Judge us by what we deliver in our papers, not preconceived notions, says Cape Times editor Gasant Abarder, writing a “deeply personal” piece on why readers should continue to support his paper.
Helen doesn’t call me any more… and it hurts. When I was editor of the Cape Argus from 2009 to 2013, Western Cape premier Helen Zille called me regularly and I had a line to her as well. Our exchanges were robust and frank as it should be, and I would often concede to her well-argued points when the paper got it wrong
I dreaded the call because Helen was often right (also because sometimes it was at inconvenient times), but it was a necessary engagement with an important person in this province.
At times, our very frank encounters would lead to a front-page lead that Helen (yes, we were on a first-name basis) so astutely set me on to.
Junior reporters will know the call from Helen well. In newsroom circles it’s known as “being Zille’d”. She would impart her knowledge of journalism if she thought a report didn’t meet the standard. Though I welcomed the engagement, I always offered the rider afterwards to Helen that the engagement should be with me as editor and not junior reporters (they were terrified and intimidated).
A former editor of a newspaper once admitted to me that he no longer wrote critical stories about Helen for fear of that call. But our’s was a relationship, I’d like to think, of mutual respect.
When I rejoined Independent Media as Cape Times editor, under a cloud, Helen never called again. I left Eyewitness News (EWN) as Cape Town news editor before my notice period ended and was branded an “absconder”.
I had chosen not to serve out my notice period (which by law should have been two weeks), but the management there demanded that I serve out two months as my contract stipulated.
They threatened legal action – which never came to fruition – and disclosed publicly private and confidential information regarding my employment which should never have been made public as it breached the relationship between employer and employee.
The truth is that I was deeply uncomfortable at EWN because I felt I didn’t cut it professionally and felt out of my depth. As predominantly a print journalist, who had previously dabbled in TV, radio was a bridge too far. Those who bothered to get my side of the story were sufficiently satisfied with my explanation.
But Helen and others, the former who now has made up her mind that Independent Media is a mouthpiece for the ANC, didn’t call. And that’s okay. I had in any event intended to illustrate that I was not an ANC lackey (as some on social media have described me) through my work.
In December last year, I made the decision to let go of a few columnists and retain others. The offering of columnists was not diverse enough and often they would have the same thing to say on any given issue with seldom a contest of ideas.
Max du Preez was one of the columnists I chose to retain because I believe he is one of South Africa’s pre-eminent commentators and is not afraid to call it like it is. I am sorry Max doesn’t write for the Cape Times any longer. Unfortunately, Max and others have used his resignation to further deep-seated prejudices about Independent, its owner and editorial teams.
Like Max, there are others who I let go who I still have high regard for. I decided to write them a short note to inform them that their columns would be discontinued. I realise now that perhaps I should have been more forthright instead of having my regard for them get in the way.
So how, as former MEC Robin Carlise asked on the Cape Times letters page, did I go from making the list of the Mail & Guardian’s prestigious 200 Young South Africans in 2013 to misfit in a few short months? How did I go from an editor who helped unearth the truth about brown envelope journalism at his own newspaper, where reporters were allegedly paid to pursue a political agenda of an ANC premier, to ANC lackey and Zuma apologist?
Then and now I still employ the same value system and ethics that guide me as an editor. Is it because I work at Independent and so in the reckoning of very educated people – who have been at pains to paint us as on the side of the governing party of the day – I must be blindly loyal to the ANC and cover all the party does in this way? That is an insult to me and the editors in this group as well as the many other journalists who work here and share the same values.
I decided to write this deeply personal piece because I am concerned that a number of our readers are threatening to cancel their subscriptions based on damaging misconceptions of what they believe is the truth. It is because influential people have placed a narrative in the public domain that the Cape Times and Independent Media are embedded with the ANC and this can no longer go unchallenged.
To our readers: I implore you to judge us on the work we deliver. To our detractors: I challenge you to show where the Cape Times has become an ANC paper, or partial to any other political party or organisation for that matter. I would even go further and invite them to put their claims to the test and have the body of work of the Cape Times peer-reviewed since the time that Dr Iqbal Survé became owner.
Of course, we get it wrong. But I am confident that we have always strived to be fair, balanced and impartial.
But Helen, there’s a quicker way: just pick up the phone. I am happy, as always, to take the call.
Gasant Abarder (@gasantabarder) is editor of the Cape Times. This post is republished with his permission.
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