A battle for the reputations of the journalists involved and for what some call the ‘soul of the Cape Times’ is being waged in the newspaper’s own op-ed pages, and in those of other titles belonging to Independent News and Media South Africa.
Independent Newspaper’s group executive editor, Karima Brown, and the opinion and analysis editor, Vukani Mde, fired the latest salvo. Headlined ‘Editorial leadership at the Cape Times’, the piece defends the new owners’ position, saying it was their “right and even an obligation to their shareholders to make changes as they see fit”. Brown and Mde said the only obligation head of the Sekunjalo consortium that bought the group from its Irish owners, Dr Iqbal Survé, owed his editors was that they were “are free and unfettered to run their papers as they see fit. He has given this assurance, and has committed to a new editorial charter that will define editors’ rights, obligations, and lines of accountability”.
But the piece went on to attack the current editorial leaders at the Cape Times to the extent they have lodged a grievance with the company’s human resources department. In an email to staff, seen by The Media Online, senior editors Janet Heard and Tony Weaver wrote that the contents of the email were not only false and defamatory “but also injurious to our professional reputation and standing”. They said they would lodge a grievance with HR, and would also refer the contents to the Cape Times’ lawyers as the article had been “widely distributed within the company”.
“Much as I would like to comment publicly, I – and others – have been advised to deal with this internally, and to seek legal advice. I reserve my rights on this matter,” Heard told The Media Online.
The op-ed was also published in the group’s newspapers, but not all in the original form. Sources told The Media Online the unedited ”defamatory” version appeared in the Argus, which the paper later apologised for, changing it in the second editions, but that other “sanitised” versions were published in other titles, including the Cape Times itself. Management of Independent Newspapers failed to respond to The Media Online’s request to clarify if all newspapers were instructed to carry the piece, and if any editors refused to do so. The Star’s Makhudu Sefara is believed to have declined to publish it but he refused to confirm or deny this, saying management should respond to any questions.
The ‘editorial leadership’ op-ed is the latest in a series of opinions being played out on the pages of the Cape Times. The first, which appeared after Cape Times editor Alide Dasnois was dismissed, allegedly for her decision to cover Nelson Mandela’s death in the form of a wraparound supplement, was called ‘Cape Times dropped the ball’ by Zenzile Khoisan. Tony Weaver then responded in a column titled ‘Very poetic but a load of rubbish’. Then came Cape Times deputy editor Aneez Salie’s story, ‘We should have changed page one’ followed by Janet Heard’s response, ‘Wraparound argument a sideshow’. In it, she said new Cape Times editor Gasant Abarder had “bent over backwards” to allow the debate to be published in the newspaper.
“It is good and proper that issues of ownership and transformation are being argued in the open, but I am saddened that the debate has taken on a personal and vindictive tone,” says Caxton professor of journalism at Wits University, Anton Harber. “One has to be surprised when an executive editor lambasts her own senior staff in the pages of the paper. This does not sound like the basis for sound newsroom relations.”
Glenda Daniels, lead researcher at the State of the Newsroom project at Wits Journalism, agrees. “It’s good that people are seeing what is going on – but it certainly is not good news for the sales of the newspapers is it. In December many readers wrote letters so to the Cape Times saying they were not going to buy the paper anymore because they saw political interference and ownership interference. It’s not just in the Indie’s titles, other media are also writing about it,” she says.
Harber says while some of the criticism is politically motivated by those who fear an ANC-aligned newspaper, “there are important and legitimate questions which have been raised about the new Independent owners and their conduct, and it is a pity when they hide behind their struggle history. Newspaper owners need to develop a thick skin”.
Brown and Mde in their piece accuse a “small but very privileged and racially definable minority” of being opposed to a transformation agenda. They say this group has “grown adept at paying lip service to the goals of transformation and media diversity, but in truth remain against them” and use as an example The New Age, saying it was “pilloried and labelled, its brand destroyed before the newspaper hit the streets” because the proprietors wanted a paper that “wasn’t intuitively anti-government”. Survé, they said, “wears his ANC heart on his sleeve”. “There’s nothing wrong with these sentiments, and there’s more than enough space for at least one outlet that shares the ruling party’s political stance,” they wrote.
Harber says there is an important place for media that supports the ruling party “but a newspaper which is based on a commitment to this position seldom produces good journalism and usually becomes dull and predictable. Let’s hope that does not happen here. Let’s hope that Dr Survé sees that the best argument for independent journalism is that it makes good business sense, as it imparts the credibility that sells newspapers and adverts,” he says.
Asked whether both ‘sides’ have good points, Daniels says she doesn’t believe so. “I am appalled at Survé’s comments and his hysteria. Initially I thought he, like anyone else, deserved the benefit of the doubt. Within weeks, he showed his colours. He is aligned to the ANC and wants Indie titles to toe the line ideologically, rather than be the independent papers they were. Owners should not interfere in editorial. How Survé, Brown and this new Media for Transformation outfit make this out to be a black issue, that whites don’t want transformation of the media – is pathetic,” she says.
Harber says the drama playing out in newspapers’ pages is a healthy part of an open democracy. “We often ask who watches the watchers, and it is good to know that newspapers are keeping an eye on each other,” he says. And the fact there is much interest in the story, not just by other media outlets, shows “people care about the newspapers they identify with. It is a part of their daily and communal life. If they don’t care, then those newspapers are doomed”.
He says the ongoing interest in the story proves “we have a lively and increasingly diverse media, open to self-scrutiny and mutual vigilance”.
Daniels isn’t sure the drama isn’t impacting on the owners of Independent Newspapers. “I don’t think it’s doing anything to the reputation of the SA media. It certainly is doing something to the reputation of the owners of Indie,” she says.
“Owners should deal with ownership issues. Not with editorial. They should not be talking about ‘balanced’ news. The news is balanced enough. This ownership move is about having lots of sunshine for the ANC before elections isn’t it? What about the cloudy, grey rainy days, which we have enough of in SA – we must hide that, the truth?” she asks.
Harber says owners and journalists need to set the highest standards for transparency, as high as they demand of others. “And part of the problem here was that the new owner has seemed disingenuous.”
In the meantime, former editor Dasnois has taken her case to the CCMA where it is currently being heard.