I recently participated in an interesting Twitter conversation about Independent News and Media South Africa. Journalists Mandy de Waal and Kristen van Schie and ANC chairperson of the Portfolio Committee on Police, Annelize van Wyk, were commenting on the perceived change in ‘independence’ within the newspaper group since Sekunjalo – with assistance from the Public Investment Corporation – bought the media group.
The takeover has been much debated since the conclusion of the deal in June 2013, not just by staff but by most of the media fraternity. At some stage one might have got the impression that the devil himself has taken control on the reins.
De Waal was convinced that since Dr Iqbal Survé had taken over the papers, the content has changed. Van Schie and Van Wyk disagreed, so William Bird, director of Media Monitoring Africa, and myself were asked for ‘expert’ opinions. Both Bird and the data I got from Media Tenor confirmed: no visible change in tone in the content of Independent Newspapers since the takeover.
Data doesn’t lie, right? Quantitatively speaking, the Cape Times in particular remained as ‘critical’ of government as before. Some opinion pieces perhaps changed, with new op-eds expressing a different, perhaps even positive opinion. But overall, much of the same. No particular bias. Box ticked.
But hold on: firstly, I disagree that ‘independence’ in the press is measured by the degree of opposition to the current government, as seems to be the case in South Africa. Positive reporting about government is seen as ‘spin’, and any attempt by government to push for more positive coverage is seen as a threat to media freedom.
I don’t think it is as simple as that. Granted, the government hasn’t made its case easier by pushing through press freedom damaging legislation such as the Protection of State Information Bill and others. But just because a government-linked individual buys a newspaper does not necessarily mean that he or she will be brainwashed.
But then De Waal reminded me that the Independent Group had recently cancelled Terry Bell’s thought-provoking column on the economy and labour issues. And that Ann Crotty, Business Report’s fearless writer of many years, had ‘left’, while the group’s executive editor Chris Whitfield in the Western Cape had taken early retirement. And of course, there was the surprise ‘redeployment’ of Cape Times editor Alide Dasnois.
And then, a few days after this conversation, someone else sent me a copy of an article in the Cape Times, run with a photo of a smiling Survé, titled ‘Meet the new boss’ – an ‘interview’ by the editor of The Star, Makhudu Sefara. There were such interviews in a number of the Independent titles, like The Cape Times, Business Report and even in community newspapers. The world has a history of such published selfies. But it does make me uneasy to read the word ‘owner’ in reference to a newspaper. I always thought that media was owned by those who consume it.
What makes me uncomfortable is that although the quantitative numbers point to no change in editorial direction, my gut tells me otherwise. Ultimately, the future of the Independent Group will not be decided by me or any of the other media ‘experts’ and even less by fellow journalists. It will be decided by its readers. If they stop buying or accessing it online, we know something is wrong. But what if that does not happen? What if the readership actually increases? What would that mean for our definition of ‘bias’?
This post was first published in the April 2014 issue of The Media magazine.
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