Ed Herbst: Tiso Blackstar’s new owner – commitment that editors will be interference-free

It’s hard to imagine a South African journalist who knows more about the inner workings of the country’s media companies than Ed Herbst. The former SABC journalist has made it his business to keep a close eye on the goings-on at every news organisation in the country and remembers fine details of all the important dust-ups between management and editorial teams. Herbst, in particular, has a problem with the inappropriately named Independent Group. He watched with dismay as ethical journalism was displaced by self-interest and political expediency in the hands of Iqbal Survé, a businessman who claims his first career in the medical field included serving as Nelson Mandela’s doctor. Herbst hopes that Tiso Blackstar’s new owner, Lebashe Investment Group, will maintain its commitment to editorial independence. – Jackie Cameron

A New Dawn for Tiso Blackstar?

By Ed Herbst*

At this sordid time of downfall and deterioration, South Africa faces the shameful and needless loss of a brave, intrepid journalist. I ask, in what kind of a country does a journalist of such high quality get treated in this way? – Paul Trewhela Biznews 5/10/2017

Now Tiso Blackstar cancels pensioners’ medical aid subsidy altogether – Jack Lundin noseweek 1/7/2019

Paul Trewhela in Biznews and Jack Lundin in noseweek have highlighted the cynically shameful way in which Andrew Bonamour treats his Tiso Blackstar staff and his company’s pensioners.

Veteran journalist Ed Herbst

To those of us, however, who watched the obliteration of ethical reporting that transpired at the Independent Media newspapers after the Sekunjalo takeover in late 2013 – accurately summarised by SANEF as a ‘sad day for South African journalism’; to those of us who read the disturbing and undisputed account of life at the Cape Times as detailed by Dougie Oakes; to those of us who believe that ethical journalism is a founding pillar of democracy and a bulwark against oppression; the recent Sunday Times interview with the newspaper’s prospective new owner, Tshepo Mahloele, by Chris Barron will have come as a relief.

Mahloele is chairman of the Lebashe Investment Group which paid a billion rand from company funds for the Tiso Blackstar titles and one can but hope that he will honour the promise made in the opening sentences of the Chris Barron interview:

Tshepo Mahloele, new owner of the Sunday Times, Business Day, Financial Times and Sowetan, says the editorial independence of these titles will be “sacrosanct”. “We will support independent journalism to the hilt. That you can hold us to,”says Mahloele, the chair of Lebashe. “When you have great editors you let them run with the product. As shareholders it is not our intention to interfere with that.”

Missing from the above-mentioned list of Tiso Blackstar titles are the Daily Dispatch and The Herald, based in East London and Port Elizabeth respectively and the most important English newspapers in the Eastern Cape.

If Mahloele keeps that promise, he will not only bolster democracy but he will not be taking his newspapers down the tragic path which has seen the demise of the credibility and financial viability of the Sekunjalo Independent News Media titles.

In an interview with Jack Lundin in the August issue of noseweek, Lebashe’s Tshepo Mahloele gave him the same assurances that he gave Chris Barron:

As for its newly-acquired media empire, Tshepo Mahloele and his Lebashe co-directors must wait until their deal with Tiso Blackstar becomes commercially effectively before they can launch their drive to right the wrongs and reintroduce “proper investigative reporting” in South Africa.

What should be noted is that, in a letter to staff shortly after gaining control of the Independent titles, Iqbal Survé also promised to guarantee the independence of his editors. He quickly proved that claim to be more expedient than sincere by dismissing first Cape Times editor Alide Dasnois and then Sunday Independent editor Wally Mbhele. Evidence at the Mpati Commission emphasises this point.

What must be said of Bonamour however is that, however shameful his treatment of the company’s pensioners, at least he has something to sell. In a Daily Maverick article, Dirk de Vos alleged that Sekunjalo Independent Media is effectively worthless and the figures seem to bear that out. At the time of the failed Sagarmatha listing last year, the Mail & Guardian quoted Jean Pierre Verster, a portfolio manager at Fairtree Capital:

“Sagarmatha is the old Independent Media and a hodgepodge of new media businesses, recently launched and not making much money. “Independent Media made an operating loss to June last year… The company as a whole is literally technically insolvent – its liabilities exceed its assets.”

An amaBhungane article, also carried in the Mail & Guardian, defined the situation more precisely:

The interim financial information disclosed by SIM reveals that, as of 30 June 2017, SIM had accumulated losses of R752m and that the company’s total liabilities exceed its assets by R547m.

This truth was affirmed in the testimony at the Mpati Commission of Tshifhango Ndadza, a senior market risk analyst at the PIC as outlined in a Business Day article:

“Independent Media had liabilities exceeded assets by about R500m-600m,” stated Ndadza. The PIC had already begun impairing its loans to Independent given that it had not been able to service them since inception.

By March 2018, these loans had been completely written off in the books of the PIC and the GEPF, which provides the large majority of the over R2-trillion the PIC manages.

Furthermore, what Bonamour bequeaths to Lebashe – and Teshepo Mahloele has acknowledged this in the Chris Barron interview – is an outstanding staff complement. His assurance that he would leave the editors to do their jobs is thus hugely encouraging because exactly the opposite happened when Sekunjalo took over the Independent Media newspapers in late 2013.

At the time of the Sekunjalo Independent Media purchase, Dirk de Vos, a corporate financial consultant, pointed out that Sekunjalo Independent Media had no chance of being profitable. In a follow-up article he pointed out that Iqbal Survé, in his hubris, had paid R2bn for a shell of a company worth no more than R800m at the time, adding that it is worth much less now.

As we have seen, Iqbal Survé’s decidedly odd leadership of the group has just hastened the process where, today, Independent Newspapers is worth much less than nothing.

Yet, if the company that Iqbal Survé bought in 2012 thanks to the indulgence of his PIC friend Dr Dan Matjila, was not exactly over-capitalised financially, it had human capital in abundance – the most formidable array of journalistic talent to be found in any South African company selling newspapers to English-speaking citizens.

So formidable that within an almost impossible deadline, obsolete computer systems and a skeleton staff, they produced a Cape Times front-page obituary to Nelson Mandela that Time rated as one of the top 15 in the world.

Tony Weaver described the night that the obituary was produced in an article that won the Standard Bank Sikuvile Award for columnist of the year in 2014.

Relentlessly persecuted

Their reward was to be relentlessly persecuted, and verbally abused and dismissed resulting in the leading members of that team, Alide Dasnois, Chris Whitfield, Janet Heard and Tony Weaver being quickly lost to the company. So too, was revered columnist John Scott whose contract was terminated in a two-sentence email. The weekly Cape Times columns by Weaver and Scott are now published in Die Burger – a significant loss to the fast-dwindling number of Cape Times subscribers.

Another difference between the sales of the Independent Media newspapers and the Tiso Blackstar publications is the repayment of loans to the Public Investment Corporation.

During his testimony at the Mpati Commission of Inquiry on 23 July, the former CEO Dr Dan Matjila said that the PIC had invested in three media companies, Sekunjalo Independent Media, Tiso Blackstar and Naspers. We know that Sekunjalo has reneged on its obligations. In this regard, Matjila made a telling point when asked by commissioner Gill Marcus what steps the PIC took to make Independent Media service its debt. “There was no cash clearly for them to settle the obligations.” There was no suggestion from him in this context that Tiso Blackstar and Naspers were also not servicing their debts. Bonamour has found a buyer but who would buy the Indy newspapers?

Its finest talents have fled and between them the Public Investment Corporation and Government Employees Pension Fund are determined to recoup a total of R5.5bn from him – R4.3bn for the PIC and R1.8bn for the GEPF.

Furthermore, as Survé stated during his testimony at the Mpati Commission, he is proud not to be associated with a white-owned company. This narrows the field somewhat because, as a man of undoubted principle, he would obviously not contemplate selling to one. Neither would he contemplate going into partnership with a white-owned company as he did with the Guptas.

The only company with the financial means and the expertise and institutional knowledge to contemplate such a purchase is Naspers. However, given the fact that Survé has relentlessly attacked Naspers as evil incarnate he would – again as a man of principle – never dream of doing business with the most successful company in the country.

Dying out

Across the world the generation to whom buying newspapers was a daily norm is dying out and their children and grandchildren access their news as it happens on their smartphones.

Print media advertising revenue has dwindled as companies find it more profitable and efficient to market and sell their products and services through the internet.

The same scenario is evident here as newspaper titles are sold and magazine companies close their doors.

In 1996 noseweek ceased publication for almost a year as Martin Welz fought and won a defamation claim against him in the Cape High Court brought by American billionaire, the late Dr Robert Hall.

What then saved a brave investigative journalism voice was financial contributions by readers and those who believed in his investigative journalism cause.

At the time I, as a reporter with SABC TV News, covered both the Hall court case and the noseweek exposure three years later of lawyer Hoosain Mohamed who would send his agents into hospitals to seek out road accident victims and then swindle them out of most of the money they received from the Road Accident Fund. This was exposed by noseweek and he and his partner were subsequently jailed.

Now, in the August issue, Welz again appeals for financial support.

Investigative journalism has, time and again – from the Info Scandal to the Guptaleaks – been of benefit to our country.

At this time of national introspection which is a result of the commissions of inquiry initiated by President Cyril Ramaphosa, media analysts look forward to the SANEF investigation into media capture and to the publication by Tafelberg in October of the book on Iqbal Survé written by two former editors at his newspapers, Alide Dasnois and Chris Whitfield.

  • Ed Herbst is a veteran journalist who these days writes in his own capacity.
(Visited 192 times, 1 visits today)