I have noted the statement issued by Mail & Guardian owner Trevor Ncube on Tuesday and the subsequent media coverage thereof.
Mr. Ncube's statement purports to be a response to a number of stories that have appeared in The Star, Independent Online, and a number of our other titles regarding the financial state of his business in Zimbabwe and the adverse effect this is continuing to have on the Mail & Guardian.
Despite claiming to offer a “response” to our stories, Mr. Ncube's statement does not at any point address itself to the factual claims contained in our stories. Instead he veers into a diatribe against Independent, our new owners Sekunjalo and our journalists. He adopts the strategy of deflection which is common to all those who have something to hide, trying to make the issue about the motives of those who dare ask questions, rather than the questions themselves.
Most disturbing however - and the reason I have elected to respond publicly rather than just ignore this obvious and feeble attempt at obfuscation - is that Mr. Ncube has called to question the integrity and professionalism of the Independent journalists who have produced our stories on his businesses. Moreover, he has proven that he is not averse to telling the odd bare-faced lie in his defence.
I will recap briefly what Independent's stories, which we continue to investigate and develop, have said about Mr. Ncube's business and invite him to challenge the factual basis of what we've reported if he so wishes.
Our investigation of the M&G's financial situation is the result of an approach made to us by one ex-employee of the paper at least three weeks ago. This source has subsequently put us in contact with other, current, employees who have corroborated most of what he initially alleged. We have also managed to corroborate our information from suppliers and other outsiders who have had business dealings with the M&G. The story they tell, and which is faithfully reflected in our reportage, is this:
1. Mr. Trevor Ncube is the majority owner of both the Mail & Guardian and Alpha Media Holdings (AMH) in Zimbabwe, an entity he owns jointly with a New York-based non-profit organization, the Media Development Investment Fund.
2. The business model used to generate revenue for the M&G is relatively sound, and the company has in recent times branched out into online and eventing, which has proven lucrative.
3. Despite this, AMH is financially cash-strapped and struggling under the general hardship of the Zimbabwean economy, the reality of which has forced Mr. Ncube recently to close one of the four titles in the stable.
4. Mr. Ncube has used cash from the M&G to subsidize AMH, according to sources who currently work or have worked at the M&G. This has led to non-payment or late payment of staff, contributors, suppliers and other financial obligations.
5. Among the bills the company has failed to pay in the recent past was to their landlord, Growthpoint Properties. This fact was confirmed by CEO Hoosain Karjieker, who told our reporter: “There may have been instances of dispute on the rental in the past but these have all been resolved. There was no eviction order.” He indicated that the company was now up to date on its rent, although our sources alleged Growthpoint had to issue an eviction threat, not an order, for the matter to be resolved.
6. The company has failed to pay participants, suppliers and contributors to its Critical Thinking Forums which, according to inside sources, make good money for the company. One such contributor, who spoke on condition of anonymity, waited six months for a payment of R10 000.
7. Staff in the company's advertising sales department have often had to wait for months for their commission payments, or accept staggered payments because the company could not meet its incentives obligations to them.
8. Some staff members have even taken legal advice, with a view to suing the company, sources told us.
9. Mr. Ncube's CEO either confirmed or at the very least refused to deny most of the factual claims put to him by our reporter last week. The only denial he issued was of the claim that the M&G was being used to “subsidize” the Zimbabwean business, and insisted that both companies operated independently with no exchange of resources.
10. In our stories, we recorded Mr. Karjieker's denials and gave his quotes in full and unedited. However, at least one staffer who has since left the company (because of the financial frustrations) insisted their revenues subsidized AMH and said “We paid the salaries of journalists at The Standard” (an AMH title).
11. These sources said Mr. Ncube wanted AMH to survive for “political reasons” (i.e. to have him well placed to influence the anticipated transition in Zimbabwe).
In preparing the stories, at least two Independent journalists in Johannesburg and one in Harare attempted to get hold of Mr. Ncube. Of the three, only our Harare correspondent managed to get hold of and interview him, and only on the follow-up attempt, while the Johannesburg journalists only got to his voicemail (presumably because he was in Zimbabwe at the time).
It is therefore curious and dishonest to claim, as Mr. Ncube does in his statement, that “No effort was made to seek comment from me to verify the allegations.”
Moreover, given that Mr. Ncube has now had ample time to deal with the “allegations”, it is curious that he does not do so, but rather launches into a tirade about the supposed motives of Independent and its journalists.
As Group Executive Editor at Independent I stand by every word written by our journalists on Mr. Ncube, AMH, and M&G. Our stories are legitimate inquiries into the financial health of an important South African newspaper and whether it is safe in Mr. Ncube's hands. The stories were well sourced, well researched, balanced, fair and written with due care for the interests of people who still suffer the effects of Mr. Ncube's alleged bleeding of the paper.
Since publishing our stories last week and earlier this week, we have received other leads. We will continue to do our jobs as journalists without fear or favour. We will investigate what we think is a worthwhile story, we will bring everything we learn to our readers and to the broader public, and we will not be intimidated by Mr. Ncube's intemperate insults.
As someone who speaks in very glowing terms about himself, his history as a journalist and his supposed commitment to the most basic tenets of our profession, I hope Mr. Ncube can understand our stance.
GROUP EXECUTIVE EDITOR