Spat must be déjà vu for Zille

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Helen Zille

Independent Newspapers

DA leader Helen Zille.

DA leader Helen Zille had a bitter duel with a pro-government newspaper and testified against it before a commission of inquiry. That was three decades ago when she battled it out in the Rand Supreme Court in the early 80s with The Citizen, founded through a dubious government funding model.

She is now in another fierce battle with another pro-government newspaper, and demanding a commission of inquiry into how the taxpayers’ money is used to fund The New Age.

More than 30 years ago, Zille sued The Citizen for repeating a defamatory statement from the then apartheid health, welfare and pensions minister Lapa Munnik.

Munnik had described Zille’s report in the Rand Daily Mail as “twisted, malicious reporting”.

The Rand Daily Mail’s political correspondent, Zille, quoted Munnik as saying pensioners can survive on R20 a month. Zille lost the case (I am not sure if she ever appealed).

Judge Coetzee commented that the case was not necessarily brought to “vindicate (Zille’s) professional reputation”, but implied that it was a proxy war between a pro-government newspaper, The Citizen, and the anti-government Rand Daily Mail.

Is the current battle between Zille and The New Age a proxy war between the so-called pro-government The New Age and newspapers perceived as anti-government, including the Mail and Guardian – which was founded by Zille’s colleagues from the Rand Daily Mail? What an irony of history.

The government then defended The Citizen.

And the current presidency – which is not known for transparency – has found it necessary to release figures disclosing its ad-spend across the media houses, indirectly defending The New Age.

I guess its size and influence (no other newspaper has managed to get the entire cabinet, premiers and the leader of the official opposition to a live programme) make it appear to be a victim of bullies – Zille and us.

However, the battle between Zille and The New Age has overshadowed the question of whether there was any impropriety on how the newspaper managed to secure millions in government sponsorship.

In fact, no media house can claim they have never used public money for some commercial spin that didn’t necessarily benefit the majority of the poor. In fact, if the government decided that not a single cent should be spent on advertising or media sponsorships, most papers – especially those which rely heavily on government recruitment advertising – would be on their knees. The sponsorships are also part of the media trying to sustain its troubled business.

Therefore, if government officials decided to waste money (without a sound business model) on sponsorship of The New Age or any other media for that matter, it is up to the auditor-general – and not a judicial commission – to inquire.

If there was corruption in such deals, where public money is irregularly and unlawfully channelled to The New Age or any other paper (and officials are intimidated into signing off such deals), then it is a matter for the police.

Such actions – by the auditor-general and the police – cannot be dependent on the public spats between hypocritical politicians and defensive newspaper managers.

But the spat has funnily revived the call and a need to review party funding.


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