“The transformation of Independent into a media house that is reporting fairly, objectively, is what the country needs….” Dr Iqbal Survé in an interview with Giuletta Talevi of the Sunday Times Business Times 16/11/2014
“And make no mistake – when the men with guns enter Parliament, the revolution has, in fact, begun.” Richard Poplak, Daily Maverick 17/11/2014
The contrast between the front pages of two morning newspapers in Cape Town, the Cape Times and Die Burger on Friday, 14 November, and the way in which the two newspapers covered the previous night’s mayhem in parliament was stark and telling.
Die Burger devoted the length of its front page to the story with its main photograph superbly capturing the tension, the drama. The Cape Times placed the story beneath the fold and give it the same equivalence as a staff dispute at the Cape Town Chamber of Commerce. There was no photographic reference on the front page of the Cape Times to the tumult in the House – instead there was a photograph of a promising schoolgirl cricketer. Its front page lead story headline trumpeted the allegation that a sjambok attack by a white person on a black person was the “tip of the iceberg” which created the impression that the Mother City was home to probably thousands of such racist whites and that there had been dozens if not hundreds of similar attacks. (The newspaper has provided no evidence to sustain that headline.)
I will attempt to explain this difference by examining the politics behind that front page of the Cape Times, the managerial philosophy which produced it and the role played in this regard by the staff dynamics at Newspaper House. In an article on this website, Chris Whitfield, a former editor of the Cape Times, Cape Argus and Weekend Argus suggested that the Independent Group is “on its knees”. In a recent interview with the SABC, Survé, without a trace of self-consciousness, used the phrase “the Fearless Leader” to describe his stewardship of the company’s titles and suggested that the future of Sekunjalo’s newspapers has never been brighter. Furthermore, he predicted the imminent demise of newspapers like the Sunday Times and Business Day.
The two viewpoints cannot be reconciled because they are mutually contradictory – so who is right?
Editorial after editorial has emphasised the crisis of legitimacy which engulfed parliament two weeks ago. A Business Day editorial succinctly summed up what it called ‘Shameful Thursday’: “At the core of the problem is that the African National Congress (ANC) has been abusing the power that comes with its majority in Parliament for years, a state of affairs that has worsened during the Jacob Zuma presidency and accelerated since Baleka Mbete was made speaker of the National Assembly.”
It is odd, then, that the Cape Times reduced the crisis to a nullity on its front page on 14 November. In doing so, did those responsible not betray the trust of the newspaper’s readers who for more than a century have relied on it to honestly reflect matters of significant historic moment and import?
It was quite clear that the tabling in the National Assembly of the final Nkandla report into upgrades at President Jacob Zuma’s private home on November 13 was going to be exceptionally newsworthy. That is why eNCA and ANN7 – but not, for obvious reasons, the state broadcaster – abandoned normal programming and sacrificed the associated advertising revenue in order to live stream what was happening there. These broadcasts were available to the Cape Times as were the constant tweets from reporters in the House.
Front page travesty
The travesty of a front page they produced the next day was thus no accident, it was intentional and its intention was to withhold from Cape Times readers as much information as possible that was damaging to the ANC in general and to President Jacob Zuma in particular. This was Hlaudi Motsoeneng’s “70% good news” policy writ large – simply another version of the SABC’s routine censorship by omission.
How credible then is Survé’s claim, which anchors this article that his arrival “transformed” the Independent Group “… into a media house that is reporting fairly, objectively…”? The irony is that exactly the opposite has happened.
‘Shameful Thursday’ was simply the outcome, as Business Day pointed out, of years of abuse of parliament by the ANC, a place where some of its members, such as Winnie Mandela, rarely put in an appearance and where others sleep or paint their nails. It was no longer being treated with the respect by the ANC which the party demanded for our president. On their watch it has become dysfunctional, a symbol of exploitation and decay, a place inviting derision. It was not “a good story to tell”. Since then, “Shameful Thursday” the event that the Cape Times considered, in photographic terms, to be less important than a schoolgirl cricketer – has festered on.
Never in a million years would former Cape Times editor, Alide Dasnois and her then deputy Janet Heard, the team that won accolades from Time magazine for their world-class tribute to Nelson Mandela on 6 December last year, have trivialised ‘Shameful Thursday’ in the way their successors did.
One of the many blessings that have been showered upon a grateful nation since Sekunjalo took over the Independent Group is the regular appearance of Q&A interviews with the Fearless Leader. In the Sunday Argus of 23 November it was the turn of the Sunday Tribune’s editor, Aakash Bramdeo, and the headline read, “Best safeguard of editorial freedom is to be fair and balanced”.
How safe is the editorial freedom in the company’s newspapers if the way in which the Cape Times downplayed “Shameful Thursday” is a reliable measure of what those who decide its policies consider “fair and balanced” news coverage?
There were so many unanswered questions about what happened in the House on 13 November that the story cried out for second-phase, investigative journalism and once again the Cape Times was conspicuous by its absence.
What the Cape Times – less than five minutes’ walk from parliament -considered unworthy of a front page lead on 14 November 14 was the front page lead in the Sunday Times and City Press two days later. It was the Sunday Times which revealed that, acting on the orders of President Zuma, the ANC in parliament planned for the presence of police in the building and the cutting of the parliamentary television and audio feed at the precise moment that the heavily-armed riot police attacked opposition politicians.
As Gareth van Onselen put it in his Sunday Times article: Parliament is now an institution in deep and fundamental crisis. His statement was given historical context in the same edition of the newspaper: For the first time since apartheid Prime Minister Hendrik Verwoerd was assassinated in 1966, police officers entered the chamber during a sitting.
It was left to Paul Vecchiatto of Business Day on Tuesday, November 18, to reveal that Mbete had not only failed to act on recommendations presented to her by Parliament’s administration following the August 21 disruption to the National Assembly by Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) MPs but that she had also failed to consult political parties on the proposals.
So where was the Cape Times in all of this? Is there anybody of consequence left in that newsroom who can undertake the necessary investigative work.
Since his takeover of the Independent Group it has, in little more than a year, lost the institutional memory ( “which is such an important variable in a dynamic and fast paced newsroom” ) of the following staff members: editors Alide Dasnois, Chris Whitfield, Makhudu Sefara, Philani Mgwaba and Moshoeshoe Monare, managing editor Martine Barker, content editor Glenn Bownes, training editor Jonathan Ancer, assistant editors Janet Heard and Lizeka Mda, news editors A’eysha Kassiem, Jillian Green and Peter de Ionno, assistant news editor Sybrand Mostert, copy taster Ethene Zinn, columnists Donwald Pressly, Wendy Knowler, Anne Crotty and Terry Bell, senior writer Shaun Smilie, reporters Murray Williams, Zara Nicholson, Carryn Dolley, Cobus Coetzee, Tanya Farber, Piet Rampedi and Michelle Jones, as well as Independent’s production head Dave Chambers, Gauteng circulation editor Pierre Joubert and Western Cape circulation manager Graham Shaw.
The latest loss of institutional memory comes with the departure of veteran struggle journalist, Tony Weaver who leaves Newspaper House for the last time today.
That’s 34 people in a single year.
The resultant decay at Newspaper House is tangible. A few months ago I approached the photographic department in that building as I wished to purchase, from its archive, pictures of the flood that devastated Bredasdorp and its surrounds in 2005. I was not able to acquire them. Shortly before his death earlier this year, Dr Alan Macmohan, an extraordinary and visionary man who was instrumental in saving thousands of lives, also approached the Newspaper House photographic archives to obtain pictures for a book he was writing. Like me, he was unsuccessful. Capetonians are thus deprived of yet another benefit which the Cape Times and the Cape Argus have provided for nigh on a century.
Sales of the Independent’s newspapers have declined across the board. The Cape Argus sales have fallen to 29 004 from 30 777 and the Cape Times to 31 548 from 32 435. The Star has suffered a significant decline to 84 785 from 100 804 and The Pretoria News sales have declined to 15 124 from 17 194. The Daily News has fallen to 27 989 from 30 538 and The Mercury to 27 392 from 28 646. Isolezwe sales have dropped from to 101 584 from 108 484.
The same pattern is reflected in the company’s weekend newspapers. Pretoria News Saturday sales have dropped to 8 034 from 10 515. The Saturday Star is down to 62 514 from 73 408. Weekend Argus sales have dropped to 54 516 from 57 022. The Sunday Tribune is down to 65 378 from 70 167. Isolezwe ngeSonto sales have declined to 82 292 from 84 726 and Isolezwe ngoMgqibelo to 74 195 from 78 772.
How credible then is the word of the “Fearless Leader” or, to put it another way, who do you believe – him or Chris Whitfield and Stephen Mulholland?
Want to continue this conversation on The Media Online platforms? Comment on Twitter @MediaTMO or on our Facebook page. Send us your suggestions, comments, contributions or tip-offs via e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.