Ed Herbst: Following Molefe article, another Indy editor bites the dust

Journalists and editors form a key part of the lifeblood of any democracy – and when they start losing their jobs for various reasons, it’s time to worry. It can also be easy to miss these developments, as Ed Herbst points out regarding Independent Newspapers’ firing of Sunday Independent editor Wally Mbhele. Amid South Africa’s fast-paced newsflow of recent times, hardly an eyelid batted when the Sunday Times recently reported about the curious circumstances surrounding Mbhele’s sacking. It’s emerged that Mbhele was fired after the Sunday Independent published an article about Brian Molefe being parachuted into Parliament with the help of a North West ANC branch despite him residing in Centurion. Of course, Molefe is under the spotlight again after leaving his short stint as ANC MP and being re-parachuted back into his role as Eskom CEO. Herbst uses Mbhele’s sacking as a point of departure to more carefully look at other developments at Indy. – Gareth van Zyl

Brian Molefe speaks at the headquarters of Eskom Holdings SOC Ltd. at Megawatt Park in Johannesburg, South Africa. Photographer: Waldo Swiegers/Bloomberg

By Ed Herbst*

… nothing gets quality journalists out of a newspaper group faster than sacking editors for running stories that upset the owners. – Stephen Grootes Daily Maverick 10/12/2013

While I acknowledge the rights of owners, I think the balance between the rights of the owners, the rights of readers and the rights of journalists has slipped out of kilter at the Independent Group. – Ann Crotty Groundup 11/2/2014

Veteran journalist Ed Herbst

As a nation and a country we have become so inured to ANC-created crisis, confusion and decay that the recent dismissal of an editor for publishing an article critical of Brian Molefe, caused not a ripple of concern.

Within the first year of the takeover of the largest group of English newspapers in the country by Dr Iqbal Survé, five editors were no longer in Sekunjalo’s employ, Alide Dasnois, Chris Whitfield, Makhudu Sefara, Moshoeshoe Monare and  Philani Mgwaba.

Now Sunday Independent editor Wally Mbhele has been fired after Survé’s chief of staff, Zenariah Barends, questioned him regarding an article he had published about that pillar of ethical probity, Brian Molefe.

Coincidentally, Dr Gabriel Botma, a lecturer at the University of Stellenbosch journalism faculty, gave this essay assignment to his Masters students:

How did the change in the ownership of Independent Media, when it was bought by Sekunjalo Investment Group, led by Dr Iqbal Survé, influence its political and economic positioning, managerial style, and the editorial content of(one or more of) its newspapers? Remember to consider various sides of the argument, as well as criticism of critical political economy as a theoretical framework.

I was approached, as were others in Cape Town’s media community, for comment and input and I spent a few hours putting together a list of relevant internet links under various headings for the students and I also supplied a timeline I had compiled.

The questions asked by the students did, however, raise in my mind concerns about the inconsistent way in which the obituaries of Nelson Mandela and, more recently, Ahmed Kathrada were covered in the newspapers owned by Dr Iqbal Survé.

In an article published shortly after the Sekunjalo takeover, two senior news executives, Karima Brown and Vukani Mde acknowledged that Iqbal Survé ‘wears his ANC heart on his sleeve’. It is difficult to know when working under an ANC-aligned news administration what the ethical standards and guidelines are and what is expected of one as a reporter or editor – as the following two contradictory examples illustrate:

Late on the evening of 5 December 2013, staff at Die Burger and the Cape Times in Cape Town and the Daily Dispatch in East London chose, because of deadline constraints, to reflect the death of Nelson Mandela with wraparound front pages enclosing the newspaper which had, by that time, already been completed by the normal deadline. This has always been a worldwide norm because, under such circumstances, it is the only viable option.

Alide Dasnois

The Cape Times wraparound compiled by a team led by editor Alide Dasnois, was then voted by Time magazine as one of the best in the world.

Despite this:

  • Dr Iqbal Survé, the new owner of the Independent Media company said however that this wraparound  – which was, in effect, the front page lead in the Cape Times because it was what you first saw when you received the newspaper – was an insult to Madiba’s memory and Alide Dasnois was subsequently driven out of the company in an abusive way.
    In a letter to staff  Survé said: ‘It is my considered view, and that of the senior executive team of Independent present at the time with Ms Dasnois, 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.’
  • The night news editor of the Cape Times, Aneez Salie, was on duty with Karima Brown on the night that the stellar, award-winning wraparound tribute to Madiba was created. Brown was there as the senior executive appointed by Survé and was his representative in the newsroom that night. Fortunately, as it later transpired, they did not oppose its creation. After the Madiba tribute was described by Time magazine as one of the best in the world Salie, in contradiction of the Time assessment, wrote an article describing it as ‘a serious error of judgment’. Thereafter, as someone present during its production, he was promoted to the position of editor of the newspaper subsequent to the dismissal of Dasnois. In short, Survé used the award-winning wraparound as justification for the dismissal of Dasnois and, subsequently Salie, who raised no objection while he was present during the layout process, got her job.
  • Zenzile Khoisan, a former Cape Argus reporter, was rehired after writing a melodramatic article attacking the Cape Times wraparound chosen by Time as one of the best in the world –  the one to which Karima Brown and Aneez Salie voiced no objection on the night that it was created. Khoisan wrote: ‘The Cape Times’s performance on the day the world stood still, counterweighted against almost every other title in the world, was, at best, mediocre, and, at worst, a betrayal of everything this entire Fourth Estate is about.’ He described the wraparound as ‘a spectacular lapse of judgment.

He seemed unable to grasp the fact that his article was, in effect, also an attack on Brown and Salie who raised no objections during the wraparound production process.

Ahmed Kathrada wraparound

Fast forward to the recent death of another Struggle icon, Ahmed Kathrada.

Nelson Mandela and Ahmed Kathrada

Two of Iqbal Surve’s newspapers, the Cape Argus (editor Aziz Hartley) and The Star (editor Japhet Ncube) both commemorated Kathrada’s passing with a wraparound front cover.

Were these two editors, as a result, driven out of the company as Alide Dasnois  and members of her team were? No

Did Dr Iqbal Survé declare these wraparound tributes to be an ‘affront to the memory’ of Kathrada and a ‘disservice to readers’? No.

Did Aneez Salie write an article declaring this wraparound decision by his fellow editors in the company to be a ‘serious error of judgment’? No.

Did Zenzile Khoisan write an article describing the Kathrada wraparound decision by Hartley and Ncube as ‘a betrayal of everything this entire Fourth Estate is about’ and a ‘spectacular lapse of judgment’? No.

How do they explain this U-Turn, this flip-flop, this volte-face?

Internal ombudsman

What, the students asked me, did I think of the recently-announced internal ombudsman for Independent Media and how would this impact on the local print newspaper industry as a whole?

I pointed out that there was nothing new in this – Die Burger has had one for years – but Die Burger, for maximum accountability, remains part of the Press Council system and respects its authority. In this regard I also referred them to an article by UNISA academic, Dr Julie Reid, six months ago, which cogently made the point that the tried and trusted Press Council formula would be difficult to equal.

She was right.

If you have a complaint against the Sunday Independent you will notice that its former editor, Jovial Rantao, heads the new ombudsman team and that the panel includes Ryland Fisher a former Cape Times editor and current Indy columnist – no conflict of interest there, then?

Most SA Press Council judgments are written by Johan Retief, author of a definitive book on media ethics. There is nobody in the Independent Media ombudsman team of his stature or with his experience.

And what, pray, is one to make of this provision in the new body’s guidelines?

* Any person other than a natural person, a registered non-profit organisation or a Public Benefit Organisation, shall pay a refundable deposit of R5 000 before the complaint will be considered. The deposit will only become payable if no settlement is reached. If the complaint is upheld substantially, the deposit will be refunded to the complainant;

Who or what is thus precluded from complaining without upfront payment?

Trade unions?  Political parties? Will this not have a chilling effect on the complaint process?

Managerial style

In the context of the ‘managerial style’ element of the US assignment question one is struck by the way in which the Indy it has lost its finest talents since the Sekunjalo takeover three years ago

A Zapiro cartoon in early 2014 portrayed this loss of expertise and institutional knowledge but it is no longer relevant because even Karima Brown has joined the ranks of the disaffected.

More magic available at www.zapiro.com.

Mbhele’s dismissal follows the retrenchment just before Christmas last year of 72 senior Indy staffers including one of the country’s most experienced environment reporters, the Natal Mercury’s Tony Carnie and one of my favourite political reporters Craig Dodds. This also follows the loss of parliamentary reporter Babalo Ndenze who now writes for the Sunday Times and Marianne Merten who now writes for Daily Maverick, as does former Indy political columnist Judith February.

Earlier this year one of Cape Town’s brightest and best young reporters, Caryn Dolley, left Survé’s employ to become regional editor for News 24 and she is doing outstanding investigative reporting on the war that has broken out between the city’s crime bosses.

Since the Sekunjalo takeover three years ago, however, and the loss of so many experienced staffers, Indy newspapers have, unsurprisingly, not featured among the winners in the annual Taco Kuiper award for outstanding investigative journalism.

With this loss of expertise, the level of proofreading and sub-editing at Independent Media has also seen a drastic decline.

Take this article headlined Gordhan gives stern warning to new SABC board.

Once you get past the headline you discover that the article is about SAA …

Political positioning

As regards the ‘political positioning/editorial content’ requirements of the assignment question, I suggested the students use the Cape Times as a case study. To minimise adverse impacts on the ANC, it consistently underplays often seismic political events while at the same time carrying out a relentless vendetta against the DA in general and Helen Zille in particular and it routinely publishes front page leads accusing white South Africans of racism.

Within a year of the Sekunjalo takeover in late 2013, the pro-ANC bias at the Indy was becoming ever-more tangible. This was highlighted by the contrast in the coverage by Die Burger and the Cape Times of the chaos which erupted in parliament on 13 November 2014 when, for the first time since the assassination of Hendrik Verwoerd in 1966, armed police entered the chamber during a sitting of parliament – at the behest of the ANC.

I highlighted this contrast at the time when the Cape Times front page lead was about ‘white racism’.

Then, a few months later, in mid-February 2015, the day of the SONA debate when Mmusi Maimane called President Jacob Zuma a ‘broken man presiding over a broken society’ and all hell broke loose about the signal jammer, the Cape Times front page lead was, surprise surprise, about ‘white racism’. This  time it was about an email squabble between two women over holiday accommodation. No other newspaper in the country saw fit to break this ‘white racism’ story, carry it or to do a follow up.

For a more recent example of this Cape Times censorship by omission take the booing of President Jacob Zuma by Cosatu at a Worker’s Day rally on 1 May where he was prevented from speaking. This was an extraordinary, public manifestation of the rift within the Tripartite Alliance. Even the SABC led with it that night and it was the lead story in Cape Town’s other morning newspaper, Die Burger, the next day. Aneez Salie, however, chose to lead with a story about a murdered child and buried the booing by Cosatu of Zuma and Baleka Mbete on page four.

But wait, there’s more!

Capetonians are motivated no more or less by Maslow’s hierarchy of needs than people elsewhere in the world and a constantly-dwindling number rely on the Cape Times to inform them about matters relevant to their lives and their back yard.

On 1 June 2015, a cruise ship capsized on the Yangste River, thousands of kms from Cape Town and 452 lives were lost, half the number that were lost in a similar disaster in China a few decades earlier.

It is unlikely that any Cape Times readers were bereaved by this and, if so, the numbers would have been miniscule.

But the world is full of plague and pestilence, disease and disaster, war, famine,  crime, corruption, inter-religious strife, loss of life and human suffering in general, most of which, elsewhere in the world, does not impact on the life of the average Capetonian or the average reader of the Cape Times.

Dog bites man

So why did the Cape Times – a week after this tragedy – have as its front page lead an article headlined ‘China mourns as one’. Is this not an extreme example of the ‘dog bites man’ newspaper genre?

Could it be because Iqbal Survé has significant business interests in China – a Chinese consortium helped fund the Sekunjalo takeover of Independent Media – so much so that he has sent editorial staff to work-study at a Chinese newspaper?

Was this concern not highlighted by Ann Crotty shortly after she resigned from Independent Media in February 2014?

If you look at what has been happening at Independent, there is a sense that we – the journalists – might be too concerned with the views of the Chairman. My decision to leave is largely motivated by the fact that we shouldn’t be writing for the Chairman and the owners. We should be writing for our current readers as well as readers we hope to attract.

When one looks at the never-ending controversy  and scandal which has dogged the Independent Media company, since the Sekunjalo takeover, the adverse impact it has had on the lives of more than a hundred news personnel who have been driven out of the company or have chosen to leave it, the adverse impact on ordinary people, the dwindling numbers of readers, one realises how absurd the contention was by the head of the PIC, Dr Dan Matjila, that he provided more than R1 billion to Iqbal Survé because he wanted to create a ‘black Naspers’.

One suspects, in retrospect, that his motive was entirely political and we have yet to receive an answer to a salient question: Will the PIC loan to Sekunjalo be repaid with a significant rate of interest when it becomes due next year or will it be converted, with Matjila’s blessing, to worthless equity to the long-term financial detriment of the country’s three million civil servants?

This is a matter of profound public interest given the precedent set in the horrifying Canyon Springs debacle which saw more than R120 million in textile worker pension funds disappear in a scam at the heart of which was a senior ANC politician, Enoch Godongwana – who has suffered no sanction of consequence.

It is incumbent on Matjila to provide that answer when he next appears before the parliamentary portfolio committee on finance.

  • Ed Herbst is a retired veteran journalist who writes in his own capacity.
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