Chris Whitfield recently took early retirement from Independent Media. He was the group’s most senior editor. He gives his perspective on what’s been happening in the group.
Tony O’Reilly was angry… very angry. At the time – a few years ago – he was the proprietor of Independent News & Media, which owned the Cape Argus. I was editor of the Argus.
‘Sir Anthony’, as the Irish media baron preferred to be called, had let it be known that he was not happy about a photograph we had used in the newspaper that day. The story was something or other about his plans for Independent Newspapers.
The picture, a smallish mugshot, was of him. He didn’t like it because he looked fat. O’Reilly had apparently shared his anger with the company’s CEO, Tony Howard, with such vigour that the latter felt it necessary to phone me, late at night, and tell me to remove all the pictures from our digital library in which the chairman looked fat.
I worked for the Irish for the more than 20 years, during which they owned the company and, as far as editorial interference was concerned, that was about it. I can only recall two other occasions where he engaged directly with me about editorial content.
One was after the Cape Times had used a picture of somebody else to illustrate a story in which he was quoted. I wasn’t editor of the newspaper at the time – I had moved on to the Argus – but Howard felt the need to address this issue with me.
The other was also about a photograph – the then editor of Business Report, one Alide Dasnois, had felt the need to crop O’Reilly out of a photograph of some members of then President Thabo Mbeki’s economic advisory panel. I sat next to O’Reilly at a lunch the day the cropped picture was published and he made his unhappiness clear.
I suppose, though, that those manifestations of the O’Reilly ego were relatively harmless. The real damage inflicted by the Irish was more insidious, and often at the hands of the South African management. A senior Irish executive once said to me with a laugh, “We ask them to jump, and they ask, ‘how high?’”
The Irish bought Independent Newspapers in 1993 in a deal reportedly brokered by Nelson Mandela, who had been wooed by O’Reilly as it became evident he was about to take charge of the country.
Their relationship gave rise to frequent suggestions that the company was aligned to the ANC. I worked as a senior-ish executive in the company for many of the Irish years – for 14 as an editor – and this was not the case.
There are many examples to the contrary, but newspaper tradition generally has been for proprietors to keep away from editorial. The better ones have generally chosen to exercise their influence through the appointment of like-minded people.
This was the case with the Irish, who saw themselves as liberals and were, to their credit, fiercely opposed to any sort of racism. Most of the editors they appointed in the post-1994 years would have been committed to the ‘new South Africa’, but in more recent years several grew disillusioned with the government trajectory and felt free to express this in their newspapers.
Perhaps if one had come out in support of, say, the AWB, the Irish would have felt the need to intervene.
That is not to say, though, that they were benign proprietors. After a honeymoon period during which then CEO Ivan Fallon launched Business Report and The Sunday Independent, they took a sharp knife to the company’s costs.
This manifested itself in a series of meetings in which editors were told how badly their titles were performing. Improbable ‘benchmarks’ were constructed for just about every line in the budget and editors were directed to achieve them.
Newsrooms began to shrink, juniors were bought in to replace more experienced and expensive writers, “centralisation” and “synergy” became buzzwords, and editors were made accountable for the business performance of their titles.
This intensified when Howard took charge. According to company legend, he kept a graph in his office that compared the profits he delivered to those of his predecessors.
During his reign it became virtually impossible to get the go-ahead to spend money. His weary lieutenants eventually took to giving permission behind his back when required.
The entrepreneurial spirit, which Fallon had introduced, disappeared and any new idea was regarded with wariness, or worse. This, of course, included the trends that were sweeping world media, most obviously the migration to digital media and the need for the company to embrace it.
Editors’ roles soon became complicated. On the one hand, they were trying to bring out credible newspapers and, on the other, they did their best to protect their dwindling resources from the cost cutting.
With hindsight, I think many of us were victims of what is sometimes referred to as the ‘boiling frog syndrome’ – the changes were incremental and often quite subtle (or hidden from us). It required the perspective of time to understand exactly what was becoming of the newspapers.
Whatever excuses we may come up with, our collective legacy is of having overseen the steady decline of a once great newspaper company.
By 2013, there was a low-level revolt afoot among editors. I was the group’s senior editor at the time and was routinely on the receiving end of my colleagues’ complaints about the lack of decisive and imaginative management.
News that Dr Iqbal Survé’s consortium was about to take control of the company was received with great warmth.
It soon became evident, to me anyway, that Survé had little feel for the nuances of newspaper ownership and the niceties of editorial independence.
He signalled his political intent by repeatedly warning that he would not turn his back on what he liked to call his “struggle background”, and adding that the newspapers needed to be more “balanced”. Any editor will know what balance means to politically aligned people.
I remember Survé suggesting to a meeting of Cape Times staff members that the newspaper was inclined towards the Democratic Alliance (DA). This followed within days of my having intervened – in my then role as editor in chief of Independent Newspapers Cape – with Dasnois, the then editor of the Cape Times, over her evident animus towards the same party.
Survé also appeared to be appointing people on the basis of their political connections rather than their journalistic skills or experience. Existing staff with the appropriate skills was pushed aside.
I did not stay long enough to pronounce with any conviction on his proprietorship over the past few months, but a brief read of Independent’s newspapers today suggests the new management has taken up the cost-cutting scalpel with vigour and Survé’s political commissars are playing a role in content choices.
Just about every independent voice in the senior editorial ranks has left, presumably as a consequence.
And what’s with those fawning pieces, which one newspaper after another has run about its owner?
In this context, though, the damage that egos and pliant management can do is not the central issue: at play here is journalism in this country. This watchdog seems to have lost its teeth.
One of South African media’s great independent institutions is on its knees, and those of us who believe in the media’s role in a democracy can only hope that those who now look fondly on the Irish years are proved wrong.
This story was first published in the November 2014 issue of The Media magazine.
Chris Whitfield (@chriswhitf ) is a former editor of the Cape Times, Cape Argus and Weekend Argus. He took early retirement from Independent Media this year after four years as the editor in chief of Independent Newspapers Cape.
IMAGE: Tony O’Reilly