Strengthening Independent Media through mass retrenchments fatally flawed

Dr Iqbal Survé
Dr Iqbal Survé

Losing nearly 15% of his total journalistic complement nation-wide, most of them white, is probably considered a financial and political victory by the controversial and unabashedly government-supporting CEO of Independent Media Pty Ltd, Dr Iqbal Surve. Being the astute and globally-connected businessman that he is, it’s probably in that order, though many, including a host of former employees, would argue otherwise. Donwald Pressly, who like myself, did a large portion of his career in a previous manifestation of Independent Newspapers (including Times Media Ltd, bought out by Irish media magnate, Tony O’Reilly), would do well to tally the years of experience lost as these journalists, many of them senior and highly regarded, take their retrenchment packages at the end of this month. When I took a package at the end of 1999 (O’Reilly was trimming), we tallied up well over a century in solid, hard-won experience lost to the Cape Times alone. It would be an interesting exercise to tally up the person-years lost across Independent titles in 1999/2000 versus those about to be lost nationally at the end of this month. [I’ve no idea how many packages were offered in the intervening 16 years.] But the net result is that the downward slide of South Africa’s hard-pressed print media will be accelerated as thinly-spread juniors and politically-correct seniors move away from the time-tested newspaper values of impartiality, accuracy and independence. Credibility it seems, is in ever-diminishing supply, especially in our ability to speak truth to power. – Chris Bateman

By Donwald Pressly*

Independent Newspapers, which dominates the English-language newspaper industry in South Africa, is not a happy place.

After starting a Section 189 process, in terms of a section of the Labour Relations Act three months’ – nearly four months’ – ago, 72 of a staff of about 500 journalists across the land have agreed to take retrenchment packages. Altogether 92 applied for the packages. That means that all but 20 of those who applied have got the packages. In other words, the company – headed by former fishing boss Mohammed Iqbal Surve, a front-ranking toady of the ruling African National Congress – has agreed to let nearly a quarter of the writing – and photography – staff go.

More magic available at www.zapiro.com.
More magic available at www.zapiro.com.

It is a white bloodbath with a few coloured staff members thrown into the mincing machine,” said one journalist who moved out of the collective office when Cape Messenger made the call. This person – who will not be identified as a witch-hunt could be carried out – said the atmosphere in the newsrooms around the country “is toxic”.

Everyone, all journalists below the rank of editor, at the (Johannesburg) Star, the (Kimberley) Diamond Fields Advertiser, the (Durban) Mercury, the (Durban) Daily News, the (Durban-based) Sunday Tribune, the (Cape Town) Cape Times, the (Cape Town) Cape Argus, the (Johannesburg) Sunday Independent, the (Cape Town) Weekend Argus (Saturday and Sunday editions), the (Durban) Post, (Durban’s) Isoleswe, and the Pretoria News, received a letter giving them the option to take a voluntary retrenchment package. They were told that if they wanted to remain with the company, they must re-apply for their jobs. As there is no guarantee that they will get their own jobs back, many of the 420 or so who wish to remain, do not know if they will keep their jobs. They may also be re-appointed at lower salary and benefit scales. Thus there has been a flurry of activity. All jobs, reporting, photography, deputy news editors, news-editors, sub-editors including chief sub-editors, are up for grabs.

Donwald Pressly, Cape Messenger editor.
Donwald Pressly, Cape Messenger editor.

Details of how many applications have been made for the 400 or so jobs left, or rather being re-advertised, in the company – outside the editors who are guaranteed their posts – is not known. But it is known that those who want to continue to work at the company have been applying for as many jobs as possible.

Of the 500-odd staff, 72 will leave on 30 November

On 30 November 2016, the 72 journalists will leave the company. That is agreed to already, although a dispute has been declared by the SA Typographical Union and the Media Workers’ Association of South Africa over when the guaranteed two months’ retrenchment pay kicks in. Another group of journalists are exploring the possibility of adding two extra dispute matters (see below) to be considered by the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration later this month – on the 25th of November, just days before the curtain falls on their Independent Newspaper careers.

There are some high profile writers who have agreed to take the package. At the Weekend Argus Fatima Schreuder, a well-respected court reporter has opted to go. Weekend Argus content editor (known in old newspaper parlance as news-editor) Di Caelers is also leaving. Cape Argus photographer Michael Walker is also moving on. In Durban veteran environmental reporter – and the winner of countless environmental reporting awards – Tony Carnie, has opted for the package. Also in the retrenchment queue at the end of the month are Warda Meyer, a political reporter for the daily Cape Argus – who has focused on the Western Cape legislature – and Jan Cronje, a general reporter at the Cape Argus. Carryn Dolley, a senior Weekend Argus reporter, has already joined the Media24 team as deputy news24 news editor under editor Adriaan Basson. Leon Muller, Picture Editor at the Weekend Argus, was at first turned down for retrenchment, but later it was accepted. Jayne Mayne, Arts editor of the Cape Times, is also darting for the door as is Billy Suter, the Arts editor at the Mercury. Lindsay Dentlinger, Cape Argus Metro reporter, has not had her contract renewed. Chelsea Geach,  another award-winning reporter at the Cape Argus, left two months ago to take up a position at Media24.

At the Cape Times photographer Brenton Geach (no relation to Chelsea) described by a friend “as a legend in the industry” is another who is in the queue. In Johannesburg one of the high profile victims is former international relations writer Brendan Seery of The Star. He is the only executive editor to go, having opted to take a retrenchment.

Everyone is stressed

“The atmosphere is horrendous… so many people are ill. Everyone, whether they are leaving or not, is stressed. Those staying behind don’t know whether they are keeping their jobs and, if they do, what will the newsroom environment be like afterwards? The voluntary severance people is just the first wave,” said one Independent journalist, who spoke on condition of utter anonymity.

editingThe editors, meanwhile, are sitting pretty. They did not have to re-apply for their jobs. Only three weeks ago, Surve announced a new batch of editors including one who came out of nowhere to become editor of Business Report, an insert newspaper inside the Star, Cape Times and Mercury. She, Adriana Senekal, had written a very endearing letter about how wonderful the company boss was…. and she couldn’t understand why people were so nasty about him! Fikile-Ntsikelelo Moya, editor of the Mercury, however, has been posted to become Weekend editor in Pretoria. At the moment there is just the Saturday paper associated with the Pretoria News, but it is believed that there will be other new editions going forward. The new editor of the Mercury is Jogas Nair. She was previously editor of the (Indian community directed) Post. Long-serving editor of the Tribune Aakash Bramdeo has become editor of the Daily News while Mazwi Xaba has become editor of the Tribune (he was previously editor of Isoleswe).

Independent is contesting the retrenchment dispute at the CCMA

Meanwhile, the company is contesting the dispute at the CCMA. The head of human relations at Independent Media, Vanessa Govender wrote on 11 November – suitably Armistice Day – that: “The Company wishes to reiterate that 30 November 2016 is the last working day for employees that have successfully applied for voluntary retrenchment packages. These employees will be paid the severance package, as communicated in the notice of termination letter, at the end of November.

“As you may be aware, Labour (Mwasa and the Typographical Union) has referred a dispute to the CCMA requesting the CCMA to interpret one aspect of the settlement agreement. Labour is seeking clarity on the application of notice period and notice pay as stated in the agreement. The Company does not share Labour’s view on the interpretation of this aspect.

“The Company will implement and apply the agreement in full. Accordingly, the termination dates referred to above will be implemented as well as the payment by the Company of the severance packages in compliance with the terms of the agreement.

Independent Media
Independent Media

“The Company’s position concerning the dispute is that it has and will continue to apply the terms of the agreement, which are clear. Naturally, should the legal process relating to the dispute be finalised and, in the unlikely event that it is determined that the interpretation of the agreement is different to what the parties understood it to be, the Company will implement whatever such determination may be made in the form of severance packages stipulated in the agreement.”

The unions are contesting the two-month guaranteed payment, which the company says started on November 1. The journalists say that this conflicts with the spirit of the agreements with them, they say the two month period starts on 1 December, thus taking them through to January on full pay and benefits, including pension (and where applicable) medical aid.

While the dispute continues, the journalists will be paid out at the end of November – but clearly with one month guaranteed pay less at this stage. Journalists are also in dispute over leave and long service payments. These matters are also expected to be settled by the CCMA on November 25. In addition to the disputed two-month payment, the retrenched journalists will receive one week for every year that they worked at Independent.

  • Donwald Pressly is editor of Cape Messenger.