MEDIA TENSIONS IN THE SPOTLIGHT

By Zubeida Jaffer

Star editor, Makhudu Sefara opportunely broke a dignified silence today.

This was a tense two weeks for journalism. His voice articulates the levels of annoyance circulating amongst media professionals. If he had not spoken today, many were at risk of remaining “sitting ducks.”

I first became aware of the unfolding drama when a letter from SANEF signed by Nic Dawes dropped into my inbox last week. The SANEF letter was an appeal to the Competitions Commission to ensure that the new owners of Independent Newspaper disclose information about their business operations so that employers could get a better grip on what the plans were for the new company.

In order to make up my mind, I made a few calls to find out what this letter from Nic Dawes was all about.

In the interest of nation-building or should we call it quality, depth, balance and fairness – as Anton Harber would prefer - allow me to provide my colleagues and the South African public with additional reportage that I collected in an attempt to make up my mind.

In fairness to Nic, he did not initiate this. He was approached by the Indie Trust set up two years ago to explore a new model of ownership for the company. (See www.indie-trust.com) The provisional trustees are Cape Times editor, Alide Dasnois, Editor-at-large, Ann Crotty and MWASA chairperson, Tuwani Gumani. The trust approached SANEF for help to lobby for the consortium to disclose its funding arrangements and objectives. So far, about 600 staff members at Independent Newspapers have declared support for this initiative representing about a third of the company’s staff complement.

Lobbying for different ownership models should be encouraged. The former owner of Independent Newspapers, Mr Tony O’Reilly, demonstrated ably how disastrous his business model was.

Are we going into another traditional business model that is solely concerned with profits or will there be a different approach that would better serve the public interest. This is surely a worthy discussion to have although there will be many who will argue that the world economy has changed and with it the days of media operations being supported by business but not necessarily drawing huge profits as an entity in itself. Is it likely at this tense world economic moment that South African business people and investment companies will want to play the game differently?

This is a discussion that cannot be ignored. However back to the SANEF letter? Why then an appeal to the Competition’s Commission? The answer I got was that Dr Surve was not prepared to disclose his business partners, hence the agitation amongst staff at Independent Newspapers. I called him and asked him why he did not want to disclose. His answer was that he had made it clear that he would disclose his partners once the Irish held an Extraordinary Executive Meeting on 20 June. I asked him why he did not inform the editors at Independent of this since it was not long to wait. He told me that he had. I was baffled and subsequently confirmed that this was so.

Then I called some of the people who had signed the letter already and others whose journalistic ethics I trusted. From this I learnt that they were not all aware that the consortium details would be made public as soon as June 20th. They were under the impression that this information would have to be fought for. Through these interviews a number of other issues emerged that had influenced the decision to sign or not. Some signed because they believed that Dr Surve through Sekunjalo was close to President Jacob Zuma. President Zuma had put Dr Surve on the BRICS council so Dr Surve owed the president favours. They wanted his consortium to be delayed or stopped because this would not be good news for the country.

If it were to be stopped and not approved by the Competition Commission, the Irish would be forced to sell off individual newspapers. This would create the opportunity for a greater unbundling and reorganisation of newspapers into a morning group and an evening group as was the case when mining interests controlled and owned newspapers in this country.

This would make the company less of a giant and less of a competitor to existing media companies who are presently fighting for a bigger piece of the economic pie.

While SANEF has withdrawn its letter for reasons I will soon explain, the Competition Commission has in effect extended its deadlines making possible that the formal take-over of the business would be delayed.

This suits those companies such as Caxton who are in the process of repositioning themselves in the market. It takes a potential competitor off their backs for a little while.

Those who signed the SANEF letter signed it for one or all of these reasons. From Nic Dawes the collection of signatures went to Raymond Louw who is deputy of the Press Freedom Commission. He seemingly forgot to discuss the matter with Makhudu Sefara, the chairperson of the Commission that falls under SANEF. In the sloppy process, those who signed were not representative of a range of South African editors – they were all formerly media people that apartheid defined as white.

Despite this clear indication that more canvassing needed to be done, the letter was sent to the Competition Commission and the lines of division flipped back into the old apartheid patterns awakening old memories of disregard.

Unfortunately it was not the editors or journalists who jumped in to deal with this matter. It was the SACP that sent out a strongly-worded statement expressing the bubbling and rumbling. In so doing, the matter was firmly racialised and taken out of the hands of the media profession.

SANEF’s acknowledgement that they had created a mess and the withdrawal of the letter at least diffused tensions superficially. This is the opportune time for SANEF to set up a focussed seminar on understanding the O’Reilly debacle in order to insist on an ownership arrangement that creates the space for decently resourced newsrooms.

But then came Anton Harber’s lecture yesterday (Thursday, 6 June in Business Day) and upped the ante. Anton is Caxton Professor of Journalism at Wits University.

What was he thinking? Was he talking to a teenager or a young inexperienced business man? Would he have given this lecture to Tony O’Reilly? Or would he have argued that we must open to do business with those who want to invest?

Having learnt from the OReilly debacle, it is too early to say that this consortium won’t mess with our profession and weaken it even further. What we do know is that they have made a commitment not to retrench. We also know that they are bringing an asset back to our country and stopping the bloodletting amply described in 2011 without much media attention.

In 2011, Mwasa presented a comprehensive case study of the then Irish-owned Independent News & Media plc (INM plc) to National Treasury. This was part of National Treasury’s review of cross-border direct investment in South Africa. The union’s presentation tells a story of plunder. It highlights the constant pressure to repatriate profits to Ireland regardless of the trading conditions prevailing in South Africa. I have posted the document on my website (www.zubeidajaffer.co.za) for those readers who want more information.

In brief, billions of rands of profit made here in South Africa were sent to Ireland to help bail out the Irish arms of the company. So we were supporting Independent Newspapers, buying their papers and making it possible for an Irish company to enjoy the benefits. Instead of reinvesting into the local titles and bolstering the profession, the opposite took place.

According to the Mwasa presentation, the ownership by INM has been accompanied by a significant reduction in employee numbers. From a high of 5 223 at the time of the initial transaction in 1994, employee numbers have been reduced steadily to a current level of around 1 500 in 2011.

The promised support for journalism and increased training and resources came to very little in the end leaving editors struggling and news teams cut down to bare minimum.

The old Argus company was working on 7 percent profit margins. The O’Reillys demanded 25 percent eventually, cutting the company to shreds. In the INM plc 2010 annual report Gavin O’ Reilly stated, “Thanks to the foresight of Anthony O’Reilly and Liam Healy, INM first invested in South Africa in 1994 in advance of the first ever free and democratic elections. Financially it is a decision that is vindicated each and every year.”

Undoubtedly for INM plc the decision has been vindicated each and every year, according to the MWASA presentation. “ In the years since INMSA became a wholly owned subsidiary of the Irish company the cumulative operating profits, which are available for repatriation, have been in excess of R4 billion, dwarfing the investment of between R560 million and R725 million.”

Tony O’Reilly’s fraternisation with the then government of Nelson Mandela was an open secret. He had given our Madiba an undertaking that he would invigorate the media industry and strengthen the profession. He did not keep his word. He and his friends had access to the new government on a scale that should not have been allowed.

Talk about an ego purchase.

And one last thing: Why is the word nation-builder in relation to news an anathema for Anton Harber? Our greatest journalistic role models have been committed to nation-building – not only in South Africa but in the United States and Great Britain. At home, Percy Qoboza, Aggrey Klaaste and Rory Wilson immediately spring to mind. Dr Klaaste built the Sowetan into a major circulating newspaper through passionately pursuing his nation-building philosophy under difficult conditions.

Our great journalists were not condescending. They understood the communities they came from. They were also not afraid to speak their truth as they saw it and not make it fit a constructed narrative that often encourages a cynical attitude rather than a sceptical approach that is the an important pillar of our profession. It is appropriate that editors and journalists speak out now. Tony O’Reilly was only interested in the bottom line and not the strengthening of our professional life.

Can Iqbal Surve assure us that his approach would make a difference to our newsrooms?

Thank you Makhudu for breaking a silence that right now is undignified.

 

*The pieces on this site posted today 7 June 2013, provide students with more detailed information about the present newspaper ownership discussions.

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