OPINION: What does Shoprite CEO Whitey Basson apparently feel so insecure about that he needs to keep an iron fist over what’s written about him? Rob Rose takes a look.
A few weeks ago, this newspaper [Sunday Times] published an interview with Basson in which he displayed the famously direct approach that makes his year-end results presentations such a hit with analysts. He spoke, engagingly, of Eskom (his biggest headache), why Shoprite is more optimistic about Nigeria than South Africa and the recent dip in Shoprite’s stock (“I know the price of chickens, not Shoprite shares”).
But what was curious was that Basson’s minders demanded to see the article ahead of print — and to make changes should they deem it necessary.
Top media outlets such as the Financial Times, Bloomberg, The Guardian and The New York Times forbid this sort of “pre-publication review”. But in South Africa, this insidious practice, which helps companies spin their messages and censor embarrassing information, has gained traction.
Alarmingly, Adele Gouws, Shop-rite’s media liaison, said most South African financial journalists agreed to a “read-back”. “It’s just been the way we’ve worked, and the way, I think, a lot of people worked,” she said.
Which might partly explain why you don’t see too many critical pieces about Basson or Shoprite – be it on the R627-million package he took home a few years ago, or its labour practices. What you won’t struggle to find are plenty of puff pieces about the cult of Whitey and his spell book of retail wizardry. It will have helped that Shoprite has done thumpingly well — its share price is up 95% over the past five years — which has warded off the worst criticism anyway.
But beyond Shoprite, if people are looking for a reason that many journalists act as cheerleaders for CEOs, and why scrutiny of the private sector is a damn sight tamer than that of the public sector, this is a good place to start.
Wits journalism professor Anton Harber says sending someone a full draft of a story for “review” is “tantamount to giving the company or institution a veto over it, and this is not healthy”. Harber adds that it’s an “unfortunate development” that journalists at many financial publications are now routinely sending stories back to companies.
“Too often, people want to change what was said or influence the way the story is told … it favours the company or institution over their customers or critics, who seldom get the same treatment,” he says.
James Lamont, MD of the Financial Times, says his publication doesn’t share copy before publication. This is “international good practice in journalism and most respected media organisations will resist it”, says Lamont.
Locally, it’s been a grey area, especially in business journalism, where most have done it.
In the old days, Financial Mail staff were routinely told to send their stories to sources, lest there be egregious errors — a sentiment that shifted as the ethical implications set in.
In 2012, there was an uproar in the US when it emerged that a Washington Post reporter had sent a story to an institution it was reporting on, then made crucial edits.
The paper’s former executive editor Marcus Brauchli said, “It is against our policy to share drafts of entire stories” — except with permission. “Some reporters share sections of stories with sources before publication, to ensure accuracy on technical points.”
For the sake of technical accuracy, in some cases sharing excerpts with sources may be okay. But when PR agencies or companies such as Shoprite make absurd demands as a quid pro quo for “access” to their CEO, who has a duty under the King code to be transparent with the media anyway, they should be laughed off.
Anything else is cheating your readers, who expect warts-and-all independent news — not the official signed-off PR spin.
Gouws claims that if people refuse the request, “that won’t stop us doing interviews, of course not” — even though this is the clear implication.
Other companies are less subtle: agreement on this point is a make-or-break rule for interviews.
It should be resisted. Newspapers are facing a squeeze as advertising migrates to the internet and circulation dwindles. The last thing they should be doing is willingly sacrificing their advantage of independence and setting themselves up as competitors to any company’s official website.
This post was first published in Sunday Times Business Times and is republished here with the permission of the author. Follow him on Twitter @robrose_za
* Opinions expressed in posts published on The Media Online are not necessarily those of Wag the Dog Publishers or the editor but contribute to the diversity of voices in South Africa.
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