How the going got weird at Independent – by the not-so-weird who went

It was a gathering of all those wounded, slighted, defamed and/or fired by Dr Iqbal Survé, owner of Sekunjalo Holdings and Independent Newspapers, plus a host of others similarly outraged. The representation of this growing army of disaffected former Independent Newspaper journalists, plus academics, authors, columnists and organisations, came at last week’s book launch of “Paper Tiger’, which details Survé’s media manipulations and machinations. If you value democracy, the values enshrined in our Constitution and media freedom/impartiality, read the book written by two of his former editors – and this description of its’ launch. You’ll realise how deep the schism in our print and digital media is today; due mainly to Dr Survé tearing up the code of journalistic ethics and turning his titles into propagandistic, self-serving instruments. Could it be that the abhorrent apartheid system so deeply wounded some people that they now believe anything goes to “set things right?” That they can with contempt, forgo the responsibility of speaking truth to power and/or accurately and impartially reporting on our evolving society? Are the wounds so deep that some journalists in Survé’s employ believe standing on tables cheering Zuma in at a rally or walking into a venue alongside him to display solidarity is acceptable? – Chris Bateman

Paper Tiger – the launch

By Ed Herbst*

As laid out in Paper Tiger, what has happened to the Independent group under Survé has been disastrous for one of the most influential and respected media organisations in the country. But it is also an illustration of how the valuable ideal of transformation can be twisted and perverted in the wrong hands. – Paper Tiger: When media transformation is a farce Rebecca Davis 5/11/2019

It is now history that those who were critical of Iqbal Survé have been vindicated. – Fikile-Ntsikelelo Moya Daily Maverick 7/1/2019

On 23 August 2016, all the newspapers owned by Dr Iqbal Survé carried an article headlined Exposé: The dirty tricks campaign against Independent.

The article was allegedly authored by the ‘Journalism Intern Investigative Unit’:

This article is an exposé of the collusion, misinformation, defamation and sabotage against Independent Media, its executive chairman and associated companies, and all its employees, based on research conducted by the Journalism Intern Investigative Unit of Independent Media.

We have seen a staggering 25 articles published by journalists of a particular generation in the last 50 days alone. Is it a coincidence that the vast majority of these journalists are white and are virulently anti a democratically-elected government?

Gill Moodie, one of the journalists named in the article, complained to the SA Press Council which ruled in her favour.

The then ombudsman, Johan Retief, ordered the Sekunjalo newspapers to publish an apology:

‘I also note that Independent Newspapers did not provide a shred of evidence to substantiate its allegations against Moodie – except, of course, the fact that she has committed the ultimate crime by having been critical of the media house.’

Moodie never got her apology because, with Sekunjalo Independent Media facing dozens of complaints, Survé followed the lead of the Guptas, and withdrew his newspaper from Press Council jurisdiction.

Moodie, now a Commissioning Editor for Tafelberg Publishers, did however get to preside over the launch of Paper Tiger by Alide Dasnois and Chris Whitfield in Cape Town on 5 November.

Ed Herbst

Just about everybody defamed in the article of 23 August 2016, along with numerous victims of the purge of ethical newsroom staff after the Sekunjalo takeover, was present at the launch.

For the audience this was a fascinating event, adding layers of information to what is contained in the book and echoing their own traumatising experiences during that stage of their careers.

Facilitating the discussion with the authors was Tyrone August, editor of the Cape Times from 2003 – 2006 and now a post-doctoral fellow in the Department of English at Stellenbosch University.

For me, the most singular moments of the evening came in the response to questions from the floor.

Transformation imperative

Dr Survé and his first recruits, the Zuma–supporters Karima Brown and Vukani Mde, stressed the appointment of more black staff as an imperative from the moment they assumed managerial positions at the former Argus Group newspapers in late 2013. This was their mantra from then on until they followed the example of dozens of other staff members and transformed themselves out of Sekunjalo Independent Media by resigning from a company which is now effectively insolvent.

Here’s a brief timeline of these transformation statements:

  • On 28 January 2014, a prescient article by Brown and Mde, overtly targeting and threatening white staff and a portent of the coming purge, was headlined Takeover is focused on transformation
  • On 18 November 2015, Karima Brown told Michael Bratt of the Media Online website that, contrary to the idea that journalists should report on newsworthy events, she saw her brief differently:

“The normative dominant narrative in South Africa is captured in neo-liberal, white privilege and that is perceived as normal. I’ve always argued that my job as a journalist is to challenge that dominant narrative.

  • On 9 May 2016, Survé settled Alide Dasnois’ wrongful dismissal claim which was to have been heard in the Labour Court in Cape Town. In what seems to have been an attempt to distract attention from this defeat another article pushing the transformation mantra was published in all the newspapers owned by Survé on that day. It was headlined Media freedom cannot be divorced from transformation and was authored by Karima Brown and Vukani Mde.
  • On 14 September 2016, an article headlined Call to be a brave transformative force was prominently displayed in the Sekunjalo newspapers. Its author was Dougie Oakes and the article quotes Survé attacking what he called the lack of transformation in Naspers – which recently appointed Phuthi Mahanyele-Dabengwa as CEO.
  • On 26 April 2018, at 52 seconds of this SABC interview Survé says of the other newspaper companies: “And it’s all anti-transformation. It’s all designed to stop this country from becoming truly liberated”.
  • On 2 April 2019, Survé, – who had previously played the race card – did so again during his testimony before the Mpati commission. His evidence, which had a strong pro-transformation theme, included an attack on Tiso Blackstar which was then owned by Andrew Bonamour.  Survé told the commission that, because he wanted to employ more black people, the unnamed people who opposed transformation were a threat to his life and he was forced to employ bodyguards. Previous research by Intellidex had shown that Sekunjalo was less-transformed than Tiso Blackstar. Tiso Blackstar was subsequently sold by Bonamour to the black-owned Lebashe consortium.

Given all of this and the fact that two editors who are not white, Lindiz van Zille (African News Agency) and Fikile-Ntsikelelo Moya (Pretoria News) have left Iqbal Survé’s employ in the past fortnight, the next question from the floor was obvious: 

What had the Argus Group newspapers done to promote ethnic diversity in its staff prior to the Sekunjalo takeover?

Chris Whitfield answered. It had been an imperative at that time, an imperative shackled by the dire financial straits the company found itself in because of the profit extraction by then company owner, the Irish baked bean merchant, Tony O’Reilly.

What had been enormously encouraging, however, was the progress of a group of black recruits in the Argus Cadet School who were being trained by Jonathan Ancer.

However, the moment Survé gained control of the company, he closed the cadet school in a cost-cutting measure which mirrored the actions of the previous owners. Suddenly, saving money was considered more important by Survé than transformation.

It’s all there on page 148 of Paper Tiger:

Group training editor Jonathan Ancer left after the training budget was slashed and the cadet school — probably INMSAs single most important contribution to transformation — was shut down. Overnight, he had no reason to come to work. 

‘My job got paused and never unpaused,’ he says.

The silence from Karima Brown and Vukani Mde on the closure of the Argus Cadet School was deafening.

Staff trust

When Dasnois and financial journalist Ann Crotty heard that Independent Media was possibly up for sale they started working on a long-held ambition, raising money to buy a 25% stake in the company and establish a trust which would give employees representation on the board and an insight into how the company was run.

Crotty floated the idea to colleagues, who responded with interest. A blog was started to keep in touch with staff and Archbishop Desmond Tutu agreed to be the patron of the trust, sending a message for the blog on 31 August 2009: ‘I am honoured to be your patron. We know that the price of freedom is eternal vigilance and at this particular stage in our nascent democracy more than ever we need a free and independent press. The powerful are kept on their toes most often by the knowledge that any excesses and abuse of that power will be fearlessly exposed. You are absolutely crucial. All power to you all. God bless you.’ (P50)

Initially, Survé feigned interest but set the limit of staff shareholding at 10%. In the end his promises came to nought and it is difficult to see this as anything other than a bad-faith negotiation by him from the beginning.

Promises to reinvest profits and significantly improve the company’s digital footprint were also not realised – this while Survé was being paid a director’s fee of more than a million rand a month. P218

Venomous vendetta

Dr Max Price, former vice-chancellor of UCT was in the audience. In an interview with Jonathan Jansen, Price explained how, using the Cape Times as a proxy, a venomous vendetta was waged against him and the university, a vendetta that became a thesis for honours student Ricky Stoch.

Price asked whether this had resulted in a decline in sales for the Cape Times.

The answer by Whitfield does not augur well for almost two million government employees and current civil service pensioners who are hoping that the Government Employees Pension Fund will be able to recoup the multi-million rand loan which Survé chose not to service while nevertheless paying interest to his Chinese funders.

Whitfield said that the Cape Times  was not alone in suffering a decline in sales – part of a worldwide trend – but a far more telling measure of the impact Survé’s control of editorial content and treatment of staff is having on his newspapers is their level of advertising.

Whitfield said he had recently worked in Pietermaritzburg and Johannesburg and the Sekunjalo newspapers there, like those in Cape Town, did not carry sufficient advertising to make them profitable.

I asked Tyrone August how the current Cape Times – as edited by Aneez Salie – compared with the newspaper during his stewardship more than a decade ago.

Suddenly sombre, he said the newspaper had once been an integral part of his life but, currently, days would go past without him reading it. It is now, he said, a “pale shadow” of its former self.

What is striking about the interviews that Dasnois and Whitfield conducted with former editors like Moshoeshoe Monare and Philani Mgwaba was their resentment at the attempts of people like Karima Brown to dictate a pro-Zuma faction narrative and to publish unctuous articles praising Survé and the role this news manipulation played in their resignations.

Says Mgwaba:

‘My private concerns turned to alarm when, soon after Iqbal Survé took control, editors began to receive instructions from Iqbal’s underlings and acolytes to publish opinion pieces that shamelessly flattered and promoted him and/or defended him from legitimate questions that were being raised about his curious business interests.’  P142

Says Monare:

‘The last straw was when he wanted to write a column in all the titles “reassuring the readers” of his intentions, and editors were asked to write another column agreeing with him. I refused and resigned.’  P139

Their evidence effectively nullifies Dr Survé’s under-oath claim at the Mpati commission that his editors have absolute autonomy – a claim also contradicted by the testimony of AYO directors Siphiwe Nodwele and Kevin Hardy at the commission and the subsequent sleuthing by Ferial Haffajee who established that Survé now passes on his orders to his editors via the AYO CEO, Howard Plaatjes.

Further evidence in this regard is the research by the two authors which shows that, since the Sekunjalo takeover, Survé has featured at least once a week, not only in his newspapers but on street posters.

The Paper Tiger authors say Survé and his family feature in his newspapers at least once a week despite his under-oath claim at the Mpati commission about the autonomy of his editors.

Also at the launch was Terry Bell, an early victim of the Sekunjalo purge. He made the point that journalists who publicly align themselves with political party factions do so at their reputational peril. As an example he cited the 2007 COSATU congress at Gallagher Estate (Midrand). The camouflage-clad “Zuma Tsunami” music group had just played in the dining hall and the delegates and press had taken their seats in the adjoining conference hall.  It was then that President Jacob Zuma made his entrance, flanked by Zwelinzima Vavi and Ranjeni Munusamy. The hall erupted in cheers and, he said, Karima Brown and Amy Musgrave, leapt onto the Press table, punching their fists in the air and chanting:  “Zuma! Zuma! Zuma!”

For me, one of the most telling moments of the evening was a statement by Janet Heard, one of the earliest targets of the of the anti-ethical journalism cabal. Given the proximity of the deadline on 5 December 2013, the wraparound was the only feasible option – there was no time to do anything else. She and another purge victim, chief sub-editor Glenn Bownes, make the same point in Paper Tiger.

Faced with the similar time constraints Die Burger followed exactly the same process using the same rationale and reasoning as the Cape Times to achieve exactly the same result, a wraparound tribute to Mandela on 6 December and the findings by the Public Protector on the cancelled Sekunjalo tender also mentioned on the front page. The same strategy was used by the Daily Dispatch  in East London.

At the close of the launch, Whitfield emphasised that there had been no response to their repeated requests for interviews with Survé and Karima Brown. Some former newsroom staff members had also declined interviews. They indicated that they were so traumatised by what they had experienced that they did not want to be reminded of that time. This is not surprising given the ultimately successful attempt to drive Tony Weaver out of the Cape Times P150 – 154; the persecution that Melanie Gosling suffered including threats of legal action – unprecedented in South African media history – which is described in the chapter A hostile environment P155 – 169; John Yeld’s description – ‘appalling’ – of the way his wife, Martine Barker was treated by  Iqbal Survé P168-169; as well as the contents of the Alide Dasnois court papers which describe how she was verbally abused by Survé at the disciplinary hearing she faced for having produced a front-page Madiba memorial tribute which Time rated as one of the best in the world.

The day after the launch, Dasnois and Whitfield appeared at a Cape Town Press Club function.

Deputy chairperson of the Cape Town Press Club, Donwald Pressly (left) with Alide Dasnois and Chris Whitfield. All were formerly employed by Dr Iqbal Survé.

At the end of the function the 60-strong audience – many of whom had previously worked at Newspaper House, home in the city’s CBD to the Cape Times and the Cape Argus – were asked a salient question.

How many of them still read those newspapers?

Only a handful responded.

Paper Tiger precisely defines the concept of unethical journalism and one hopes that the authors will submit their manuscript to the SANEF commission of inquiry into media ethics and credibility by the deadline in a fortnight’s time.

The Johannesburg launch of Paper Tiger will be held at the Hyde Park Branch of Exclusive Books on Wednesday.

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