The Sunday Times and The Times have retrenched an unprecedented 11 photographers. Former Cape Times editor Alide Dasnois has now been fired by Independent Newspapers as the group finally admits it WAS the Sekunjalo story that made them mad. And a long-serving chief sub editor of the Cape Times, Glen Bownes, was unceremoniously marched out of Newspaper House in much the same way that The Mercury editor, Philani Mgwaba, was herded out of Independent Newspaper’s Durban newsroom a few weeks ago.
Clearly, it’s not a great time to be a journalist or photographer in South Africa’s big media groups. The print media companies, reeling from a doubly whammy of declining ad spend and rocky sales, are targeting content providers. Writing in Business Day recently, Professor Anton Harber suggested newspapers that invested heavily in compelling content are those that will survive and grow. “Local newsrooms have still been in a phase of cutbacks and consolidation, rather than investment in the future,” he wrote.
Mike Robertson, managing director of Times Media Group’s media operations, told The Media Online the “principal objective” for retrenching the group of photographers was to “extract efficiencies out of the two operations. We will make some savings but there will also be re-investment into other areas”. He said The Times was showing a growth in circulation and the Sunday Times “has had remarkably steady core sales”.
The move to retrenchment came as a surprise to the photographers, particularly in the Cape Town bureau which they’d understood would be growing rather than cutting back. Only one photographer, Esa Alexander, now services both titles in the Western Cape. In Johannesburg, the papers have two picture editors – veterans John Hogg and Ruvan Boshoff – and a night picture editor for The Times and four photographers. The Durban bureau also has just one photographer on staff.
Done and dusted in four weeks
“It was done and dusted in just four weeks,” a source told The Media Online. “The photographers were all called to a meeting, and those from the bureaux flown up. The company didn’t put one foot wrong legally. Staff were told it was for financial reasons, that sales were down and the group had to cut staff costs. The photographers were given good payouts – more than the law requires – and told they could have their equipment if they didn’t challenge the retrenchments. Of course they took the equipment. They have to freelance now and they need it.”
The source said some photographers brought up what they saw as the “top heavy” management of the pics department “and things got heavy”.
“There are separate desks serving each title, hence the number of desk people. I wasn’t involved in the discussions so can’t comment on whether ‘things got heavy’,” said Robertson.
Robertson said those retrenched would be offered freelance work but a source said the photographers were warned that the company retained the right to use any freelancers they wanted, and that the former employees would not receive preferential treatment. But Robertson said it was the company’s intention to prefer their previous employees.
Asked whether the quality of pics would deteriorate without dedicated and in some cases, award winning, photographers well versed in both titles’ needs, Robertson said that on the contrary, “we believe we will be get better pictures as continued employment as freelancers will be dependent on the quality of pictures produced”.
Robertson said it was true that the Cape Town bureau was being beefed up. “We are hiring more writers as there was an imbalance towards photographers and sub-editors in our newspaper operations as a whole. However we will continue to hire freelance photographers as and when we need them,” he said.
Asked the titles would now be using more photographs from agencies such as Reuters, not always a cheap option, Robertson this was not the intention.
Dasnois fired, takes case to Labour Court
Meanwhile, Alide Dasnois, who was sacked as editor of the Cape Times by Dr Iqbal Survé in December 2013, has now been fired from the Independent Group. Dasnois famously wrapped the Cape Times in a tribute to Mandela the morning after his death, leading the actual paper with a story on the Public Protector report on Sekunjalo – the new owners of the Independent Group. Dasnois’ Mandela wrap was voted one of the top 15 media memorials to Mandela by TIME magazine.
“We believe that the dismissal of Dasnois, who has worked on five of the Group’s publications, on three of them as editor, and who was awarded the 2014 Nat Nakasa award for courage and integrity in journalism, has created a chilling effect among the editors and journalists in the Independent Group.” said Alison Tilley, of the Open Democracy Advice Centre, in a statement.
Independent Newspapers director Takudzwa Hove, in his finding against Dasnois, wrote that the “decision not to lead editorially with Mandela’s death was most probably influenced by personal feelings against her new employer hence the publication of the Public Protector’s report as a lead story on the day.
“It’s been demonstrated in testimony that there was a deliberate attempt to tarnish Sekunjalo and your actions plus those of other senior members and reporters… brings into question your integrity and that that of some senior members of the Cape Times newsroom.
“This demonstrates lack of professional judgment and integrity in that you failed put aside personal feelings ahead of the interests of the readers of the newspapers by not running the most newsworthy story of the day”.
Fear and loathing
There has been a systemic purge of journalists and editors ever since that day, with the latest being Glen Bownes, long-serving chief sub editor of the Cape Times.
Veteran journalist and media trainer Raymond Joseph tweeted on Wednesday, “Fear & loathing stalk corridors of #IndySA: Glen Bownes, long serving @CapeTimesSA chief sub, was yesterday escorted out of the building.” To which one of his followers, Ben Pooler, replied: “It’s been more than a week since the last firing / resignation. I thought @IqbalSurve was losing his touch.”
Award-winning editor of The Star, Makhudu Sefara, resigned last week just shortly after The Mercury editor Philani Mgwaba left the group.
Dasnois is not taking her dismissal lying down. She has started legal proceedings in the Labour Court. Tilley said Dasnois would allege Independent Newspapers displayed “discriminatory conduct and violation of her right to free speech and editorial independence. She has been advised by her lawyers not to talk directly to the media at this stage of proceedings”.
The ODAC is also fundraising for Dasnois’ legal costs as it believes her 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,” Tilley said.
“If we can find 100 people who can each give the Dasnois fund R1000, we can seek matching and other funds from donors, and have good prospects of running a solid case.” said Tilley. “ODAC, a registered non profit, will facilitate collecting funds for the litigation,” she said. “ODAC works in the areas of access to information and whistleblowing, and believes that the right to freedom of expression in the workplace is key to transparency and accountability, in government and in business.”
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IMAGE: The Times