Somizi Mhlongo sits next to former Idols SA judge Gareth Cliff. Picture: MOELETSI MABE
Somizi Mhlongo sits next to Idols SA judge Gareth Cliff. Picture: MOELETSI MABE

IN A vindication for embattled radio host Gareth Cliff, the Johannesburg High Court said on Friday that it was “disingenuous” of M-Net to refute the existence of his 2016 Idols contract.

However, Mr Cliff’s victory may be short-lived. The judgment restores the contract between Mr Cliff and M-Net but, as Judge Caroline Nicholls points out in her judgment, MNet is, under the contract, still entitled to terminate on a week’s notice with no reasons given.

She also did not grant an order Mr Cliff had asked for — to interdict the start of auditions, due to begin today (Friday), unless he was there.

M-Net parted ways with Mr Cliff as a judge on the popular show Idols SA after he weighed in on the heated public debate on racism, which followed the now infamous Facebook post by Penny Sparrow.

On Twitter, Mr Cliff said “People don’t understand freedom of expression at all”. When he was criticised for this he responded: “This woman is an idiot and a racist, but I believe in freedom of speech.”

In her post, Ms Sparrow likened black people to monkeys, lamenting their being “allowed loose” onto public beaches because it “invited huge dirt and trouble and discomfort to others”.

Mr Cliff’s tweets drew heavy criticism and accusations that, by defending Ms Sparrow, Mr Cliff was himself a racist.

Judge Nicholls emphasised that, at this stage, the case was not about freedom of speech, hate speech or racism.

“At present the crux of the dispute is the contractual relationship between the parties,” she said.

Judge Nicholls said that Mr Cliff only needed to show the court that he had “a prima facie right, albeit open to some doubt”.

Referring to correspondence between them, Judge Nicholls said even if there had not been an oral agreement, there was a “tacit” agreement that Mr Cliff would be an Idols judge.

It was “highly improbable” that Mr Cliff’s image would appear on M-Net’s adverts for 2016 if the company were “of the view that no binding agreement had been reached,” she said.

“The conduct of both parties was clear and unequivocal”.

She said that, like M-Net, Mr Cliff depended on his brand — “built up over many years”.

“Being axed for being labelled a racist does untold reputational and financial harm to him,” she said.

She said an order in his favour was “the only satisfactory remedy that would go some way in addressing this issue”.

On the other hand, the Idols brand would not suffer in the same way.

“It cannot be ignored that Cliff’s value as an Idols judge has been his tendency to shock and provoke, an image that M-Net has apparently supported, or certainly overlooked, until now”.