Media bashing is in vogue

By Makhudu Sefara , editor of the Star 7 June 2013.

Johannesburg – On the sidelines of a lunch I attended in Sandton this week, an executive asked me: “What on earth was Sanef thinking, writing a petition to the Competition Commission?”

And, before I could respond, he asked: “And why are the black editors being defended by the SA Communist Party against white editors? Are you under siege, and why can’t you defend yourselves?”

One thing about being part of Independent Newspapers is that, for a while, just like the SABC, I suppose, we have allowed people to define us. To tell us how big we are, how important we are to democracy and, I guess, what we should think of what we do and of ourselves.

While others wrote of public interest issues, some have written stories about us on things they hardly understood. And there would, invariably, be a dignified silence from Independent Newspapers’s management, The Star and many other editors within the group.

Others would lead campaigns to break up the group because they’ve positioned themselves to benefit – but, still, we would look at them and merely shake our heads.

After all, the thinking over the years was that when you know that what is written about you is nonsense, you can choose to let it affect you by responding, and thus giving it legs, or you can treat it like trash should be treated.

But the silence, over many years, bred contempt. It bred a sense in those who had trash to share that they knew better. We were sitting ducks. They had the cheek to think they were bigger than they actually were, and they got away with it.

And this, unfortunately, opened doors for wanton attacks on the media. Anybody could define for the media what the media agenda ought to be. Media bashing, it appears, was in vogue. Generally, the media management of newspapers hasn’t helped. This is why even upstarts think they can define us.

Sunday Times editor Phylicia Oppelt, for example, has been under pressure to explain her newspaper’s co-operation or collusion, depending on who you believe, with the DA. Her employment of former DA strategist Gareth van Onselen has been a sore point for many.

Former Sunday Times investigative journalist Wisani Ngobeni has been the bane of Oppelt’s existence, taking the paper to the press ombud, releasing statements about the paper’s decline and questioning its standing (implying it has become a DA lapdog).

Oppelt, meanwhile, last Sunday gave Ferial Haffajee a below-the-belt blow, saying City Press was a “failing publication”, ostensibly because of a precipitous decline in circulation. Oppelt went further to suggest City Press appeared to be receiving bribes in the form of adverts in return for its coverage of Communications Minister Dina Pule’s war with the Sunday Times.

City Press, meanwhile, was smarting from accusations that it projected blacks as evil and whites as angels. The accusers, government functionaries Panyaza Lesufi and Lumka Oliphant, in addition, said the Sowetan was directionless and a shadow of its former self. Lesufi and Oliphant accused some of us black editors of being puppets of the white masters – precipitating the SACP’s over-excitement and defence of black editors.

And, very recently, Anton Harber and a coterie of Rosebank-based white male editors have taken it upon themselves to tell Iqbal Survé what it means to be a media owner. We are all caught up in this maelstrom.

In all of the above you will not find engagement, but an arrogant, condescending attitude by those who think they are God’s gift to us all. Those who want to define us tell us what to think and do.

Harber, the “great” scholar, believes it is his place to talk Survé down. Survé, after all, must possibly only know about fish and chips, right?

Have you seen Harber write a similar column about Times Media chief executive Andrew Bonamour, for example? Or, say, Koos Bekker of Naspers? Why?

Harber’s attitude is the same one that permeated what was initially dubbed a Sanef decision to petition the Competition Commission to allow them an opportunity to make oral presentations about their concerns about this newspaper company. When this was made public, it did not enjoy the support of key people within Independent Newspapers, at least not in Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal.

Within Independent Newspapers, some felt this was a decision by white males of Rosebank who thought they knew better what the black males of Sauer Street should do and think. They, after all, like Survé’s fish business, are merely good enough to append their signatures and not to be consulted.

But, in truth, how could the Rosebank coterie be any more concerned than the editors who are at the coalface?

The thing is this: If Survé has ANC or DA hacks as shareholders and intends to appoint, say, the ANC’s Jackson Mthembu as editor-in-chief for our group, we all surely need to know.

The Rosebank coterie do not need to know any more than we do. So they too must take a chill pill.

If Survé wants to run down the company, he must trample on the credibility of the titles by making dubious appointments and interfering with editorial policy. Most great journalists who work here, who make our papers the great papers they are, would not want to work for anything that resembles The New Age, for example. And they don’t work here because they don’t have options. There would be an exodus of personnel, of credibility, of much that makes us the great newspapers we are.

The point is not to defend Survé – but may he not be second-guessed? How would the Competition Commission help us make sure the paper is not sold to the ANC or DA loyalists?

If, for example, Survé says – as he was once quoted as saying – that he wants fair journalism, then that should be embraced.

The truth is that there are as many scandals in our country as there are positive, inspiring stories, as told through LeadSA, eNCA’s Against All Odds, Sowetan’s Nation Building and the SABC’s Touching Lives.

There is much to worry about in our country, but to say things are falling apart is to be alarmist.

While I think Survé would know that, I think the problem is that we all think we can define each other and have the last word.

When Ngobeni hit back at what he believed was the Sunday Times-DA nexus or collusion, his minister, Pule, was tired of being defined by a newspaper she thought had a clear, dubious agenda against her.

When Lesufi and Oliphant went on their show against City Press, Sowetan and black editors, they were at their wits’ end.

When Oppelt attacked Haffajee, telling her she edited a “failing” publication, she was tired of being defined through City Press’s coverage.

When Survé went on Twitter to tell Business Day editor Peter Bruce off, he must have thought “who the hell does Bruce think he is”.

And when the Independent Newspapers editors, black and white, forced Sanef to do a climb-down on the Competition Commission, they objected to the patronising attitude that suggested those sitting in Rosebank were God’s gift to journalism. Forget the SACP’s defence of editors; the editors do that just fine.

And so should everybody. Nobody should be a sitting duck, waiting to be attacked, to be defined without a response, least of all by some self-anointed journalism overlords and quasi-scholars.

* Makhudu Sefara is the editor of The Star. Follow him on Twitter @Sefara_Mak

Click here for Zubeida Jaffer’s article Media Tensions in the Spotlight


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