From O’Reilly to Survé – Indy’s asset stripping continues apace

When wealthy power-brokers wheel and deal, most of us lower down the food chain tend to yawn and reach for another slice of toast. However, when the cynical asset stripping of a highly influential State-pension-purchased newspaper group begins afresh, it undermines the very basis of our democracy, especially in the current Zuptoid-snouting political context. Taken together they could do us out of bread altogether, never mind tea and toast. This article itself epitomises the value of good journalism, (the first victim of such asset-stripping), which it so eloquently defends, cutting as it does to the bare bones of the matter and placing Independent Newspaper chief, Dr Iqbal Survé and his political sponsors firmly on the spot. More than that, Ed Herbst gives the average reader, whom I daresay would never otherwise have had a clue of these machinations and why they take place, clear insight via unerring historical context. The historical review offers a comparison that decimates many of the seemingly feasible ‘alternative facts’ which the Zuptoids regularly trot out to justify their current take-over of the media. While the National Party and its spy-master/dubious-diplomat Eschel Roodie’s propaganda fiascos, the so-called ‘Info-scandal,’ (or “Mulder-Gate”) and fertilizer magnate/rugby boss Louis Luyt’s buying of the Citizen all have pertinent reference, they don’t really compare to the depth of today’s political inroads into the media. This is a must-read for anyone who believes in the value of the Fourth Estate to democracy. Or, if they work for the State, what happens to their pension funds. Luyt sold the then-State propaganda tool, the Citizen, for a mere pittance four decades ago. The scandal cost Information Minister, Dr Connie Mulder and Prime Minister BJ Vorster their jobs. No costly political fall-out today…one wonders what Survé will sell Independent Newspapers for. – Chris Bateman

By Ed Herbst*

At the time, Independent Media’s staff were also promised great wealth by incoming chairman Survé at various staff meetings. Since then, the staff numbers have been pared back by retrenchments and there has been no sign of shares.

One of the companies offered shares at the outset says the only thing that can be said with any certainty is that Sekunjalo looks set to score by feeding off the demise of the print media industry. – Ann Crotty Financial Mail 23/2/2017

Ann Crotty is one of the most respected financial journalists in the country and last week’s carefully researched article, Breaking the news should frighten anyone who values media freedom in this country. It follows her earlier  February 2013 analysis of the problems facing newspapers in South Africa and her reasoned decision a year later to leave INMSA after Dr Iqbal Survé took control.

Since his Sekunjalo company took over Independent News Media (Pty) Ltd, three years ago, circulation has dropped substantially.

Dr Iqbal Survé

I am told by people in this field that for a daily newspaper to be viable it has to have a daily circulation of at least 25,000.

The flagship newspaper in the company, the Cape Times, has stagnated below 30,000 in daily sales and dropped circulation month on month since Aneez Salie was made editor with catastrophic results three years ago. The latest figures provided by the MarkLives website illustrates this continuing decline.

To persuade advertisers that the Indy newspapers are still worth investing in, more and more copies are being given away to pump up the circulation figures – as anyone who has visited our airports will testify. I have a friend who teaches at a small primary school in Cape Town and she tells me that dozens of copies of the Cape Times, unsolicited, are delivered every day of the week. A few are read by teachers and pupils, a few are cut up for class projects and the rest are dumped.

The only profitable arm left in the Indy stable is the knock and drop community newspapers and the fact that this segment of the business, as Crotty testifies, has been moved from Independent to Sekunjalo without any meaningful consultation is disturbing. What was the reason for this?

A pup with biliary?

Veteran journalist Ed Herbst

Analysts in the local newspaper sphere were bewildered by the price Survé paid for the Indy, suggesting that not only did the Irish sell him a pup but that he bought a pup with biliary.

Is history repeating itself?

As South Africa moved towards its first universal suffrage election in 1994, Nelson Mandela was afraid that the Independent Newspapers company, which sold three out of every four English newspapers in the country, would fall into the hands of those who opposed the ANC.

He thus gave the go-ahead to the ANC-supporting Irish businessman Tony O’Reilly to buy the company and the deal was concluded in August 1994.

What followed was asset stripping on an industrial scale. Staff numbers were reduced, profits channelled to Ireland and investment in plant and personnel virtually ceased.

In 2013, the company was purchased by Dr Iqbal Survé with the help of a Public Investment Corporation loan of, it would seem, more than a billion rand and, if the article by Ann Crotty in the Financial Mail last week is anything to go by, the second round of asset-stripping is proceeding apace. What would be interesting to know is if the allegation that Iqbal Survé is drawing a monthly salary of half a million rand is true. It was first made by Donwald Presley in July last year and it has never been denied. Survé has, however, threatened to expose the sceptics as ‘closet racists’.

When an ANC acolyte gains control of a news organisation one of the first things to happen is a purge of white staff and then the propaganda and censorship by omission starts. One saw this process unfold when the Mbeki-promoting Snuki Zikalala cabal gained control of the SABC newsrooms in the mid-1990s.  Max du Preez devoted a chapter, ‘The Poor Man’s Stalin’, to this sordid ANC moment in our media history in his book Pale Native – Memories of a Renegade Reporter. The same process played out at the same time under Jeffrey Twala in the Sea Point news office of the SABC.

Just before Christmas, more than 70 Indy staff members found themselves on the streets and facing an uncertain future in a purge that was a consequence of the PIC’s Dr Dan Matjila’s risible suggestion that he was blowing a billion to create a Black Naspers – risible because the ‘white Naspers’ never received a cent in government funding. A far more likely explanation is that he just wanted to give a self-acknowledged ANC supporter control of the largest group of English newspapers in the country.

Daniel Matjila, chief investment officer of Public Investment Corp., gestures as he speaks during an interview in Johannesburg, South Africa. Photographer: Dean Hutton/Bloomberg

Ethical journalism

The least we can expect when a news organisation is taken over by another is that the staff is treated with respect and courtesy and that the reputation of the Fourth Estate is enhanced through news gathering and dissemination that places a high and sincere emphasis on ethical journalism.

When, however, an ANC acolyte gains control, the opposite happens as recent testimony in parliament about the SABC under the Zuptoid-promoting Hlaudi Motsoeneng and Jimi Matthews has revealed.

Much the same has happened at the Independent Newspapers since Survé took over. To cite just a single case study on staff treatment, he verbally abused Alide Dasnois and promised to use his “billions” to damage her reputation and harm her future employment prospects. When it comes to ethical journalism, the Cape Times has, since Aneez Salie was appointed editor some three years ago, sought to mislead its readers with one ‘Fake News’ article after another, after another that targeted either white South Africans or the Democratic Alliance. Then there is, obviously, the routine censorship by omission that characterises propaganda organisations like the SABC and the Cape Times since Aneez Salie became editor. (Salie might justifiably and in his defence argue that statements which are devoid of truth are very much part of the Sekunjalo ethos).

In addition, following the lead of the Gupta-owned New Age, Survé has sought to avoid journalistic accountability by ditching the SA Press Council.

Karima Brown

So baleful has the working environment at the Indy now become that even Karima Brown has chosen to leave the sinking ship.

Naspers is, obviously, profit-driven rather than driven by ideology and I would argue that Independent Newspapers is exactly the opposite.

Any company’s greatest asset is its staff and, in merit-based and driven countries, huge amounts are invested with head-hunting consultancies in an avid search for individuals who will enhance profitability.

On the editorial side of newspapers, such individuals are outstanding investigative journalists like those who work for the amaBhungane Centre for Investigative Journalism, eloquent and analytical columnists and photographers whose images stop you in your tracks.

I buy the Sunday Times each week because of writers like Barney Mthombothi, Peter Bruce, Chris Barron, Jan Jan Joubert and Tony Leon and I buy City Press each week to read the political analysis of Andisiwe Makinana.

In their absence, I would be less inclined to buy these newspapers.

In stark contrast to this, on the watch of Iqbal Survé and in little more than three years, more than a hundred of the Indy’s most talented newsroom staff have left the company’s employ – roughly 20% of the staff complement which worked there in 2013.

To cite just one example: A decade ago Newspaper House, the Indy headquarters in Cape Town’s CBD, employed the most authoritative environmental reporting team in the country with John Yeld working at the Cape Argus and his wife Martine Barker, who co-authored with him a book on the ecology of Table Mountain, who was Managing Editor of all Indy titles in the Western Cape. At the Cape Times we had Melanie Gosling and Tony Weaver whose weekly Man Friday column was a must-read for those concerned about the environment.

In Durban, readers of the Natal Mercury could rely on the environmental expertise of Tony Carnie, a veteran with more than three decades of loyal service at the newspaper.

All gone

They are all gone now. Yeld reached retirement age but the others were either driven out, retrenched or chose to leave a toxic working environment that had become inimical to those who adhere to ethical journalism standards.

More magic available at www.zapiro.com.

As far as I am aware there is no longer a single environmental reporter employed at Newspaper House in Cape Town – this in a province that has one of the highest levels of threatened and endangered endemic species in the world.

For car, motorcycle and motor racing enthusiasts, every article by Henri du Plessis in the Cape Argus was an authoritative joy and his weekly column was eagerly anticipated. He, too, found the work situation at Newspaper House under the new cabal to be intolerable and asked for early retirement after more than two decades of loyal service. He is not been replaced by anyone of consequence and he is missed as is consumer columnist Wendy Knowler – among others – who also chose the exit door.

The Newspaper House photography department lost several of its best people in the recent retrenchment process and, given that it would cost around R150 000 to set yourself up as a freelancer, what happened to them is telling.

During the retrenchment discussions they asked if they could buy their equipment which would now gather dust and had been written off to tax. This was agreed to but on their last day they were told to hand in all their equipment and informed that the option of buying it no longer existed …

As fast as the brightest and best reporters leave Newspaper House, they are snapped up by Naspers.

When Janet Heard left three years ago, she was immediately appointed as head of the Media24 parliamentary team and when Carryn Dolley, one of the best of a younger generation of Newspaper House reporters, left a few months ago, she was immediately appointed as regional head in the Western Cape of the News 24 online news operation.

Nothing remotely like this happened at Newspaper House during the apartheid era.

Three years ago, when the cull and exodus of Indy columnists started, Naspers quickly appointed Max du Preez, the late Allister Sparks, John Scott and Tony Weaver.

Die Burger announces the appointment of former INMSA columnists

Driving out your most talented staff members makes no commercial sense and hopefully DA Shadow Minister of Finance, David Maynier will ascertain from Dr Dan Matjila of the PIC what the chances are of the billion rand plus loan to Sekunjalo ever being repaid and, if it is, what the return on that loan will be.

Thousands of civil servants whose pensions financed the loan want to know and deserve to know.

They will want to know because a R100 million – the pensions of thousands of textile workers – was lost in the Canyon Springs debacle.

In mid-2013 when the takeover of the Indy was announced, Survé was evasive about how the deal was structured. At the time, Anton Harber asked why the PIC was investing  civil servant pension fund money in a dying industry and I, personally, wondered how much due diligence research was done.

I ask that question with specific reference to Dr Iqbal Survé’s association with Brett Kebble, something which is a matter of repeated historical record.  At an insolvency inquiry Survé acknowledged that he had been a conduit through whom Kebble shifted the proceeds of crime to the ANC in the Western Cape with the manifest intention of buying political influence. Survé never challenged the content of the hyperlinked articles in this paragraph nor a similar article by Rob Rose which was carried in both the Sunday Times and Business Day.

In my personal and subjective opinion, as someone who was a court reporter for three decades, this was tantamount to money laundering and therefore, if I am correct, both unlawful and corrupt.

Why, then, was more than a billion rand in government employee pension fund investments, money which should be sacrosanct, channelled into this venture?

Would you care to respond, Dr Dan?

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