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Journalism is an interesting business. It is simultaneously a profit-making enterprise and a crucial support structure for democratic governance. Journalists seek to please audiences, but their salaries are paid by advertisers and they answer to owners who are sometimes subjects of the stories they write. All in all, it’s an awkward business, as the recent shenanigans at the Cape Times illustrate. When Independent News and Media chairman Iqbal Survé dismissed Cape Times editor Alide Dasnois, he brought down a media storm. Allegedly, Survé fired Dasnois for publishing a cover story about tender irregularities in the fishing industry. Journalists and civil society activists were quick to cry foul, saying that this represented a serious breach of editorial independence – that is, the tenet of journalism which holds that editorial content should be kept apart from business pressures to ensure that journalism fulfils its public mandate. As Mark Weinberg of the Right to Know Campaign explains, the resulting furore may seriously damage the credibility of the Cape Times, and perhaps other Independent newspapers. And a newspaper without credibility is, to put it bluntly, not worth the paper it’s printed on. – FD
ALEC HOGG: Something that has also been making a lot of news recently is Adcock Ingram. The company postponed its shareholder meeting to next month to give investors time to consider a revised offer. This is CFR’s latest effort to entice the Public Investment Corporation to back the deal. The PIC votes around 20 percent of the equity so, together with the other party Bidvest, which now has about seven percent of the votes – the PIC can make sure the deal doesn’t go through. Mark Ingham from Ingham Analytics was in the studio a little while ago. He joins us now to help us to understand what exactly happened yesterday. Mark, are you there?
MARK WEINBERG: Yes, I’m here.
ALEC HOGG: Were you at the meeting yesterday?
MARK WEINBERG: At the picket outside Cape Times, I was on Tuesday.
ALEC HOGG: Oh my goodness, we’re talking with Mark Weinberg now.
MARK WEINBERG: That’s correct, yes.
ALEC HOGG: My apologies, Mark. You see, there’s a problem when you guys have such common names. Let’s go back to the story that we wanted to talk to you about. Everything started on Friday 6th of December, when the Cape Times had a front page, which the owner appeared to believe, was not up to standard.
MARK WEINBERG: That seems to be correct. The front page of the main body of the paper carried a critical report about one of his companies’ involvement in what the Public Protector had found to be Tender irregularities in the fishing industry. He believed that it should have focused on Nelson Mandela’s passing which, of course, Cape Town carried a wraparound so another cover on top of that cover, which was voted one of the 14 best Mandela covers in the world by Time Magazine – the only African cover on that list. However, Iqbal Surve used this as a pretence to remove the editor from her position in the Cape Times, and of course, the Right to Know Campaign came out saying that this is a complete violation of editorial independence and media freedom.
ALEC HOGG: Who is in the Right to Know Campaign? Obviously, you are the coordinator, but who else is with you?
MARK WEINBERG: Well, it’s a very broad coalition of around 400 organisations. We currently have democratic structures in KZN, Gauteng, and the Western Cape. It’s an activist movement promoting the free flow of information and the freedom of expression.
ALEC HOGG: What is it that you want?
MARK WEINBERG: Broadly, or in this case?
ALEC HOGG: In this case particularly…
MARK WEINBERG: In this case, we think it’s only fair that the editor of the Cape Times be reinstated if she’s willing to accept the job. More importantly, we think that the Independent Newspapers Group needs to put in place – extremely urgently – an editorial charter that outlines the rights of management and protects the editorial freedom of journalists and editors. We’re saying that that charter should be drawn up in consultation with a wide range of stakeholders. We’re also saying that the Sekunjalo Group needs to give a written undertaking not to sue journalists and editors in the Independent Group in their personal capacity, which is another development in the last week. He has now withdrawn the charges, but we think it doesn’t make any sense and he should give a principled undertaking not to do that in the future.
ALEC HOGG: Let’s just remember that Iqbal Surve is a medical doctor who has a very small company – Sekunjalo. It’s about a 250 million-market cap. He’s now put together a consortium that’s running a two billion rand company – Independent Newspapers. What if he ignores or chooses to ignore, what you’re trying to achieve?
MARK WEINBERG: Well, I think the theory is that newspapers are trading in credibility, and the credibility in particular of the audiences who they in turn sell to advertisers. I think if he chooses to ignore us, it’s at his own business peril. I don’t see how Independent Newspapers will survive, if this kind of incident is repeated. I wouldn’t put my money there.
ALEC HOGG: What kind of support do you have? I ask this because some years ago in 1985, the Rand Daily Mail was closed down, and the reporters at the Rand Daily Mail together with some well-wishers started a publication called the Weekly Mail, which is now the Mail & Guardian. Do you think that’s an option that you might consider?
MARK WEINBERG: Yes, I think you’re pointing to a very interesting phenomenon where these big print corporations remain profitable, even under periods of extreme censorship and oppression. With that said and done, I would like to believe that the marketplace would support alternative and independent media. Of course, that’s not the experience of many small publishers in the country. Many small companies are alleging anti-competitive behaviour on the parts of the four big monopolies that dominate the industry.
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