by Chris Waldburger

INDEPENDENT NEWSPAPERS

Leadership looks at the changing face of newspapers in South Africa

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All around the globe, major newspapers are reeling at the effects of new media and new reading habits. Major legacy publications like the Washington Post and the New York Times have either had to be sold, bailed out, or radically change the way they deliver news.

Yet in South Africa, Dr Iqbal Survé, the founder of leading empowerment investment group, Sekunjalo, and known as the ‘struggle doctor’ for his treatment during apartheid of Robben Island prisoners, bought the apparently declining Independent News group in 2013 as its Irish owners battled with bankruptcy in the face of their own stagnant economy.

In an interview with his own Cape Times, Survé stated that while he had ‘bought a newspaper company’ he planned to ‘grow it into a media company’.

“And that’s very important to understand. Independent is not currently a media company. It has to undergo significant change in order to become a media company.”

Survé believed that “people have grossly exaggerated the death of newspapers in the developing world. If you look at India, China, Latin America and certainly parts of Africa there is huge growth in the vernacular press and community media. The newspaper industry, even in some developed countries, is beginning to plateau out in terms of circulation.”

Whilst Sekunjalo, since the purchase, has gone from strength to strength, recording a profit of over R100 million in its latest financial reports, it remains to be seen whether it can indeed restore circulation to the old English newspapers of South Africa.

Survé believes that transformation will play a key role in such an achievement.

“We have a potential audience that is much bigger than the current readership of our titles and our constituency.”

Telling the South African story

But profitability is not the only reason Sekunjalo seeks transformation.

“When I talk about the transformation of our media, I’m not talking about owning media brands that will all blindly champion the cause of a political party. I’m talking about transformation so that we tell the South African story: fully, honestly and without agenda.”

Telling such a story, Survé believes, is a necessary part of national development.

But implied in this aspiration is the belief that hitherto some of our major national titles have not been telling the story honestly and without agenda.

Survé hints at a notion popular in elite circles that media has had a destructive effect on state institutions by offering a critique that undercuts legitimacy instead of seeking positive improvement.

This makes him a controversial figure amongst the old school liberals of the newspaper world who in turn believe that harsh criticism is a vital ingredient of an unfettered democracy.

Many, such as the South African National Editors’ Forum (Sanef), have stated concern that Sekunjalo has partnered with Chinese and South African institutions, as well as the fact that Survé is well connected with the ruling party.

This simmering tension rose to fever pitch with the dismissal of Alide Dasnois, erstwhile editor of the Cape Times, following the paper’s coverage of Nelson Mandela’s death in late 2013.

Veteran Times columnist, Tony Weaver, was intimately involved in the controversy, which took place the morning South Africa woke up to a country without Madiba.

The Times staff had rushed the night before to cover the breaking news.

Weaver described the night later that week in his Man Friday column: ‘We got the paper off screen and down to the printers at one minute to 2am. It was a miracle of old-fashioned belt and garters, fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants, sweat, swearing and sheer genius print journalism, genius we may never see again.’

It was only then that staff at the venerable Cape Town institution gave themselves time to mark the solemn occasion— “As the adrenalin subsided, we dug out a forgotten bottle of Johnny Walker and toasted Madiba out of polystyrene cups.”

The wrap-around edition of the paper would go on to be voted by Time magazine as one of the best front pages in the world that had commemorated the passing of Mandela.

Yet the very next day, editor Alide Dasnois would be summoned to a meeting at the Vineyard Hotel in Newlands to be relieved of her post, for choosing to mark Madiba’s passing with a wrap-around instead of re-drafting the actual front page.

Survé stated, “It is my considered view, and that of the senior executive team of Independent… that the failure of the Cape Times to lead with such a momentous event, was an affront to the dignity of Madiba and a disservice to our readers.”

But was it the wrap-around that offended Survé? Or was it the fact that Dasnois had left the original front page intact with a leading story that Survé’s company, Sekunjalo, which is the controlling shareholder of Independent Newspapers, had been the beneficiaries of maladministration and unethical behaviour on the part Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Minister Tina Joemat-Pettersson?

The minister had previously awarded a subsidiary company of Sekunjalo’s an R800 million tender to manage the state’s fishery vessels. When investigated by Public Protector Thuli Madonsela, Joemat-Pettersson was found to have awarded the contract improperly.

Survé pointed out that the report never pointed any fingers at Sekunjalo.

Globally significant

“We had always welcomed the public protector’s investigation and repeatedly were confident that we would come out of it incredibly well. If you look at the final report, it found that Sekunjalo had done absolutely nothing wrong and that there was a problem with the department and that’s not our problem, to be frank.”

According to Weaver’s account, the decision to leave the front page on the night of Madiba’s death was solely owing to practical concerns revolving around printing deadlines, a lean team of sub-editors, and the belief that a wrap-around expressed the gravity of the globally significant news item being reported that night.

Nonetheless, the decision was taken to dismiss Dasnois, who has since taken Independent Newspapers to court.

Independent Newspapers has variously claimed that Dasnois’s dismissal was owing to falling circulation numbers, and, alternatively for attacking Sekunjalo without cause.

Survé has also stated that Dasnois was not in fact fired, but simply asked to change positions within the group, which she refused to do.

Weaver himself would go on to be made redundant in 2014, apparently for ‘gross disrespect’, while The Star, The Mercury and The Sunday Independent editors, Makhudu Sefara, Philani Mgwaba, and Moshoeshoe Monare would all resign. Group editor, Chris Whitfield, would take early retirement in 2014. (It is important to note Whitfield had also been critical of the Cape Times’ wrap-around.)

And most recently, in January this year group columnist, Max du Preez, resigned very publicly after new group editor, Karima Brown, decided to issue an apology after receiving complaints from the Presidency concerning a Du Preez column that had been heavily critical of President Zuma.

Other notable columnists such as Ann Crotty and Terry Bell would also have their columns suspended, while parliamentary correspondent, Donwald Pressly would be dismissed for standing for a Democratic Alliance (DA) seat in Parliament.

In short, Survé’s transformation agenda has collided—in a somewhat ugly fashion—with an old guard of independent journalists.

Weaver’s long career with the Cape Times, which spanned nearly two decades in three stints, came to an end when he questioned the decision to alter a photograph in order to remove the Pick ‘n Pay logo from a story concerning a robbery that occurred near of the chain’s branches. Pick ‘n Pay had no involvement in the decision.

When Weaver questioned whether this would form part of a new policy he was charged with unacceptable behaviour and gross disrespect. Speaking to Leadership, Weaver pointed out that altering photographs is in fact a level three contravention of the press code—equivalent to child pornography.

“As a result, my employers simply had no case, and they had to agree to my terms of departure.”

For Weaver, the latest developments at one of the country’s oldest newspapers are ‘problematic’.

“The Cape Times has an incredible history, and has been an integral part of the Western Cape social landscape for 130 years, with a great tradition of independent publishing.

“It is very sad for all journalism in South Africa to see what has happened to the paper.”

Meanwhile DA leader and Western Cape Premier, Helen Zille, has stated that Sekunjalo’s ownership of Independent Newspapers amounts to ‘state capture’ of the media.

In an open letter to Survé in the Sunday Times, Zille wrote –

“Like the Hawks, the NPA, SARS and the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC)—South Africa’s “independent” media houses are vulnerable to being captured, through the (ab)use of public funds, by elements in the ruling party.”

Editorial independence

Survé has gone on record stating the contrary, claiming that his desire in his investment in the group and in personnel changes has simply been to make the company and its titles profitable.

He has also gone on record stating that he is completely committed to the editorial independence of all his editors.

“As a media company we have a social contract with the people of South Africa, not with any political party. Where is the business sense in destroying the trust relationship with our audience? If we do that we have no business.”

Interestingly, this is not the first time the Cape Times has suffered tumult between editors, owners and government.

The paper was known, during the apartheid era, for being left of the liberal opposition to the National Party in Parliament, and for being sympathetic to both the ANC and the United Democratic Front (UDF) during the 1980s.

Weaver describes it as being close to ‘a struggle newspaper’ during that decade. Weaver, while writing for the Cape Times, would be arrested in 1986 for his reporting on the death of the Gugulethu Seven at the hands of security police.

Weaver would be charged on four counts under Section 27(B) of the Police Act, a charge with carried a maximum penalty of ten years’ imprisonment. He would eventually be acquitted.

But during his trial he was offered no support from Stephen Mulholland, the managing director of the group (Times Media Limited) then in control of the Cape Times.

Weaver would also experience death threats, phone tapping and shots fired at him, all at the hands of apartheid police.

Most famously, Mulholland would fire Cape Times editor, Tony Heard, in 1987, for publishing in 1985 an interview with the banned and exiled Oliver Tambo, the then President of the ANC. Mulholland would claim the dismissal was owing to falling circulation, yet it was understood at the time as a political decision.

Heard would reject a pay out to muzzle him and would later go on to work for the new government: as an advisor and speechwriter to Kader Asmal, Minister of Water Affairs and later Education, and later as an advisor in the Presidency.

Speaking three decades later, Heard has no regrets about publishing the interview which would cost him his job. (He had also risked prison time for sedition for quoting a banned person. He would be questioned, but charges would be dropped.)

Taking chances

“I did it as a journalist. Journalists have to take their chances. As editor, I had control of publication, and it was the right decision to publish the story. I took a calculated risk, knowing the danger to my career and perhaps even to me. My chief worry was that the cassette of the interview, or I, would disappear before we got to print.

“You have to work out your own salvation, or damnation.”

Heard, from his unique vantage point, has an interesting perspective on the evolution, and revolutions, that have beset Independent Newspapers.

“There is absolutely a need for further transformation of the media, and of all spheres. The playing fields are not yet level.

“But what has occurred at Independent and the Cape Times has been an unnecessary tragedy.

“The newspaper is a great institution and the way everything has happened only leaves with me with a profound sense of disappointment.”

Heard also points out that, in his view, because of the internet, there can ultimately be no concerns about openness and transparency in South Africa.

“The press in this country is going through a difficult stage and to be honest print may well disappear. But it is journalism that counts, not the medium, and I believe South Africa is experiencing a proliferation of good journalism.

“So in the broad context there is no real worry about openness. South Africa will always have a press to perform the traditional role of pointing out that the emperor has no clothes.”

Despite the optimistic technological determinism of Tony Heard, the ongoing saga of Independent Newspapers nevertheless reveals the tumult currently being experienced by our press—a tumult that consists of the search for renewed profitability, which in turn involves deepening relationships with corporate finance that is often connected with the nation’s developmental state.

The challenge ahead

Navigating these complexities is the challenge ahead for our press.

And Survé has further entrenched Sekunjalo in the media world as the group invests in a new venture to replace the soon to be defunct news wire service, Sapa (the South African Press Association).

Sekunjalo is said to be investing in the African News Agency (Ana), with backing from the Pan African Business Forum’s executive chairperson Ladislas Agbesi. Ana will headed up by former Primedia Online head and Daily Maverick commercial director, Chris Borain, with an initial investment of over R200 million.

While Media24 and Times Media have also announced plans to open news wire competitors (all of which hope to adopt some of Sapa’s existing human capital), Survé has stated that he hopes Ana will be a bulwark to a kind of collaborative era amongst competitors.

“At a time when competition and hostility amongst media houses is at its most intense, we at Sekunjalo Investment Holdings have been completely open about our intention to incorporate Sapa into the Ana syndication service and to invest considerable resources into establishing a quality African news agency.”

Perhaps Ana will form part of Sekunjalo’s big leap from print powerhouse to media conglomerate, with an emphasis on new technologies and a multimedia platform.

What remains to be seen is how major media players like Sekunjalo— in their urgent quest for large-scaled growth and profits—continue to position themselves in regard to the traditional role of the fourth estate.

Will that watchdog role continue to be filled by flagship publications like the Cape Times? And if not, will Tony Heard’s faith in new technology be vindicated? Optimists—Survé among them—believe that the market will continue to incentivize editorial independence. Therefore the search for sustainable profit can only be concomitant with delivering a product of integrity.

However this era of rapid change in media plays out, there can be no doubt that Survé’s Sekunjalo has arrived as a power player for the foreseeable future.

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