Wednesday, February 24, 2016


 Dear Bongani Sigoko, Editor of the Sunday Times,

          I know you have only been in the job of heading South Africa’s best selling national Sunday paper for a few editions but is there any chance of you arresting the journalistic rot that has set in on your paper.
          The Sunday Times is giving a new impetus to that old cliché “You can’t believe everything you read in the papers.”
          How else can you explain the “Matter of fact” apologies that are becoming such a regular feature on Page 2 with other more serious ones getting slightly more exposure elsewhere.
          The question readers will increasingly be asking is: Apart from these apologies is the rest of it a “matter of fact”?
          What’s the thinking behind these half hearted, grudgingly given confessions that never appear with anything like the same prominence as the original story?
          I accept that the Press Ombudsman, Johan Retief has ordered your paper to print some of them. But when it comes to the voluntary ones are they there to appease the complainants with the aim of preventing them taking the matter any further or are they there to show your paper has done the right thing by admitting it was wrong?
          One thing is certain however and that is they all advertise your paper’s declining journalistic standards.
          For a newspaper that expects others to be open it keeps very quiet about the members of your editorial team who have been responsible for these clangers.
          You happily protect your own from the glare of publicity while you have no qualms about taking other people to task in print for their shortcomings.
          You even choose a Mampara to have a go at the person you judge to have done the stupidest thing of the week.
          Last Sunday it was the turn of Dan Retief, whose glittering career as a sports writer, TV presenter and author over a period of 40 years can’t have been bettered by many. He is the only journalist to have been the Sports Writer of the Year on three occasions and in the early nineties he was a Senior Correspondent for your paper.
          So presumably to emphasise the Sunday Times’ impartiality whoever writes these things couldn’t resist putting the boot in when Retief was forced to apologise for a controversial Twitter comment that got him into trouble.
          “It is not often that one who has graced the pages of this august newspaper with his pen in the past ends up being the Mampara,” your attack on him began.
          How august, prestigious, esteemed or illustrious can a paper be when its poor reporting is producing an increasing amount of questionable stories?
          You castigated him for “earning this dubious honour” while there must be other journalists who would qualify for Mamparadom, if only they were not protected by still being on your staff.
          Then too your Retief dig showed up another of your paper’s journalistic deficiencies. The writer evidently assumed that all the Sunday Time’s 3-million or so readers would know what Retief’s “remarks” were, so there was no need to tell them. It was left to those who didn’t know to use their imagination.
          What school of journalism teaches this?
          An Afrikaner himself Retief tweeted: “SA carried to victory by two White Afrikaners … politicians and media commentators take note …for what it is worth.” 
This was after our national cricket team's win against England.   
In a country where Blacks outnumber Whites by nearly 10 to 1 this caused the inevitable outcry which Retief had no way of justifying. But if your paper is going to chastise him the way it has done it should also have the guts to tell its readers who your current journalists are who can’t bring their fairy tales down to earth.
As you no doubt know he apologised soon afterwards but it was too late to prevent City Press, that other Sunday paper that is aimed mainly at Black readers, from deciding not to take his articles in future. He had evidently been freelancing for that publication.
Just in case you don’t know exactly what I am referring to here is your paper’s most recent “sorry” story.
6. December 2015: An Editorial headed Our commitment to the truth is absolute. Not only was this in itself not true but the entire Editorial was more fiction than anything else
 and  press-councils-special-protection-for.). 
And it wasn't made any more truthful by your paper's admissions that followed in the next few weeks.

20. December 2015: This Apology to the Minister of Finance Pravin Gordhan was not one of your paper’s voluntary ones. You were ordered to carry it by the Press Ombudsman so I can’t understand why your paper waited for his ruling before conceding that “We accept we were in breach of the Press Code for failing to seek Gordhan’s comment ahead of publication.” That’s one of the basics of journalism that every cub reporter gets taught - to always get both sides of the story. So wouldn’t you have expected this to have been uppermost in the reporter’s mind, particularly when he was writing an expose` involving somebody as important at the Minister of Finance?
          31. January 2016: Here was another embarrassing climb down your paper was forced to make by the Press Ombudsman. The headline Apology to Lakela Kauda cried out that the Sunday Times was in the mire once again.
14. February 2016: This Matter of Fact was a double bill. First of all your paper apologised for attributing something to the wrong Government Minister in a story appropriately entitled: “Five years of denial, cover-ups and bluster.” The next part emphasised once again that your entire staff are very slow learners. The second part was yet another admission that the writer had failed to get both sides of the story. Of course this is not only a reflection of the reporter’s apparent ignorance but also of the sub-editor who dealt with it and an Editor who allows this kind of thing to persist. You do have sub-editors in this high tech age or am I still in my typewriter and shorthand days at your paper? 
           21. February 2016: I assume that even in these ostensibly serious Matter of Facts your paper likes to have a bit of fun now and again. I don’t know if you’ve seen how laughable this one is. Readers were told that Gabs Mtshala did not say what your paper claimed he had said about Ngqula. It added, “We also neglected to give Ngqula an opportunity to respond to the allegation.” What! Ideally one of your reporters should have asked Ngqula to respond to a non-existent allegation. This also shows that not getting both sides of the story is endemic on your paper. I managed to track down the “Dicksy says he’s no criminal” piece which has the bylines of Bongani Magasela and David Isaacson on the top. This raises the question: Who was to blame for this shoddy bit of journalism. Even with two scribes tackling this rather ordinary tale your paper couldn’t get it right. This report, which ran right across the top of a page, illustrated perfectly how your apologies are given nothing like the prominence of the original story.
          In 2008 your paper’s news room was in such disarray that an independent panel was appointed to establish what was wrong and how it could be fixed. Perhaps it’s time you had another one of these before things get any worse.
          Jon, the Poor Man’s Press Ombudsman, who gives the other side of the story.        

Wednesday, February 17, 2016


Dear Consumers,
Thembi  Msibi the ASA's
          I was interested to see that the South Africa Advertising Authority (ASA) has been telling a judge in the High Court things which in my experience are not true.
          In her Consumer Column in the Sunday Times Megan Power reported on the case involving the ASA’s efforts to discipline the Medical Nutritional Institute (Institute). This firm is in the business of making complimentary medicines – those that are made from plants, minerals etc.
          Having decided that the Institute’s advertised claims for its AntaGolin product, which was said to combat insulin resistance and help with weight reduction, were unsubstantiated the ASA wanted to issue an ad alert.
          This would have meant that all ASA members, the majority being media companies, would have refused to accept the company’s AntaGolin ads unless certain conditions were met.
          The firm successfully applied to the Johannesburg High Court to prevent the ASA from doing this and the order will remain in force until a R17-million action for damages brought against the ASA by the company has been concluded.
          It is also suing Doctor Harris Steinman for R200 000 for defamation. He was one of two people who complained about the ads that the firm says are not at all misleading.
          The ASA is appealing this judgement in which it was also ordered to remove all references on it website critical of the Institutes ads.
          At the beginning of her column Power stated that the ASA “protects consumers against misleading and unsubstantiated advertising.” Well I have first hand experience that shows that although it professes to be impartial it in not when its own media members are involved. And I have conclusive evidence of a deplorable case where the ASA has failed to protect the public in favour of one of its members.
          According to Power the ASA told the judge the following: It claimed its code was a contract between members of the advertising industry and members would not publish adverts that did not comply with it. It did not compel anyone to comply with its rules, but if advertisers wanted to publish adverts in media owned by its members they were then required to do so.
          “Publishing misleading advertising is intrinsically harmful to consumers, whether or not products cause actual physical harm,” the ASA maintained. “It is only the ASA that monitors the advertising industry as a whole and responds to complaints speedily and effectively.
          “The ASA’s complaint resolution turnaround is an impressive 30 days and its rulings are posted to its website.”
          I have made several complaints to the ASA and I would have made more if they had accepted them. Not one of them has been upheld. It surely can’t be just a coincidence that my experiences with the ASA make absolute nonsense of the claims mentioned above that were made before the judge. It could of course be that the “impartial” ASA doesn’t give the same consideration to complaints from people like me who have openly criticised its shortcomings on my blog as opposed to those who don’t.
          Here are examples:    
·      The most glaring ones that show how untrue these claims are appear in the Herbalist advertisements in the The Citizen daily newspaper. Many of the ads for such things as penus enlargements and instant wealth are so clearly a pack of lies that even the editor agreed with me that they are not believable. But when I complained about these to the ASA it refused to take my complaints and generally gave me the run around with the result that pages of these lies have continued to appear in that paper on a daily basis. (citizens dubious ads.html) And what makes this even more deplorable is that The Citizen is one of the ASA’s members through Caxton, the group that owns it.        
·      Another ASA member is the Johannesburg based Sunday Times. But when I complained about some of its get-rich-quick investment ads that often resulted in poor people being defrauded of their life savings the complaints were accepted and then conveniently lost. The result: Nearly a year and half later I got an apology and was told that because of the delay they could not finish what they had started(bungling asa.html). To show you what a humpty dumpty organisation the ASA is this is what a member of its staff wrote to me during this long running affair. “We note that your complaint refers to a Sunday Times advertisement. Please note that the ASA deals with and investigates specific advertisements.”
Here are some other reasons why what the Judge was told was not true:

·      The ASA maintained it is the only organisation that   “monitors the advertising industry as a whole.” The word monitor as far as I could establish means to “keep something under continuous scrutiny.”  Well from what I was told the ASA does no such thing. It only reacts to complaints. Also it conveniently doesn’t have the power to tell any of its media members to stop accepting any ads until somebody has complained about the ads themselves and the ASA has ruled that they are not acceptable. So a paper like The Citizen can go on coining money by promoting charlatans in its Herbalists ads which are there for anybody, as well as the people who run the ASA, to see. Nothing will be done unless somebody complains and the complaint is upheld.  But then the ruling would only apply to the one ad complained about and there are pages of them all making similar extremely dubious claims. THAT’S THE ASA’S VERSION OF “MONOTORING THE INDUSTRY.”
·      Although it told the Judge that “publishing misleading advertising is intrinsically harmfully to consumers” it is doing such a great job of protecting consumers that The Citizen’s continues to carry a stack of “misleading advertising,” which it has been doing for years. Sorry that description is far too complimentary. Many of the ads contain complete and utter lies.                  
·      The ASA’s claim that its “complaint resolution turnaround is an impressive 30 days” makes out that this is how long it takes to get a ruling. This might happen in some cases but I can’t see how it can possibly be anything like the norm. I say this is because once a complaint has been received the ASA then has to get the advertiser’s side of the story before it can judge the issue. That can take weeks if not months. And as I found out when crooks place what are very obviously dicey ads the naïve ASA spends ages trying to get them to reply and when this doesn’t happen the ASA decides it can’t make a ruling. But it is so inconsistent that in at least one case that I know of it came to a decision without getting the advertiser’s version.

          In the court case the Institute argued that as it was not a member of the ASA it did not believe that it has any jurisdiction over it.  It contended that the Medicines & Related Substances Control Act as well as the Consumer Protection Act provided sufficient protection for consumers regarding its products.
          The ASA countered that it had been given statutory powers by the Electronic Communications Act to decide if ads carried on TV - this was where the controversial AntaGolin ads had mainly appeared - by its members complied with its code. This applied whether or not the advertiser was a member of the ASA or not.
          One of the ASA’s problems is that it tries at times, like in this case, to discipline firms that are not members of its organisation and that’s where things become very murky.          
          On one occasion it found in favour of university professor Rudi de Lange who complained that a so called Dr Semba was exploiting consumers by saying on his website that his “psychic powers” could cure epilepsy, high blood pressure and other ailments. Semba’s unbelievable claims were similar to the ones being made in The Citizen ads for which the ASA refused to allow me to lodge any complaints.
          Having spent some time trying to get Semba’s side of the story, the ASA gave up when he did not reply and accepted what the Professor had to say.
          The ASA then showed how ridiculous it is when it tried to get Semba to stop what he was doing when it has no control over websites. So Semba continued to proclaim to the world the benefits of his psychic powers as if nothing had happened. 

          In her report headlined “Watchdog in chains as advertiser fights back” Power’s view was that if this legal battle resulted in the ASA being barred from making rulings about misleading and unsubstantiated advertising by non-members it could leave consumers “vulnerable to exploitation.”
          But it’s doing that already because it is protecting them in some cases but not in others as my experiences shows particularly as far as The Citizen is concerned. There may of course be other similar cases that I don’t know about
What’s more when it comes to making misleading statements the ASA is in a league of its own. Apart from what I have already mentioned it boldly stated on its website that it “regulates all advertising which should be legal, decent, honest and truthful and no advertisement should bring advertising into disrepute or reduce confidence in it.”
In my case this boast proved to be “misleading and unsubstantiated.” So the sooner this apology for an advertising police force disappears the better and is replaced by a much more effective organisation. In its present form its own promotional advertising screams out how bad self-regulation is as a means of controlling the unacceptable behaviour that affects consumers in any industry.
“The budget intended for the protection of consumers is being blown on defending legal attacks,” Power wrote. “The Medical Nutritional Institute’s lawyers represent several other companies including Herbex, Solal, Groupon and Ultimate Sports Nutrition which have challenged the ASA.”
So it looks as though the ASA could have to defend actions for millions more.
Jon, a Consumer Watchdog who unlike the ASA is not employed by any industry and as such can claim to be genuinely independent.

*Note: The ASA was established by its media members as a self-policing mechanism for advertising. It is run on similar lines to that other great media pillar of justice the South African Press Council. Both of them claim to be impartial while showing a distinct bias towards their media masters.