OPINION: Long-time loyal Cape Times reader Ed Herbst looks at how the newspaper has changed over the past year, and draws parallels between it and the SABC.
“No longer could the executive trample constitutional rights underfoot. Two court applications immediately ensued and are ongoing. The press gallery in an unprecedented display of revulsion, rose in protest. The leader of the opposition, Mmusi Maimane found his true voice, perhaps for the first time.” Tony Leon, Sunday Times 22/2/2015
“We’ve embarked on a new editorial direction, taking leave of many long-standing features and columnists as we embark on a new era in the Cape Times’ proud history.” – Aneez Salie, Cape Times 20/2/2015
Experience over the last 25 years has shown that when the ANC gains control of a newsroom, certain ineluctable processes unfold and the SABC and the Cape Times provide obvious case studies.
- First, there is the ritual purge of senior, often white, independent-thinking staff.
After a Camelot period at the SABC under Zwelakhe Sisulu, Barney Mthombothi and Allister Sparks, the ANC, angry that President Thabo Mbeki was not getting hourly coverage and that the Jali Commission findings on prison conditions were getting too much coverage, brought in Snuki Zikalala. He quickly drove out credible news people like Allister Sparks (he must be getting used to this) Max du Preez (ditto), Sarah Crowe and others. An obvious, on-the-record-for-the-record example of this race-based hatred was the sentiments he expressed about whites in an interview with Angella Johnson which was published in the Mail & Guardian on 17 October 1997 under the headline ‘Snuki-sikelel-iafrika’. His penchant for walking around the SABC newsrooms saying that he saw “too many white faces” was made a matter of undenied record by then 50/50 producer Danie van der Walt in issue number 143 of the SABC’s house magazine, ‘Interkom’ in September 2000. And in a letter headlined ‘Making patriotism a virtue’ (Business Day 31/7/2001) he lashed out at the “white liberal media” and accused white South Africans of being unpatriotic. The fact that this was the antithesis of the reconciliation for which Nelson Mandela strove clearly did not disturb or deter him.
The same purge occurred in what was once the happiest and most effective regional SABC news office, Sea Point in Cape Town, when Jeffrey Twala and Kenneth Makatees took control in 1998 and Twala walked around the news office saying that it was too “leely white”. When a white reporter protested that she and her white colleagues treated their black counterparts with respect and would never dream of referring to them as “pitch blacks” or “coal blacks” or “midnight blacks” he shouted that she should not “take it personally”. We were constantly told that our presence hampered transformation.
The way in which Karima Brown and Vukani Mde articulate their feelings in this regard at Independent Media is more subtle and nuanced but you could be forgiven if you thought the underlying sentiments are somewhat similar. Here is how Gill Moodie summed it up on her Grubstreet website:
“Then Brown and Vukani Mde, who is the new group op-ed and analysis editor, sent out an opinion piece written by them to the different titles saying that the controversy around the new owner of the company, Dr Iqbal Surve, was a sign of a ‘fight-back’ from a ‘small but very privileged and racial definable minority (that) still controls the tools of public discourse’. These people were against transformation, the piece said, especially of media ownership and were demonising Surve with a ‘relentless agenda of disinformation’”.
While Sparks was a common denominator at both the SABC and the Indy, Tony Weaver was the latest and most high-profile victim.
First we had the spectacle of Chelsea Amor Lotz, immediately dubbed the ‘Media Mata Hari’, tottering around in her red, skyscraper-stiletto heels holding up a placard which was a clear reference to Weaver: “Fire all racist reporters”. Two other posters held up by her group were more explicit. “Away with Man Friday” and “Fire Tony Weaver”. Ultimately she triumphed despite the intervention of Trevor Manuel and if you were a down table sub of alliterative inclination your headline might well have been ‘Media Mata Hari mangles Manuel’.
Then we had the various attempts to get rid of Weaver. First he was told by editor Gasant Abarder after he had been part of a team which brought immense lustre to South African journalism by producing a memorial tribute to Nelson Mandela which was hailed by TIME magazine as one of the best in the world, that he should go home for a few days and “think about it”. This made it clear he was not valued, still less wanted by the new Indy management. Then there was the nefarious attempt to discipline him over the now notorious Pick ‘n’ Pay photo manipulation suggestion. Finally they paid him to leave and take his Man Friday column to Die Burger .
- The second predictable consequence of an ANC takeover of a newsroom is that both corporate performance and the product suffers.
The findings of the Sisulu/Marcus Commission into Snuki Zikalala’s blacklisting policy and the subsequent findings of Judge Neels Claassen in the North Gauteng High Court on 24 January 20011 provide irrefutable proof of that contention as do the subsequent findings of the Public Protector and the PricewaterhouseCoopers skills audit.
Decline in standards
The loss to Newspaper House of the institutional knowledge and skill of an experienced sub-editor like Glenn Bownes is evident at the Cape Times and the Argus which provide regular evidence with typos, misspelt words and bad grammar of the decline in standards.
A mind boggling example of the product deterioration in the “new era” which heralds the arrival of Aneez Salie as editor, was the top half of the fold on 17 February. I have been a Cape Times reader since 1978 but I have never known a cartoon to dominate the front page as it did that day. There was a slight problem though – the cartoon covered the C in the masthead reducing it to “ape Times” and you can see what I am talking about on Gill Moodie’s invaluable Grubstreet website.
You could not make this sort of thing up even if you were a Generations script writer overdosing on whoonga. There is no way that would have got past people like Bownes, Weaver, Alide Dasnois or Janet Heard. When readers raised concerns, Salie’s response was that it was no mistake but was deliberately done “out of deep respect for Madiba”. That has about as much credibility as state security minister David Mahlobo’s suggestion that it was necessary to place a signal jammer with an effective range of 30 metres in the room next to the press gallery because there was a very real chance of Boko Haram scaling the parliamentary ramparts and enslaving our women.
Another startling example of the “new era” reporting occurred the next day but it is typical, as I have illustrated previously, of the “new era” approach
Have a look at the front pages of the country’s leading newspapers on Grubstreet.
With the exception of the Cape Times all the big city newspapers focused on what had happened in parliament the previous day – the response to the events the previous week during the SONA address.
Most focused on DA parliamentary leader Mmusi Mmaine’s suggestion that President Jacob Zuma was a “broken man” but others used the signal jamming aspect or Zuma ’s giggling as their lead story
The Cape Times took Sapa copy for its front page, an article predictably placed below the fold and not much bigger than your hand. Its headline, ‘Mbete wasn’t aware device used would block reception’ reflected another facet of the “new era” approach – do as little damage to the ANC as you can.
So what did the Cape Times consider to be more important than the previous days’ events in parliament? An email thread about a “ruined romance” which, of course, reflected “white racism.”
The front page picture choice was also telling. Die Burger went with a front page which featured the three party leaders in the previous day’s debate but the Cape Times picture choice reflected a pervasive “new era” theme which seeks to portray the Democratic Alliance-led provincial and municipal governments in the worst-possible light. In this case it was teachers – not in a mud school or one where children down in pit latrines but an overcrowded informal school.
- The third inevitable consequence of an ANC takeover of a newsroom is that the most talented newsroom staff leave.
At the SABC it was people like Jacques Pauw who left saying that it had become “nothing less than a state broadcaster.” At the Indy, Moshoeshoe Monare, the editor of the Sunday Independent, resolved his ethical dilemma succinctly, elegantly and eloquently. On 15 December 2013 he nailed his colours firmly to the mast in an op-ed column headlined ‘Editor’s note on editorial independence’. Two months later he resigned making it clear that he did not consider that the conditions in which editorial independence could thrive existed at Independent Media anymore. The gesture by former Cape Times editor Ryland Fisher was even more persuasive. He left before he started. His appointment was announced by Iqbal Survé in November last year and, to the best of my knowledge, he never took up the post.
- The fourth invariable consequence of an ANC takeover of a newsroom is that credibility is lost.
Evidence of this can be found in the fact that the SABC has less than half the audience for its flagship evening television news bulletin than the equivalent e.tv bulletin which has not received hundreds of millions of rands courtesy of the taxpayer.
The clincher was last year’s SABC’s market research report, Project Kindle, which assessed the opinions of viewers throughout the country. The objective was to establish how credible the SABC’s television news bulletins are and the answer was pithily summed up by Phylicia Oppelt a decade ago – “SABC TV news sucks”. Across the board, the Project Kindle interviewees said the SABC product was inferior in every respect to the eNCA’s ‘Zero Propaganda’ news bulletins and did not engender respect and trust because it was politically tainted.
The Cape Times has a lot of credibility to lose. And it seems hell-bent on doing so.
As somebody who has been steeped in photography since childhood I think of specific things and issues in terms of images. When I think of the Cape Times I remember how proud I was some 35 years ago when Stoffel Botha’s assault on English language newspapers was at its height and the Cape Times carried those grainy black and white photographs of Marianne Thamm and her colleagues standing, in protest, with their placards outside Newspaper House.
I have been reading Gerald Shaw’s book, The Cape Times – an Informal History (David Philip, 1999) which deals extensively with that era.
In his foreword the late Jakes Gerwel wrote, “In the end however we are left with the record of an institution that has become a cornerstone of democracy in South Africa. The book paints an intriguing picture of the battles that were fought within the newspaper and against outside forces to build and develop the tradition which the country today cherishes as part of its proud heritage.”
As I mentioned earlier, I have been a Cape Times reader for 36 years and, in my experience I have never known an historic photograph – rather than current news – to overwhelm the top half of the fold. That changed on 12 February when a picture of the demolition of District Six houses exactly 49 years years previously dominated the front page of the newspaper.
As part of this new narrative at the Cape Times Aneez Salie now ensures that there is an almost daily reminder in the newspaper of the evils of apartheid, an approach that both Dr Pieter Mulder and Rhoda Kadalie have expressed concern about.
In a way, though, it provides the perfect visual metaphor for the once-respected institution of which Gerwel wrote.
Under Iqbal Survé that edifice has been reduced to rubble.
* Opinions expressed in posts published on The Media Online are not necessarily those of Wag the Dog Publishers or the editor but contribute to the diversity of voices in South Africa.