It has been a week of spats and attacks in the media industry. The FNB versus the ANC disagreement over the tone of the bank’s new brand campaign continues, with the parties agreeing to discuss the controversy on the cards. But any kind of rapprochement between DA Leader and The New Age newspaper seems to be off the books as the heated exchanges between the two continues unabated.
It all started with City Press led with a story on Sunday headlined ‘R25 million for breakfast’ and exposed how state owned enterprises such as Transnet, Eskom and the partially state-funded Telkom had sponsored a series of business breakfasts hosted by The New Age newspaper.
Never one to let an opportunity pass her by, Zille immediately withdrew from the next event, to be held on 31 January, at which she was to be the speaker.
“I, and other senior DA colleagues, have previously spoken at The New Age Business Breakfasts, under the assumption that the events were funded by the newspaper and by the members of the public who purchase tickets to attend,” Zille said in a statement.
“Now that it has come to light that the breakfasts are funded by public money via the SOEs to the tune of millions of rand, the DA cannot continue to participate.”
Of course the ANC hit back, accusing Zille of lying. After all, she had thanked Telkom for sponsoring a previous breakfast, and they had the video to prove it. Of course, in what has become true ANC style, its leagues trotted out the prerequisite insults, saying Zille had shown her “deceitful nature”. Pow!
It didn’t end there. Zille retaliated, saying the ANC had taken part in a “cover up”. “This (Telkom’s involvement) was not a sponsorship. When someone sponsors an event, they pay the cost of part or the entire event,” she said
“It has now emerged that these costs were more than covered by the ticket sales. So what was Telkom doing giving R1 million to a private company owned by a major benefactor of President (Jacob) Zuma and the ANC?”
Finally, The New Age stepped into the fray with CEO Nazeem Howa calling the story by City Press an “attack” on the newspaper. “The New Age trying to sustain a proudly South African and fiercely independent voice,” he said.
“What City Press misses is that all major companies sponsor events. It is a normal part of their brand-building and marketing strategies. It is just that we were quick out of the blocks to secure this event ahead of any competitor. We will certainly not be deterred by their bullying actions and we are sure that our supporters will stand resolute.”
But the battle between the DA leader and Western Cape premier wasn’t over because back at DA headquarters, some researchers had been digging into The New Age’s advertising – and government’s role in that aspect of the newspaper too.
This time, it was DA spokesman Mmusi Maimane who launched the salvo, calling on the auditor general to investigate government’s advertising spend in The New Age.
“The DA has conducted an extensive analysis of The New Age’s advertising for the period between 31 October 2012 and 15 November 2012. This two-week period was randomly selected. We believe it to be representative of The New Age’s advertising in general,” he said.
“After conducting this analysis, we have concluded that government is overspending on advertising in The New Age given its uncertified readership levels. Because government advertising vastly outstrips advertising from other sources in The New Age, it is fair to conclude that The New Age is almost entirely dependent on public money to remain afloat.”
Maimane said the DA’s analysis of the advertising in the paper “found that the paper sold 75 351 square centimetres of advertising during those two weeks. Government bought roughly 77.5% of that space, or 58 416 square centimetres. Companies with ties to the Gupta family, like JIC Mining Services, bought out 6.7% of that space. Other private sector actors bought out the remaining 15.8% or 11882 square centimetres.
“This means that more than 80% of advertising space in The New Age is bought up by either government or the Guptas.”
Howa alluded to the DA’s advertising fact-finding mission in his answer to the City Press allegations saying The New Age was and continues, “to be very surprised by the role of the DA in these attacks. Surely, if you wish to ask parliamentary questions on advertising spend from the government we should be asking it of all media, not only The New Age. I suppose DA MP Kenneth Mubu’s comment of us being an ‘ANC gazette’ speaks volumes about his narrow and sectoral interests,” Howa said.
“The numbers suggested by City Press are so far from the truth as to make them laughable. The harsh reality is The New Age is today bigger in sold-for copies than most daily newspapers, totalling nearly 50 000 copies. In addition, we provide a further 25 000 free copies to our markets to ensure proper response to our advertisers.”
Of course, much of this speculation and accusations could be put to bed if The New Age was a member of the Audit Bureau of Circulations. Vice president of the ABC, Gordon Patterson, told The Daily Maverick last year, “The New Age isn’t listed with Audit Bureau of Circulations at all, and it is concerning that a publication with such promise isn’t a member, particularly if you look at the investment that the owners have made in terms of staff and resource and quality editorial. It certainly is out of character, one would have expected them to have an ABC long ago”.
Patterson said there was no justification for not having an ABC certificate. “Honestly, there is no justification why any publication should not have an Audit Bureau of Circulation certificate. For me it screams some sort of deception – why wouldn’t you want an ABC?”
It’s a question The New Age continues to refuse to answer. Howa says The New Age operated within a business model that isn’t understood.
“Thank goodness Helen Zille is in politics and not in business. Her attempt to analyse the business model underpinning The New Age/SABC business briefings is flawed and far-fetched. Her comments are more in line with that of politician wishing to score cheap political points,” he said.
“It is very interesting to see the amount of time Zille, the DA and our competitor newspapers are spending on analysing The New Age, its business strategy and its sustainability,” Howa told The Media Online. “We have no doubt that this is related to the impact we have made in the market. As a private business, we will not discuss our revenues with any competitor.”
“Zille’s argument that the financial underpinning of the business briefings are corrupt and an abuse of taxpayers’ money is a reckless smear on the integrity and honesty of the CEOs and management teams of our partnering companies as well as our own,” he said.
The DA is far from convinced. It estimated the revenue The New Age made in the two weeks it used as the basis for its analysis. “Using The New Age’s 2012 advertising rate card, and accounting for the size, location and nature of the advertising, we estimate that The New Age received roughly R6.8 million in advertising revenue during these two weeks.
“Using the assumptions above, one can calculate that government contributed R5.2 million (76%), companies related to the Gupta family contributed R420 000 (6%) and other companies contributed R1.2 million (18%). Again, our rough estimates indicate that The New Age is completely dependent on government advertising for its survival,” Maimane said.
It too asked why The New Age didn’t simply get with the ABC programme.
“Without this certification, no one can be certain as to what exactly The New Age’s readership is,” Maimane said. “So there is no way government can know how many people are being reached by this advertising. And therefore one has to question the massive expenditure by government on advertising in this newspaper.“
IMAGE: The New Age