OPINION: “So much for their engagement with readers and subscribers.” Capetonian Sandra Hewitson writing about the numerous letters from herself and her husband complaining about the decline in the quality and ethical standard of the Cape Times which were never published. Ed Herbst analyses a whole bunch of (unpublished by the Cape Times) letters to the editor.
When Western Cape Premier Helen Zille announced, after the “Baby Thomas” plagiarism scandal in the Cape Times that provincial government departments had been advised not to renew their subscriptions to the newspaper when they expired, the South African National Editors’ Forum, Sanef, was quick to respond. She should write to the editor, was their advice and their panacea.
What was clear was that they hadn’t read the memo. When the provincial health department communicated with the newspapers’ recently–appointed editor, Aneez Salie because they wanted to assist the alleged alcoholic mother and her child, tragically impaired by foetal alcohol syndrome, his response was a single word, “No!”
I decided to research a timeline of people who had written to the newspaper since the Sekunjalo takeover little more than a year ago and not had their letters published. During that research it became obvious to me that there was a huge gulf between the inspiring statements of Dr Iqbal Survé, which emphasised the need for the Indy titles to serve the common weal through a constant dialogue with customers, and what was happening in practice under Aneez Salie and his predecessor, Gasant Abarder. In essence, this article asks why Survé is doing nothing about the fact that the editors at the Cape Times are, with callous and contemptuous indifference, routinely ignoring one of his core principles of ethical news gathering and dissemination – the right of reply.
Most of the letters are on the internet or on social media, one was sent to me by an acquaintance.
24 December 2014
The most significant letter in this regard appeared in Die Burger on Christmas eve last year. It came from the much-loved, former Cape Times columnist John Scott, whose columns are now carried – in English – in Die Burger. Early in the morning on that day a translation of the letter was posted on social media. It related to the tenure of then Cape Times editor, Gasant Abarder.
John Scott’s column PS is terminated
After a 48-year association with the Cape Times, in a variety of positions, including editor, I was notified a fortnight ago in a two-line email that my weekly column, PS, was being dropped “with immediate effect”.
The current editor explained that they were busy “refreshing” contributions by columnists
That is all well and good, even though there are more refined ways of personally communicating this sort of information to someone who has committed virtually his entire professional career to the newspaper
What I find very disturbing, however, is that not only did the newspaper not inform its reading public of the fact that my column would no longer, after many years, be published but that it also refused to publish letters enquiring about the column’s absence.
I thus respectfully request that Die Burger (which I have long regarded as an outstanding newspaper,) publish this letter in the interests of all Cape Times readers who understand Afrikaans.
20 February 2015
On 20 February an article quoting Abarder’s successor, Aneez Salie, appeared on the front page of the Cape Times under the headline ‘Sales show reader loyalty to Cape Times.’
“The Cape Times ended 2014 with a circulation of 31 930 holding steady with its readership base in a very tough environment.
“This is marginally down by 681 copies over the corresponding period of 32 611 in 2013 but encouragingly up by 382 copies on the 31 548 copies sold in that preceding quarter of last year.”
The same claim was made by Zenariah Barends, chief of staff at Independent Media. At 5:53 in this interview with Stephen Grootes on Cape Talk 702 she says: “In fact the circulation of the Cape Times has increased. It is one of the few newspapers where circulation has actually increased in the last while.”
On 19 February, the day before Salie made his claims, Audit Bureau of Circulation (ABC) figures posted on Gill Moodie’s Grubstreet website, seemed to tell a different story and this prompted Christine Pulvermacher of Vredehoek to write the following letter to the newspaper. It was not published.
Please do not misinform your readers about the Cape Times’ performance by selectively quoting circulation figures (Cape Times Feb 20).
You correctly state that the newspaper had ended 2014 with a circulation of 31 930 (Q4), marginally down by 681 copies daily, which you say is doing well in a tough trading environment.
But you fail to mention that 2 537 copies of that total figure are from sales below 50% of cover price – a new way brought in to bulk up sales at Independent titles.
This from an analysis of the Q4 ABC figures by Marklives.com:
Daily newspaper circulation fell to 1 537 302 from 1 600 667 from the previous corresponding reporting period (Q4 2013). The ABC points out that distribution below 50% of cover price has increased by 36% during the same period.
Most of that 36% growth seems to be driven by two Independent Newspapers titles — The Cape Times and The Cape Argus — following a strategy already employed by its Johannesburg title, The Star.
All three titles had shown declines in copy sales when compared to the previous quarter. The Cape Times, which has been wracked by firings and resignations, fell to 14 168 from 16 212.
According to the ABC statistics, 2 537 of Cape Times sales was for sales at under 50% of the cover price (up from 0 in the previous quarter). This allowed it to ‘maintain’ circulation figures from the previous quarter.
Your newspaper also lost over 1 100 individual subscriptions (10 648 to 9 514)
What is striking here is the loss of 1 100 individual subscriptions in a year – that alone is clear proof that the business trust, the social contract, which Survé considers an imperative link between business and the public it serves (described later in this article) is increasingly being sundered at the Cape Times.
15 March 2015
In response to Helen Zille’s article on Politicsweb about the blatant and brazen plagiarism in the Baby Thomas article, Capetonian Horst Kleinschmidt posted a comment.
His post referred to the experience with the newspaper of a friend and neighbour, Solveig Kjeseth and and what was significant was that he not only stated that he was cancelling his subscription to the Cape Times but he urged others to follow his example.
As background: I interacted with Horst a decade ago when I was a reporter with SABC TV news in Cape Town and he worked at the Department of Sea Fisheries when it was still a reputable institution. I found him to be a low-key, straight-arrow person who I, from the start, instinctively trusted. It was only later that I discovered the exceptional role he had played in the Struggle as an anti-apartheid activist. Putting his life at risk, Kleinschmidt led the International Defence and Aid Fund from 1979 to 1991 and his work was recognised in 1999 when he was decorated with the Order of the Polar Star, Sweden’s highest award to foreigners. In announcing the award, Swedish ambassador Bo Heineback said the Order of the Polar Star was only given to people “… of high talent and intellect, to someone of impeccable character.”
The fact that such a person should not only end his subscription to the Cape Times but urge others to do the same is enormously symbolic. I see it as a further example of the way in which the liberal left has become disillusioned with the Zuma administration. It is an echo, if you will, of the ‘Vote No’ campaign by Ronnie Kasrils and other Struggle era veterans because, like Kasrils, he emphasises that he is not advocating support for the Democratic Alliance. This is not a political call but a profoundly principled call for what is right.
Here is Kleinschmidt’s letter in which he quotes the experience of a friend and neighbour Solveig Kjeseth with the Cape Times and he also quotes the typically discourteous, ungracious and ungrammatical response which Kjeseth got from the Salie – something that Sanef will hopefully take cognisance of.
Horst Kleinschmidt writes:
I’ve stopped my subscriptions to the Cape Times also. Here is another reason why others should follow: (For the record I don’t vote for the DA).
Aneez Salie, the Cape Times editor responded to my friend Solveig Kjeseth as follows: “Thank you. Now . .more that I’ve considered your letter I’m not prepared to publish it because it is (sic) lies”.
This is the letter that Solveig Kjeseth wanted the Cape Times to publish:
I’ve just read the editorial (Monday, March 2, 2015) in the new “independent” Cape Times, proclaiming a “Giant leap for Africans and media”.
We are told it is “a historic day for all of Africa” as the African News Agency (ANA) has started operating.
The Cape Times editorial went on to congratulate those responsible for the formation of ANA. It is a “leap forward” for Africans and their media. “Now we Africans can tell our own stories.”
I wondered who it might be that was responsible for this change.
A simple Google brought the answer. A news release from SAPA on February 5th, 2015, revealed that the new agency is backed by Dr. Iqbal Surve, chairman of Sekunjalo Investment Holdings. A follow-up ANA release on February 10th indicated that top African investors have put $20 million into the new venture.
In other words, Dr. Surve and his cronies undercut the financial support for SAPA in 2013 and 2014. No non-profit organization can survive in the face of an attack like that. SAPA went into “voluntary” liquidation, its staff was retrenched.
Mr. Surve and his Sekunjalo Investments (with Chinese and government connections) are the people who bought out Independent Newspapers, the people who already control much of what we read. Now they have extended their control to SAPA, sorry, ANA. I noticed that this was not mentioned in the editorial.
The “new” Cape Times rejoices that we will no longer be dependent on international news sources. Of course not. Dr Surve, with his close connections to Zuma.org, will tell us what we need to know.
Please cancel my subscription.
17-19 March 2015
On 17 March and 19 March two articles by Sandra Hewitson relating to her perception of a decline in journalistic and ethical standards at the Cape Times appeared on the News 24 website. If you consider such a claim to be without merit or foundation then you have never accessed the Twitter account @waitingducks
In one of the letters she makes a claim of unethical conduct by the newspaper:
When Zille wrote to the editor asking if she could have information regarding the Foetal Alcohol Syndrome article, she received a one word reply; “NO”.
At least she got a reply. I wrote at least seven letters commenting on various biased articles, headlines, omissions etc. None were ever published except for a portion of one, which commended three Cape Times’ articles, and the rest was left out. This may be an editor’s prerogative, but it unfairly changed the main point of the letter (yet the Cape Times complains of Zille’s ‘censorship’?).
When, in disgust, I wrote to the editor directly to complain, I never got an answer. When I informed the editor directly that I was cancelling my subscription, I got no reply.
My husband never writes to a newspaper. When he cancelled his business subscriptions to the Cape Times, he wrote personally to the editor explaining how he felt and why he was doing it. He never got a reply.
Clearly the editor doesn’t care.
So much for their engagement with readers and subscribers.
Let me emphasise the section in Sandra Hewitson’s letter that disturbs me and should disturb Sanef:
“I wrote at least seven letters commenting on various biased articles, headlines, omissions etc. None were ever published except for a portion of one, which commended three Cape Times’ articles, and the rest was left out.” (my emphasis)
Two weeks after the last of these online letters was posted, Salie has not denied Hewitson’s accusation of the deliberate manipulation of her letters to create a favourable but false and seemingly fraudulent impression and one has to ask: How this can be reconciled with the Survé mantra of right of reply and how does Sanef (which has pointedly refused to comment on the blatant and brazen plagiarism in the “Baby Thomas article) see this?
Right of reply
Survé, in several interviews published in Independent Media newspapers, has unequivocally stated that, on his watch, the right of reply is sacrosanct and an indispensable component in maintaining the trust relationship with the South African public which he considers imperative in the current and future success of the newspaper.
Here is how he described Sekunjalo’s social compact with the citizens of this country in an interview with the then editor of The Star, Makhudu Sefara, on 12 February last year. In the interview Survé says: “As a media company, we have a social contract with the people of South Africa. Where is the business sense in destroying that trust relationship? If we do that, we have no business.”
Here is a time line of his statements on the vital need for the right of reply in all the publications he controls:
In his letter to staff on in December 2013 shortly after Sekunjalo took control of the INMSA newspapers Dr Survé said: “More importantly, in our quest for fairness, we should give everyone an opportunity of the right of reply.”
Note the reference to “everyone”.
Interviewed by the current editor of the Cape Times, Dr Survé said:
“There was only one set of instructions: be objective, fair, balanced and give everyone’s point of view”.
Under the headline ‘Best safeguard of editorial freedom is to be fair and balanced’ Dr Survé laudably speaks of bringing dignity to the country and its people, of balanced coverage and of the right of reply.
“The best thing we can do for our democracy and our country is to be balanced, give all points of view, be critical but fair, give the right of reply and to inform.”
Given the concerns of credible people like Kleinschmidt is not fair to ask whether Survé’s laudable ideals are being realised at the Cape Times at the moment?
The ‘must ask’ question, then, is: What is the de facto managerial ethos that prevails at Newspaper House in Cape Town now that the Sekunjalo has taken control?
Zille speaks of this ethos in her second article about the Baby Thomas plagiarism scandal, referring specifically to “…Salie’s use of the race card and rudeness to his readers, to defend shoddy reporting.”
She cites a specific and very disturbing example and this relates specifically to the Sanef suggestion that she should resolve her concerns about the Cape Times by communicating with its editor.
“Take the scathing email Salie sent to a Cape Town engineer, John Carver, after he wrote a short letter to the newspaper enquiring: ‘How is it that a Cape Times reporter happened to have his camera ready at the exact moment a UCT student threw poo on Rhodes’ statue?’
“Salie’s ranting reply ended in the following sentence: ‘We’ll just assume you are part of a racist campaign against the Cape Times – and we will deal with you.’”
That threat of harm to a concerned customer by the editor of a once-distinguished newspaper is utterly without precedent in its 137 year history.
The silence of senior company executives in this regard is worrying and one wonders why Survé bothers to continue prating about right of reply when his editors are clearly not complying.
Do ethical people of acknowledged moral standing still trust the Cape Times particularly in its current guise under editor Salie? To answer the question I would like to cite a political analogy. I would argue that John Scott, Horst Kleinschmidt, Christine Pulvermacher, Sandra Hewitson and John Carver are the citizen equivalent of ANC politicians like Barbara Hogan, Kader Asmal, Ben Turok, Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge and Ronnie Kasrils. Each and all, in their own way, signify the extent to which they regard the ANC and its acolytes as having abandoned the moral high ground. Each in their own way signify, hopefully temporarily and in the short term, the degree to which the ANC’s Broad Church has become a Whited Sepulchre, a place where the money lenders are not only welcome but actually run the place.
Let us pray for change.
* 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.
Note: The Media Online is researching a story on letters to the editor, asking various editors about their newspapers’ policy on letters, how they’re chosen, why they are chosen, and who is responsible for making the selection.