Government bodies, whether national or local, will be taking stock of a victory by Grocott’s Mail newspaper in regard to abuse of official power.
In August, Grahamstown’s council wisened up and walked away from a costly court case brought by the community paper. It agreed, instead, to settle the matter out of court. To that end, the (Makana) municipality signed a legal agreement to lift its 14-month long advertising boycott of the paper, a politically punitive measure imposed after a story about an Auditor-General’s report on missing money in the council.
After six months of unsuccessfully trying to talk sense to the boycotters, the Grocott‘s board decided to take the legal route. With support from Print Media South Africa and the Media Institute of Southern Africa, advocates Gilbert Marcus and Mark Euijen were engaged. An 80-page affidavit was filed, arguing that the municipality had infringed three clauses in the Constitution and two municipal laws.
In the face of this firepower, the council turned tail. Their boycott failed to kill or intimidate the paper. And the bellicose municipal manager who was one of the architects of the boycott did not get his contract renewed.
What irked during the boycott was that the council unilaterally, and without regard to cost-effectiveness, shifted its advertising to a rival paper – an Avusa-owned free-sheet called Grahamstown This Week.
Grocott’s carries credibility as a sold paper with an audited ABC circulation (2,290, January -March 2008). It has more outlets and readers than the uncertified and freely-dumped Avusa paper, and it runs cheaper advertising rates.
These facts were amongst those demonstrating that the council’s boycott decision contravened supply-chain principles for government. While Avusa benefited from the boycott, the 138-year-old Grocott’s soldiered on, providing a service to the communityand real-life experience for Rhodes University journalism students.
There’s an irony in this, since Avusa has an excellent relationship with the Rhodes journalism school, including hiring graduates who have honed their skills at Grocott’s.
Another irony is that Avusa also backed the Grocott’s court action. That Grahamstown’s municipality backed out of a legal fight sends a clear signal that governments need to think twice before using taxpayers’ money to punish (or reward) media through manipulating advertising.
This will be welcome news to publications that have faced similar threats in recent years, including the Avusa-owned Sunday Times after its critical coverage of Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang.
Last year, The Witness experienced a temporary boycott by the provincial government in KwaZulu-Natal, as did Talk of the Town (an Avusa paper) by Port Alfred’s municipality. In Lesotho and Namibia, independent papers continue to be targeted by national governments.
In the end, these boycotts hurt not only media houses, but ordinary people. It is the broad swathe of the citizenry that is deprived of public information about tenders, road closures and health alerts when authorities treat advertising as a private political weapon rather than a means to communicate on the most cost-effective basis.
But one issue is still outstanding in the Grocott’s case. Along with the advertising boycott, the council also instituted a partial boycott in terms of media liaison. At times, the municipal spokesperson has been prepared to answer questions from other media, yet stonewalled Grocott’s Mail. The hostility continues in various forms.
Originally, the council sought to make restoring the advertising relationship conditional on Grocott‘s agreeing to bury bad news about the municipality. Resolving the ad issue now clears the stage to talk editorial issues – with the framework of the paper’s editorial independence intact.
Whether this will lead to a free and fair flow of information, or whether another court case will have to be launched, depends on the council. Having won one battle, Grocott’s is ready, if need be, to fight a second.
Rhodes University professor Guy Berger is chair of the board of Grocott’s Mail.
- This article first appeared in The Media magazine (September 2008).