Independent Media’s chief of staff has accused Professor Anton Harber and Business Day of an “unwarranted attack” on the group and of pursuing “one narrative” after the newspaper published a column by Harber, headlined ‘Space for critical press shrinking by the day’.
Harber commented on an disciplinary hearing being held into charges of gross insubordination against veteran Cape Times columnist, editor and journalist, Tony Weaver. He he reportedly queried if it was ethical to crop a news photograph showing the logo of a big advertiser.
“In effect, he faces possible dismissal for trying to make the newspaper pay attention to the Press Code, which bars the wilful distortion of a news photograph, particularly for commercial benefit,” Harber wrote.
But Independent Media chief of staff Zenariah Barends struck back in a letter to the newspaper in which she claimed Harber himself had contravened the Press Code by analysing one side of the story. “The very Press Code he references notes that comment should be fair, balanced and based on facts – not half-truths or one side of a story. One has to fear for the students under his guidance,” Barends said in a letter to the editor.
Barends said it was a “delicious irony” that Harber had made “himself guilty of the very thing he claims to deplore”.
“Independent encourages constructive debate from its editorial staff in the newsroom. We expect, however, the debate to be conducted in a professional and respectful manner that isn’t destructive to the working relationships and dynamics of our team,” she said.
“The facts are that a staff member is being disciplined not for questioning a decision but for the contempt it is alleged he showed for his editor – something that has been alleged to be a pattern. One wonders if the editor Business Day or any other publication would tolerate such ‘white-anting’ of its editors. But then, what are a few facts when it doesn’t fit the narrative?”
Harber in his opinion piece said he could “think of many cases of where journalists should be charged with gross subordination. But then some editors and managers want compliant journalists rather than those who have a view and are prepared to argue it — in other words, show the qualities to make good journalism.
“Ethical journalism begins with newsroom debate on the rules, so suppressing a questioning journalist is a critical moment in the decline of ethical rules and professional practices,” he wrote.
Barends in her letter said Business Day had “little regard for the facts” and that Harber’s column was “yet again an unwarranted attack on Independent in a competitor publication that doesn’t bother to hear both sides of the story or even strive for balance. Business Day has had it wrong in the past on issues involving Independent and the dismissal of the former Cape Times editor. They showed that they had little regard for the facts, for which they have been ordered by the Press Ombudsman to apologise”.
But Harber wasn’t only pointing fingers at Independent Media, although he used the Weaver case as an example. He said the Weaver story was “one of many in recent times that indicate that the space for independent, critical media is under siege. Newsrooms are facing a combination of financial difficulty and pressure from the ruling party, its allies and state institutions, which are subsidising friendly media and becoming increasingly hostile to those who ask hard questions”.
He said Weaver was one of many journalists being pushed out of Independent as “part of what is presented as a transformation drive. A number of those are left-leaning and have struggle histories, but have shown reluctance to fall into line”.
IMAGE: R2K demonstration outside Independent Media in Cape Town.
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