By Pinky Khoabane
STEVE Motale’s declaration that he was unfairly dismissed by The Citizen was confirmed, once again, by the Labour Appeals Court on Monday when it dismissed the newspaper’s petition to appeal a ruling on 27 January 2017 ordering it to reinstate the former editor.
Justices JP Waglay, JA Sutherland and AJA Savage on 9 October 2017, denied The Citizen leave to appeal with costs. “The refusal for leave to appeal signifies that this court is of the view that the intended appeal has no reasonable prospects of success….”
The saga stems from Motale’s dismissal on 28 November 2016 following a series of stories about former Finance Minister Trevor Manuel, former deputy Finance Minister Mcebisi Jonas and former SABC CEO Hlaudi Motsoeneng.
In correspondence to Motale at the time, the publisher, Eureka Zandberg, cited the article published on 4 October 2016, “Jonas is a Liar” as the trigger to the events that led to his suspension on 2 November and his dismissal almost a month later.
At the time, the newspaper denied that these stories had anything to do with the sacking. In a statement the paper said the “matter was not about the stories published in The Citizen. On the contrary, The Citizen upholds the highest standards of editorial freedom.” The paper said Motale had failed to adhere to “agreed-upon editorial processes” and had been dismissed following an internal disciplinary hearing”.
But in court papers it emerged these stories had everything to do with the decision to fire him. His dismissal was orchestrated at the highest level, to the extent that even the Chairman of the Caxton Group, Paul Jenkins, got involved.
The court papers also showed that Motale was never subjected to an internal disciplinary hearing headed by an independent chairman in contradiction to an undertaking made to him by Zandberg in a letter of November 1 2016, but it was also in contravention of the company’s own disciplinary code.
In his ruling on 27 January 2017, Judge D H Gush said The Citizen’s Publisher had originally followed the company’s procedures but “during the course of the correspondence between the applicant (Motale) and second respondent (Zandberg), possibly having taken advice, decided that the issue was no longer one of misconduct on the part of the applicant but simply an issue of compatibility. The second respondent conveniently ignored the fact that what led to her alleging (a) breakdown of trust (in the) relationship was the alleged misconduct of the applicant”.
Emails between Zandberg and Jenkins, third respondent in the matter, indicated that he had intervened in the events which led to Motale’s sacking.
The Judge said Zandberg and Jenkins had made an “unexplained and unjustified leap from accusing the applicant of misconduct to simply assuming he was guilty thereof and then decided this constituted an irretrievable breakdown (of) the relationship between the applicant and the first and second respondents”.
In so doing the newspaper had ignored its own disciplinary procedures and therefore violated Motale’s contractual rights, the judgement stated.
The Judge questioned the decision by Zandberg to abandon the original proposal in which she afforded the former editor a properly constituted disciplinary hearing into his alleged misconduct. He ruled that Motale was unfairly dismissed and ordered The Citizen to reinstate him. It appealed the ruling which it lost. It then petitioned the Labour Appeals Court for leave to appeal. And again it lost.
Timeline of Motale’s dismissal
On 7 October, Zandberg wrote to Motale raising concerns around the story based on a letter from Fana Hlongwane that Jonas had lied about the Gupta family offering him a post. She then instructed Motale to have “all exclusive stories of a sensitive nature regarding high profile individuals are to be referred to our lawyer, Mr Willem de Klerk, for legal clearance, without which no publication shall occur”.
She alleges that Motale gave her assurances that he would do so, but Motale published other stories.
On 20 October 2016, published on its cover an article titled “Now Hawks target Trevor”.
On 21 October 2016, Paul Jenkins, Chairman of Caxton, Jenkins, intervenes and questions the story on Manuel and why a breaking news story on SARS Commissioner Tom Moyane’s nephew was not published. “Eureka, we have a policy of editorial independence, but it does not extend to going over the cliff with a questionable agenda…However, we have a right to intervene where we are concerned about journalistic standards and integrity..” he notes in his email.
On 21 October 2016, Zandberg responds to Jenkins with an assurance that she’d spoken to the editor and an undertaking was made that “there wont be any further unpleasant surprises”.
On 22 October 2016, the Citizens ran a follow-up article on Manuel, headlined: “Manuel Probe: Why the rush?”. The article appeared in the Saturday Citizen for which the paper has another editor.
On 24 October 2016, 7:37AM. Jenkins sent an email to Zandberg in acknowledgement of her 21 October 2016 email but raised concerns on, among others, the source of the story on the Manuel story, specifically that it came from SARS. “I would respectfully suggest that any documents emanating from SARS should be treated with great circumspection. I repeat again that the Sunday Times was at the same time, the perpetrator of very problematic reporting over a sustained period for which it had to apologise..”.
On 24 October 2016, Jenkins sends another email: “Following your assurances from both you and the editor on Friday afternoon, and following on from my email this morning (below), I would like you to please explain the piece in the Saturday Citizen, about Mr Manuel. Given that you said there would be no more surprises, please advise whether you and/or the editor were aware of the imminent publication of a further follow up on Saturday, when you wrote to me on Friday…..”. He raises concerns about the accuracy of the story.
On 27 October 2016, Zandberg responds to the chairman. “I had a follow-up discussion with my editor on 25 October regarding your two most recent emails referring to the Trevor Manuel story. I pointed out that after my meeting with him on Friday, I sent an email, which implied I support and trust my editorial team. My view has changed since I received your last two emails; I cannot but agree with everything that you highlighted. I mentioned to Steve that it affected the trust relationship between him and me negatively…”
On 27 October 2016, Motale responds to Jenkins and explains the context within which the Manuel story was published. In this email he goes on to say he had phoned Manuel, on his (Manuel) instruction and he was very rude to him.
On 27 October 2016, Chairman responds accepting the editor’s explanation but added: “We cannot afford a fall in circulation or a drop in advertising. The Citizen is currently being subsidised by the owner, and this means that we will be pro-active in our oversight of all aspects of the paper…..If and to the extent there is a trust deficit at a management level, and a struggling publication, then the owner cannot be expected to maintain a non-interventionist approach indefinitely.
On 27 October 2016, The Citizen published the article “Hlaudi dishes dirt on Jackson”.
On 1 November 2016, Zandberg writes Motale a letter in which she among others, points out her “considerable misgivings and trust reservations” and offers two options; to either be suspended on full pay pending an investigation into his conduct or consider parting on “a mutually acceptable basis that included immediate termination in return for six-months remuneration. In the same letter, dated 1 November 2016, Motale is assured that his rights to a fair disciplinary hearing would be upheld and an “independent chairperson would be appointed for the purpose and any outcome thereof would be assessed purely and specifically on the evidence which is presented thereat”.
The former editor opted to stay.
On 2 November 2016. Motale receives his suspension letter. In it, Zandberg states. “The reason for your suspension is the breakdown in the trust relationship between you and your employer, particularly owning (sic) to the publication of stories that have not been adequately cleared and for failing to comply with instructions…”. This contradicts the statement by The Citizen when Motale was fired that his dismissal had nothing to do with the stories.
On 10 November 2016, Zandberg writes to Motale. She reneges on her earlier commitment to subject Motale to a proper disciplinary hearing headed by an independent chairperson. Instead, she sends a set of allegations to Motale which she demands he responds to for consideration by the Managing Editor, Piet Greyling. “These submissions…would then be considered and placed before the Managing Director of CTP Limited, Mr Piet Greyling, for his consideration and direction and he will, thereafter be required to determine whether my reservations with regard to your trustworthiness and the capacity aforementioned are well founded or otherwise and thereafter to determine an appropriate outcome with regard to your continued employment with the Citizen”. She gives him a deadline of 18 November to respond.
In his affidavit to the court, Motale has denied the allegations made in the letter and asked the Labour Court not to consider these allegations as he would respond to them in a proper constituted internal disciplinary hearing headed by an independent chairman.
On 17 November 2016, Motale writes to Zandberg.
On 21 November 2016, Zandberg writes to Motale informing him he had failed to respond by 18 November and challenges some claims in Motale’s letter of 17 November 2016. She extends the deadline for Motale’s response to 24 November 2016.
On 24 November 2016, Motale writes to Zandberg alerting her to the fact that he would not be responding to her allegations by way of reply but in a formal disciplinary hearing.
Between 24 November and 27 November, 2016. Several letters are exchanged between the publisher and editor.
On 27 November 2016, Motale is fired.