Vukani Mde and Karima Brown
Dr Iqbal Survé and Sekunjalo, similar to anyone who acquires any private company, have a right and obligation to their shareholders to make changes as they see fit.
This right obtains even when the company in question is a newspaper group. These may include changes to management, staff, the structure of the business, its growth strategies and targets, and even its editorial orientation.
The only obligation he owes to his editors is the assurance that within the parameters of whatever that orientation is, they are free and unfettered to run their papers as they see fit. He has given this assurance, and has committed to a new editorial charter that will define editors’ rights, obligations, and lines of accountability. Independent will be the first South African news group to operate according to such a charter, adherence to which will be overseen by an editorial advisory board of prominent and respected persons.
So why has the takeover been accompanied by such unrelenting controversy and endless resistance? You would think, watching the traditional and social media space, that the country was up in arms over the takeover, so noisy, consistent and well orchestrated its detractors’ campaign has been. But you would be wrong. The majority of the readers of Independent’s titles either support the ownership change or are indifferent.
In truth the controversies of the past few months are another demonstration of the skewed patterns of power (economic, political, and discursive) in South Africa 20 years into democracy. A small but very privileged and racially definable minority still controls the tools of public discourse, including the bulk of private commercial media and virtually all the mainstream newspaper groups.
The private commercial media represents this minority’s economic and political interests, and presents their world view as the unchallengeable norm, promoting their narrative of South Africa as the dominant, indeed the sole, narrative.
This group sees Sekunjalo’s takeover as the biggest challenge to its hegemony thus far, and the fight-back has predictably been vicious. They have no reason to fear Andrew Bonamour’s takeover of Times Media. They had no problem with Tony O’Reilly’s takeover of Independent, at least not until the financial bloodletting started. But they do take issue with black control of any significant media asset, particularly where control will pass to people they judge to be too close to the ANC.
This group has resisted and fought against transformation of the media, be it in ownership, management, or in newsrooms. They’ve grown adept at paying lip service to the goals of transformation and media diversity, but in truth remain against them, as their joint and individual actions demonstrate.
In two recent examples where ANC-linked black businesspeople have either bought or founded mainstream media companies, the backlash from the minority-controlled mainstream has been ferocious and tinged with racism. The New Age was pilloried and labelled, its brand destroyed before the newspaper hit the streets, because its proprietors were open about wanting a paper that was more “positive” about South Africa and wasn’t intuitively anti-government.
There’s nothing wrong with these sentiments, and there’s more than enough space for at least one outlet that shares the ruling party’s political stance. But you wouldn’t have known this reading the mainstream commercial media, which with no evidence painted it as a “mouthpiece” and its proposed editorial stance as inherently corrupt.
For his part, Survé, who wears his ANC heart on his sleeve, has been portrayed as the worst anti-press freedom bogeyman. He was accused from the get-go of leading a “government takeover” of the Independent group, or alternatively a Chinese colonial takeover, or both.
Just as the sale of the group was to be concluded in August, the Mail & Guardian, one of the leading platforms of the anti-Survé crusade, published an outrageous story titled “Independent sale tightens media noose”. Dripping with racial condescension and anti-Chinese propaganda that the US Central Intelligence Agency would pay good money for, the piece announced that the company “could find itself under the effective control of the South African government and two mystery Chinese investors”.
No such fear of “effective government control” has ever been expressed regarding the PIC’s 20 percent investment in Times Media, publishers of the Sunday Times (which has been tellingly quiet on the issue of the PIC’s Sekunjalo holding, despite its own anti-Survé stance). And the “mysterious” Chinese investors are the China Africa Development Fund, an outfit so shady it held a public launch when it opened its Johannesburg office in 2009, and has since taken up office space, complete with prominent logos and signage, in Sandton Drive.
Moreover, the two investors together hold 45 percent of the company that now owns Independent, with the remaining 55 percent controlling share held by the Survé-led Sekunjalo. Yet the writers insisted that “the Chinese” had been “given controlling powers”, without explaining how this feat was achieved.
No journalist working in pursuit of the truth could actually believe such drivel, but the M&G and its writers aren’t driven by “journalism” when “reporting” on Independent. Rather they are pursuing a relentless agenda of disinformation and demonisation against a competitor whose expansion plans they accurately read as a threat to themselves.
The paper’s anti-Survé campaign is so absurd that last week he was likened to Hitler on its editor’s Facebook wall. Survé hasn’t been lured into the mudslinging, and instead this month quietly began an internal conversation with staff at all levels of the business about what sort of media company they wish to work for, and how to turn Independent into that company.
The campaign against Independent, while unsurprising from competitors who tried and failed to buy some of our leading titles when the group was up for sale, has also found diligent and willing allies inside the group.
Some Independent staffers may have decided they cannot and will not work with Survé. Quite why they should feel this way and whether their feelings are justified, is irrelevant. What is interesting and remains to be answered by them, is why they want to have their bread buttered on both sides.
They behave like people who have ethical, moral, professional or political objections to the new Independent owner, and yet stubbornly remain in its employ, drawing salaries from a proprietor to whom they object. That is not the route of people acting on principle.
We write as journalists who, when faced with a similar situation, acted on principle. We left The New Age when it became clear that we could not in good conscience work with the proprietors, and our vision for the paper was not in accordance with theirs.
In the final analysis, no one is shackled to Independent or any of its titles. Anyone who cannot bring themselves to accept its new owner or its direction under him, must as a matter of principle leave, and give the rest of us space to build the company we want to work for.
l Mde is the group oped and analysis editor and Brown is the group executive editor.