Press Council.
         Well I’m sorry to have to tell you that’s not true. For a start he only considers complaints, so if a newspaper misbehaves the Ombudsman does nothing unless he gets one.
         The other disturbing aspect is this. In my experience complaints get put into two categories – those from the somebodies and those from nobodies.
         If you are a somebody such as a member of the government, a prominent businessman or a member of the legal profession he is far more likely to find in your favour against an offending newspaper than if you are a nobody like me.
         What happened when I complained that the business section of your paper (Business Times) that you write for continued to use a freelance after he had been exposed as a crook under a Noseweek magazine headline High on the Hogg: How Jim Jones ripped off his website employers and then spun the story?


         Worse still he spun the story in your Business Times to make his former employer Moneyweb look bad (See Press Council’s Brand of Justice – Parts I & II).
         The answer is nothing. My complaint was dismissed by Retief.
         What happened when I complained that the Sunday Times continued to publish clearly dubious get-rich-quick advertisements? Alright I know that the Press Ombudsman conveniently doesn’t deal with advertising complains , but in this case your paper’s internal ombudsman had given an editorial undertaking that something would be done about these.
         I was vindicated completely when people responsible for some of the ads were subsequently exposed by Carte Blanche, the TV investigative channel for defrauding investors out of millions.       
The answer again is nothing. My complaint was dismissed by Retief.
         And when I tried to appeal against his rulings former Judge Ralph Zulman, head of the Council’s Appeals panel, decided my cases did not merit further consideration.
         You mentioned a perfect example of how a somebody gets treated. In winding up the estate of Barry Tannenbaum, who perpetrated the country’s biggest Ponzi scheme, the lawyers and liquidators took more than half of the R100-million collected as their fees and costs. As you know the lawyer for the liquidators complained about the general tone of the Business Times report headed Lawyers gorge on Ponzi cash.
The Ombudsman dismissed most of the complaint but decided that the use of the word gorge had been inappropriate. His absurd explanation, which you reported was that even though the trustees may have been ‘gorging’, it was not for the paper to state this as a fact when the phrase ‘drained money’ should have sufficed.
         Talk about splitting hairs. It appears that he felt he had to give the lawyer something.
         In the column he used to write for Business Times Steve Mulholland accused one of the somebodies the Deputy Director of the Department of Public Enterprise of wrong doing without giving the proof.  After the Director complained to the Ombudsman your paper was ordered to apologise.
         I’m not criticising this decision, but what I am saying is that basically this complaint was no different from my ones which were dismissed. In all the cases what your paper did was obviously wrong.
         In your puff for the Ombudsman you wrote If a publication errs even in one tiny respect the Ombudsman forces it to publish a prominent apology.
         Again this is not true as my complaints alone show and I’m sure there are many other examples.
         Also from what I’ve seen apologies are seldom if ever given the same prominence in papers as the original story.That in itself is immoral. Publications usually do their best to place them where as few people as possible will see them.
          The main part of the Sunday Times had the correction below tucked away on Page 4 whereas the So Many Questions column that it appeared in took up about a quarter of a page on Page 21 the previous week. As this is a regular feature my feeling is that this correction should have been in the column.

         I know this was not something the Ombudsman ordered, but it illustrates how corrections are often handled.
         Your high handed assumption that it’s a common refrain from halfwits and crooks that the press is unaccountable and sensationalist, a third force bent on abusing its self-appointed position as the fourth estate, suggests that it’s perfect.   Well I’m not a crook so there’s only one other category I and anybody else like me who has a beef about the way the press behaves can fit into, in your opinion.
         In the days before blogs and social media the only avenues available to the average person who believed a paper was abusing its position was to write a letter to the editor, complain to the Ombudsman or in extreme cases take costly legal action.  
         Letters however could be easily censored or not even published. And anybody who tried the Ombudsman’s route had to bear in mind that the Press Council’s slogan is: Effective self-regulation is the best system for promoting high standards in the media.
         They would think that wouldn’t they? It’s like appointing and paying the judge at your own trial. How they have been allowed to get away with this as long as they have I don’t know.
         If that’s not abusing its self-appointed position as the fourth estate I don’t know what is.
         Now halfwits like me can take to a blog to tell the world about the shenanigans in the newspaper business that papers don’t want anybody to know.
         Like the results of my complaints to the Ombudsman that I have already mentioned.
         Like Johannesburg’s The Citizen that is making money out of cock (literally) and bull advertisements that even its own Editor agrees are not believable (See The Citizen’s Aladdin’s Cave of Unbelievable adverts).
         Like the refusal of the Caxton Group, the owner of this paper; the Print & Digital Media SA, to which most newspaper publishers belong and the South African Editor’s Forum to even acknowledge that this abuse of the press exists, even though I have brought it to their attention (See Caxton’s Bosses duck dubious adverting issue; Print and Digital Media’s appalling hypocrisy and Editors’ questionable ethics).
         Like the Advertising Standards Authority, the adverting equivalent of the Press Council, that refused to take my complaints about the Citizen’s ads that are exploiting the poor and unsophisticated with promises such as penus enlargement and instant wealth (See Ridiculous Adverting Standards Authority).
         Halfwits like me can even extend their blog tentacles across the world to tell everyone who is interested what the dicey members of the fourth estate are up to in Britain.
         Like the National Union of Journalists, that claims to be the largest organisation of its kind in the world with about 38 000 members, that has given up policing its bad eggs. It did take complaints from the public about its members some years ago until they became so numerous it could no longer afford to do this (See National Union of Journalists’ protection racket).
         You can understand why it was that in this environment the 168 year old News of the World that was once the biggest selling English paper anywhere had to close after its phone hacking scandal final burst into the open.
         No doubt it was brought down by other halfwits like me.
         When it comes to halfwits, as Editor of the Business Times it’s hardly the brightest thing to do to promote fiction as fact in your column in a paper that is read by millions.
         Jon, the Poor Man’s Press Ombudsman who tells it like it is and not like some of the papers would have it.

P.S. If only I was a somebody I would have a prima facie case to submit to the Press Ombudsman about all the incorrect statements you have given as fact in this column of yours.

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