Cape Times political gymnastics knocks it off the balance beam

Ed Herbst

This collection of Cape Times misrepresentations and fake news by Ed Herbst is a damning indictment, speaking to both unprofessional, juniorised newspaper reporting/subbing, and outright propaganda masquerading as news. The underlying racial tension and resentment that subsisted in the newsroom and on Mahogany Row, seldom openly expressed but always there, dates back to the 80’s and well before. The Cape Times was not quite a microcosm of the society it reported on – underneath the collegial bonhomie and bonds that formed around daily facing petrol bombs and bullets in the townships, the racial divisions lay mainly silent. Ideology ranged from outright PAC “black-consciousness” thinking, right through to “liberal progressive” more DA-type worldviews. But journalism and the noble tenets it’s founded on, held us all together. While we generally kept our views to ourselves (for reasons open to debate), the cat is now thoroughly out of the bag. The mid-spectrum journalists through to the liberal progressives (mainly white), are all gone. The pendulum has swung way left and it’s somehow got stuck, hanging in mid-air. It will take a seismic event like the financial demise of the Independent Group or a change of government, to jar it back into its natural swing. In the meantime, consider what the ‘stuck-ness’ is producing, news wise below… – Chris Bateman

By Ed Herbst*

Little more than a month ago, on 27 January, the Cape Times front page lead attributed to Cape Town’s mayor, Patricia de Lille, an accusation that ‘Informal settlements are the main culprits’ in water wastage during a water shortage crisis and that statement formed part of the headline.

This was Fake News by a newspaper that has specialised in Fake News ever since the owner the Independent Media company, Dr Iqbal Survé, appointed Aneez Salie as editor three years ago.

Mayor de Lille said no such thing – that headline was devoid of truth.

A request from the Cape Town municipality that a correction of equal prominence be published was denied by Salie and, three days later, he directed that a five-sentence correction be unobtrusively placed in the bottom left corner of page three.

Now, little more than a month later the Cape Times, the Indy’s answer to the New Age, has just produced another Fake News front page article – attacking another senior Democratic Alliance politician in the city – Western Cape Premier Helen Zille. The article was headlined – Most murderers not white.

Fake news – the second Cape Times front page lead within a month which was devoid of truth.

Nothing like this happened at the Cape Times during the apartheid era when it was a respected institution which had respected editors like Tony Heard at the helm.

Showing contempt for the intelligence of its dwindling group of readers, the newspaper then counter-attacked in a late night retreat, denying the existence of a smear campaign against Zille and seeking to deflect blame by accusing her of being someone who seeks to manipulate the news through intimidation and making false accusations against the media.

Hello?

Really?

The woman who, as a reporter on the Rand Daily Mail, took immense risks to expose the fact that Steve Biko was murdered by the apartheid regime?

This from a newspaper that has attacked Zille in an article with a headline accusing her of being a ‘white madam’ and whose senior executives use the same ethnically-inflammatory epithet on social media?

The ‘White Madam’ headline in the Cape Times.
Karima Brown using the ‘White Madam’ epithet on social media.

This from a newspaper which was forced to apologise by the SA Press Council – which it has since left to evade accountability – because, for months on end last year, it waged a brazen and unashamed vendetta of falsehoods against Zille claiming that she had hired a policeman, Paul Scheepers, to spy for her?

Predictably, the ANC used these Cape Times fabrications as a basis for laying charges against Zille while, bizarrely, seeking her impeachment. Unsurprisingly, the ANC was given maximum publicity in the Cape Times for so doing.

The newspaper now claims that the latest gaffe was a mistake but, given the fact that its senior sub-editing staff have been purged, this was an accident waiting to happen.

Let it not be forgotten that while the Cape Times once had news editors and  journalists like Alide Dasnois, Janet Heard and Tony Weaver who were capable of producing a Madiba obituary that Time magazine rated as one of the best in the world, that edition was put together by a stellar team of immensely experienced  and talented subeditors – people like Glen Bownes, Ethne Zinn and Dan Simon. Nothing like the abuses now occurring at a once-trusted newspaper, occurred on their watch. They are all gone now. Simon’s dismissal, like so many others, was found to be un-procedural by the CCMA last year.

This has to be seen in the broader context of an openly-proclaimed vendetta against white Indy staff, particularly white Cape Times staff, which began with the Sekunjalo takeover.

The vendetta started on 9 December 2013 when Iqbal Survé’s lawyers wrote a threatening letter to one of the country’s leading environmental reporters, Melanie Gosling, because of her absolutely factual summary of Thuli Madonsela’s December 2013 report, Docked Vessels on the dodgy Sekunjalo tender.

What was outrageous was that three days later, in a letter to his newly-acquired staff, he wrote:

‘I also want to debunk the myth that I will frown upon and act against journalists who ask tough questions and probe issues of malfeasance involving politicians, business people and other components of our society.’

This legal intimidation by a newspaper owner against his own staff was without precedent in South African media history and, after experiencing two years of subsequent and consequent victimisation Gosling, an award-winning environmental reporter with decades of loyal service to the Cape Times, asked for early retirement.

In late January the following year, Iqbal Surve’s senior news executives Karima Brown and Vukani Mde (who were later to attend an ANC rally in party colours) launched a pre-emptive and ultimately successful strike  – if the dearth of white staff at the Cape Times  is anything to go by – against the Indy’s leading white journalists and columnists.

They wrote:

‘In the final analysis, no one is shackled to Independent or any of its titles. Anyone who cannot bring themselves to accept its new owner or its direction under him, must as a matter of principle leave, and give the rest of us space to build the company we want to work for.’

They then play the race card suggesting that those whom they are attacking are whites opposed to transformation:

‘A small but very privileged and racially definable minority still controls the tools of public discourse, including the bulk of private commercial media and virtually all the mainstream newspaper groups.

‘This group has resisted and fought against transformation of the media, be it in ownership, management, or in newsrooms. They’ve grown adept at paying lip service to the goals of transformation and media diversity, but in truth remain against them, as their joint and individual actions demonstrate’.

So defamatory was the Brown/Mde article that some newspapers in the group decided not to publish it and some versions that were published had the defamatory elements edited out.

(Ironically, so baleful and disruptive did the ‘company we want to work for’ become that Karima (the Disruptor) Brown subsequently bailed.)

The article includes the promise of an editorial charter – which has never, to this day, appeared – just more Fake News. They claim that this will be the first such charter in the country, apparently unaware that Ari Rossouw, then editor of Die Burger, had revealed his newspaper’s new editorial charter  almost a decade earlier at the Cape Town Press Club on 25 October 2005. The article also mentions an ‘editorial advisory board’ of which nothing more has been heard and which must be inoperative given the dozens of complaints that have been laid with the Press Council against Indy newspapers since that time.

‘The only obligation he (Surve) owes to his editors is the assurance that within the parameters of whatever that orientation is, they are free and unfettered to run their papers as they see fit. He has given this assurance, and has committed to a new editorial charter that will define editors’ rights, obligations, and lines of accountability. Independent will be the first South African news group to operate according to such a charter, adherence to which will be overseen by an editorial advisory board of prominent and respected persons.’

The then editor of the Cape Times and now Western Cape regional executive editor, Gasant Abarder, followed up by dismissing white and coloured columnists including the beloved John Scott, in two line emails. Heinously he refused to publish a letter from Scott explaining why he was no longer writing for the newspaper, so Scott’s letter was published in Afrikaans in Die Burger. Within hours it had been translated into English and published on Facebook. For further information on this topic, read Sydney Kaye’s article on Politicsweb and the comments below it.

A prominent characteristic of this campaign was the sudden advent of the word ‘lashed’ in Cape Time headlines – but, strangely enough, it is never the ANC that is the victim of this lashing.

UCT receives another Carlo Petersen ‘lashing’ on the front page of the Cape Times.

Part of this campaign was the sudden emergence of Wesley Douglas and Chelsea Amore Lotz as part of a group of bused-in picketers who campaigned in December 2013 for a purge of white staff at Independent Newspapers.

The immaculately-coiffed and clad Lotz, tottering around on red skyscraper stiletto heels and holding aloft a placard which read ‘Fire all racist reporters’ was immediately dubbed the ‘Media Mata Hari’ and her call preceded the similar campaign launched by Dr Iqbal Survé at UCT on 7 April 2015 when, at a meeting of the UCT Association of Black Alumni (UCTABA), he called for a purge of white staff at the university.

I am told that so successful has this purge at the Indy been that the Cape Times no longer has a single white person working directly and exclusively for it, although it does use the services of a white sports editor who does not write only for it but as part of the ‘sports hub’ which services all the titles in the group.

The consequences have been dire, most routinely in the grammar used in the Cape Times. Here’s an example from an editorial on 20 January about the A B de Villiers and Cricket SA debate:

‘Social media spitted (sic) vitriol on Wednesday when De Villiers ruled himself out of the upcoming New Zealand and England test tours

Spitted vitriol?

In an editorial?

The Media Mata Hari must be elated.

Die Burger immediately employed the Cape Times refugee columnists and, so valuable does it consider John Scott, that it now publishes his weekly column without translating it into Afrikaans.

The columnists who were immediately hired by Die Burger after they ceased to write for INMSA newspapers.

What is disturbing is that the buck never stops with Salie – it is always the reporters who end up unemployed as was the case with the reporter in the Fake News foetal alcohol syndrome article and, more recently, the reporter whose Fake News article falsely attributed to Mayor De Lille a statement that the poor in the local informal settlements are the biggest wasters of water. As the correction for that SNAFU concluded: The Cape Times … is no longer using the services of the reporter concerned.

The Cape Times correction which was hidden away at the bottom of page 3 and mentions the dismissal of a reporter.

In August 2011 a column was published in the Sowetan viciously attacking Ferial Haffajee, then the editor of City Press.

In the column headlined, ‘Haffajee does it for white masters’, Eric Miyeni, a freelancer, wrote: ‘In the 80s she’d [Haffajee] probably have had a burning tyre around her neck’.

‘Who the devil is she anyway if not a black snake in the grass, deployed by white capital to sow discord among blacks?’

At the time, Justice Malala, general manager, Sowetan/Sunday World and Mondli Makhanya, Editor-in-Chief: Avusa Newspapers, immediately  apologised to Haffajee and ‘all South Africans’. Miyeni’s column was discontinued.

What is more significant in the context of the constant falsehoods and fabricated ‘facts’ published in the Cape Times is that Malala and Makhanya confirmed that the acting editor of The Sowetan, Len Maseko, had taken full responsibility and had resigned – even though he had been away  at the time and was thus not aware of what was being published. The buck emphatically stopped with him and they accepted Maseko’s resignation.

There is no indication that Aneez Salie intends to follow Len Maseko’s principled and voluntary resignation.

The Gupta newspaper the New Age and the newspapers now owned by Dr Iqbal Survé – both of which have benefited from governing party largesse – have withdrawn from the SA Press Council to escape public accountability for their trumped-up allegations and defamatory attacks.

What is now clear is that the open letter Helen Zille wrote to Iqbal Survé in January 2015 appealing for ethical news coverage from the Cape Times was pointless and stood no chance of succeeding.

What is also now clear in retrospect is that the following claim made by Survé in a letter to his newly-acquired staff in December 2013 should be treated with justified scepticism – particularly given some of his other grandiose claims:

‘All our stories must adhere to the highest standards required.

‘This means they have to be balanced, fair and accurate. What they can’t be is one sided, inaccurate and prejudicial.’

Fake News? Iqbal Survé’s dictum that all articles carried in his newspapers must be ‘fair, balanced and accurate’ – a dictum routinely ignored, without sanction or consequence, by Aneez Salie.

Here are a few of the Fake News articles that have added anything but lustre to the Cape Times during Salie’s tenure

5 March 2015 – An article Foetal alcohol syndrome’s sad legacy which claims that the tot system is still pervasive on Western Cape wine farms is not only devoid of truth but is exposed by Helen Zille as having been plagiarised. The reporter leaves but Aneez Salie stays put – the buck, most emphatically, does not stop with him.

24 July 2015 – In a front page article in the Cape Times headlined RMF activist’s charges dropped, reporter Carlo Petersen writes: ‘An act of bad faith by UCT vice-chancellor Max Price resulted in a criminal case against a Rhodes Must Fall (RMF) activist being withdrawn, the activist’s attorney said.’ This is a brazen fabrication by Petersen who falsely attributes this quote to attorney Peter Williams. Williams then, in a subsequent letter to the newspaper, emphatically denies ever making such a statement. After this, Iqbal Survé promotes Carlo Petersen from reporter to assistant editor at the newspaper.

25 November 2015 – The Cape Times front page lead, headlined Zille’s spook ‘had grabber’ – spokesperson reticent on issue is devoid of truth and the Press Council’s Appeals Panel orders the Cape Times to apologise for and retract the statement about ‘Zille’s Spook’.

9 May 2016 – The Cape Times attempts to mislead its readers with a front page lead headlined Independent vindicated in Dasnois settlement and is ordered by the Press Council to apologise.

14 September 2016 – A Cape Times editorial, presumably written by Aneez Salie, attributes to Judge Siraj Desai a remark that he had been ridiculed by the Democratic Alliance about his ‘Garnishee order’ ruling. The statement is devoid of truth and on-the-record evidence indicates that, to the contrary, the DA lavished praise on the judgement.

27 January 2017 – The Cape Times front page lead, in an attempt to demonise the Democratic Alliance, attributes to Cape Town mayor Patricia de Lille a claim she never made – that the biggest water wasters during a water shortage crisis were the poorest of the poor in the city’s informal settlements.

3 March 2017 – The Cape Times front page lead deletes words from a speech by Premier Helen Zille and then prints a belated apology in its next issue cheek by jowl with an article attacking Zille  as someone who attempts to ‘bully and intimidate’ the media and referring to a ‘non-existent smear campaign’.

‘Her press statement is deliberately designed to cast the Cape Times and Independent Media in a negative light that only exposes the Premier’s attempts to intimidate and bully the media.’

Alide Dasnois

Sales of the Cape Times have declined month-on-month since Salie was made editor which is ironic because falling circulation was a factor which Survé previously used to justify the dismissal of Alide Dasnois.

So recklessly dishonest has the conduct of the Indy titles become since Iqbal Survé took control three years ago that, as the SA Press Council pointed out, it was adjudicating on 77 complaints when, following the lead of the Gupta’s New Age newspaper, Sekunjalo threw in the towel and removed itself from Press Council oversight rather than have to publish yet more humiliating apologies about the routinely-dishonest reporting of its newspapers like the Cape Times.

It then appointed its own internal ombudsman, Jovial Rantao, editor of the Sunday Tribune.

So what chance people have people like Chad de Matos who, innocent of any crime, saw his reputation trashed week after week after week, month after a month in the Cape Times, who was repeatedly excoriated in letters to the newspaper and saw himself branded on social media as ‘racist white trash’ and ended up in Pollsmoor Prison – because he was a white UCT student – of getting a fair hearing from Rantao should they take complaints to him for adjudication?

Very little if this account  by Jon Abbot is anything to go by.

When will Sanef, allegedly committed to the promotion of ethical journalism, break its complicit silence about the way in which media power and influence are being abused at INMSA to pursue political objectives and to ratchet up ethnic tension?

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