The spat between the Mail & Guardian and Independent Newspapers took a new turn this week when the weekly’s owner, Trevor Ncube, decided to respond himself to rumours that his newspaper is experiencing financial difficulties. But his words were barely cold when Independent Newspapers hit back, calling him a liar. TheMediaOnline reports.
The statement from Trevor Ncube landed in newsrooms on Tuesday. This came after The Star newspaper, owned by Independent, which is owned by Iqbal Surve, ran a report on Friday that the Mail & Guardian did not have money to pay its staffers’ salaries. According to The Star, this was because its operations in Zimbabwe were draining its funds. Asked by other media houses to respond, the Mail & Guardian’s CEO Hoosain Karjieker denied this, and raised his suspicions over the timing of The Star’s report. Turns out, M&G reporters that week asked questions to Independent Newspapers about the stream of senior journalists and editors leaving the company.
Ncube himself remained quiet on Friday, but when The Star ran another similar story this week, he decided to make a public statement, casting serious doubt over Surve’s respect for editorial independence.
“A pattern is emerging that every time the Mail & Guardian contacts Dr Iqbal Surve, executive chairman of Independent News and Media, South Africa (INMSA), or his executives, for a comment on a story they are working on it is turned into an opportunity to attack me or my publications,”said Ncube.
When the Mail & Guardian last year asked questions about how Surve funded the acquisition of Independent Newspapers, Surve responded by claiming the Mail & Guardian was being funded by the Central Intelligence Agency in the United States, an allegation yet to be proved.
Ncube said the same seemed to have happened last Friday, adding that no effort had been made by Independent Newspapers to get comment from him on its report.
“Sometime last year Dr Surve called and, among other things, asked that I talk to the M&G Investigative Unit, and tell them not to work on stories relating to the acquisition of INMSA. I told him I couldn’t do this as I don’t tell our journalists what to write and what not to write. He seemed very surprised,” said Ncube.
He added, “We don’t tell our journalists which stories to write and which ones to kill. We employ professional journalists and then let them do their work to the best of their ability. This will remain the way of our journalism for as long as I have anything to do with these two great companies.“
Ncube’s words must have hurt. Independent Newspapers group executive editor Karima Brown responded the next day with a statement running over 1000 words, accusing him of deflecting from the real issues.
“He (Ncube) adopts the strategy of deflection which is common to all those who have something to hide, trying to make the issue about the motives of those who dare ask questions, rather than the questions themselves,” said Brown.
“Most disturbing however – and the reason I have elected to respond publicly rather than just ignore this obvious and feeble attempt at obfuscation – is that Mr Ncube has called to question the integrity and professionalism of the Independent journalists who have produced our stories on his businesses.
“Moreover, he has proven that he is not averse to telling the odd bare-faced lie in his defence,” said Brown.
She said that the reports by Independent Newspapers were sourced from current and former staffers, and she insisted that their reporters did try and contact Ncube for comment.
“Mr Ncube has used cash from the M&G to subsidise AMH [Alpha Media Holdings in Zimbabwe], according to sources who currently work or have worked at the M&G. This has led to non-payment or late payment of staff, contributors, suppliers and other financial obligations.“
As for the Mail & Guardian’s so-called financial woes, Ncube – whose company early this year launched a new online Africa platform – said of its operations in Zimbabwe: “Like all companies in Zimbabwe”, it was “dealing with the challenges of an economy in free fall”.
“We are confident we have the talent, experience and brands to see us through Zimbabwe’s worst economic crisis…The M&G is operating under the same economic conditions as the rest of the industry, and continues to operate successfully as one of the key independent media voices in South Africa.”
But Brown warned this was not nearly the end of it.
“Our stories are legitimate inquiries into the financial health of an important South African newspaper and whether it is safe in Mr Ncube’s hands. The stories were well sourced, well researched, balanced, fair and written with due care for the interests of people who still suffer the effects of Mr. Ncube’s alleged bleeding of the paper.
“Since publishing our stories last week and earlier this week, we have received other leads. We will continue to do our jobs as journalists without fear or favour. We will investigate what we think is a worthwhile story, we will bring everything we learn to our readers and to the broader public, and we will not be intimidated by Mr. Ncube’s intemperate insults.
“As someone who speaks in very glowing terms about himself, his history as a journalist and his supposed commitment to the most basic tenets of our profession, I hope Mr. Ncube can understand our stance.”
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