The battle between Independent Media and the Mail & Guardian is far from over. Last week, the tussle between the two newspapers entered an even more acrimonious stage when both issued statements that fanned the flames of the very public ‘war of words’.
M&G owner Trevor Ncube responded to a story in The Star about the newspaper’s allegedly precarious financial position. Independent Media’s editorial head, Karima Brown, hit back standing by the story. The M&G followed up with a humorous skit on Pimples showing its CEO, Hoosain Karjieker, begging for money at a robot with the kicker: “Holy flounders! Has the Brown stuff hit the fan for local media? Find out on Pimples.”
Then, not to be outdone, Independent’s elusive deputy executive chairman, issued a statement via Sapa saying the group would “not be intimidated or deterred by the actions and reporting of the Mail & Guardian and other competitors on the steps we are openly taking to transform our business from a legacy print-media company into a growth-focused, proud multi-platform media and content company”.
The open antagonism between the newspaper, and previous swipes between Independent and Times Media Group, are unprecedented in the history of South African newspapers. It has inspired much discussion amongst journalists, editors, media commentators and a Facebook group called ‘SA Journos from the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s – and beyond’ – and not much of it complimentary. The gist of the arguments from those on the ground is, ‘Do readers really care about what goes on inside newspapers or is this a spat between owners all battling for the same advertising buck?’ Judging by the commentary by readers below stories most of them do. They want to be able to trust their newspapers, and the mudslinging is damaging that trust.
Howard in his statement says Independent Media is simply trying to build “a sustainable modern media business”. The “obsession” of the M&G with the changes taking place at Independent are “surprising and somewhat sinister”, Howard said. He is clear that he believes it is the competitive nature of publishing that has led to this out-and-out warfare. “The Mail & Guardian, in particular, has been relentless in the pursuit of this sinister agenda against Independent. The Mail & Guardian has also not shied away from using its editorial space to pursue what are corporate interests against Independent,” Howard wrote.
Of course media owners are hugely concerned about advertising, the lifeblood of print publications that is slowly flowing out of newspaper and magazine titles, drop by drop.
The Mail & Guardian has those issues to deal with as much as TMG, Caxton or Independent. Which is no doubt why Ncube’s response to The Star story was also distributed to media agencies and advertising agencies to reassure them the paper was definitely open for business.
Independent Media, meanwhile, has to contend with major staffing issues such as the loss of a group of editors, some of whom have resigned (like the award-winning former editor of The Star, Makhudu Sefara) and others who were fired, such as former Cape Times editor, Alide Dasnois, the repercussions of which are ongoing.
The Open Democracy Advice Centre (ODAC), an advocacy group that has also fallen foul of Independent Media, is representing Dasnois. ODAC is raising funds for Dasnois’ Labour Court challenge, and is accused of misquoting Independent Media’s head of the disciplinary committee dealing with the Dasnois case, director Takudzwa Hove.
In a letter to ODAC, and other publications that quoted Tilley’s statement, Independent Media’s chief of staff, Zenariah Barends, writes that Dasnois’ dismissal had nothing to do with her decision to run a story about a Public Protector report on Sekunjalo and everything to do with a “failure to lead editorially with the biggest story in the world at the time that was one of the reasons for her ultimate dismissal”. The story, of course, was the death of Nelson Mandela. Barends says Dasnois’ “redeployment from the Cape Times had been contemplated and discussed by management weeks before her conduct on 5/6 December 2013”.
Barends said Dasnois’ dismissal was “a matter of misconduct and incompatibility/incapacity in the workplace. It has no bearing on the ‘the balancing of the rights of media owners, and media workers’, nor is the right to freedom of expression implicated, as you allege”.
In the statement, Tilley said ODAC believed the Dasnois case “is important in establishing the rights of editors and journalists to publish what is in the public’s right to know. It will be an important test case around the balancing of the rights of media owners, and media workers”.
Barends said Dasnois’ failure to lead with the story of Mandela’s death was “gross dereliction of duty”. “The Cape Times was the only major Independent Newspapers title that failed to lead editorially with Mandela’s death on 6 December 2013. The use of the wrapper also materially delayed the distribution of the paper and entailed significant additional, unnecessary cost,” she said.
Tilley did not respond to questions regarding the letter from Independent Media.
In the meantime, Howard says the basis for the Mail & Guardian’s antipathy towards Independent Media is rooted in the fact that Ncube wanted to buy three of the group’s titles last year before Sekunjalo won the bid to buy the group.
“When Mr Ncube failed to acquire a portion of Independent, the Mail &Guardian started a disinformation campaign against Independent and Sekunjalo, running a series of poorly researched, unsubstantiated stories casting aspersions on Sekunjalo, its chairman, Independent and its employees, and our shareholders,” he says.
He accuses Ncube of being “disingenuous,” in “trying to create the impression that he has spoken to Dr Surve or Independent has called him, and alleging that we have tried to ‘stop’ his journalists from writing negative stories. We can categorically state that the last direct conversation between Dr Surve and Mr Ncube took place last year shortly following our company’s acquisition by Sekunjalo, and it concerned only Mr Ncube’s failed attempt to buy three Independent titles”.
And that, says Howard, is that. The Group will no longer comment on any issue relating to Independent Media. “The redesign of our business is an internal matter and we will deal with it in this manner, respecting the rights and privacy of our employees -as well as the company’s and shareholder’s rights to re-engineer the business to meet the needs of transforming the business into a modern media and content company,” he said.
The ball is back in Ncube’s court.
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