Editor’s note on editorial independence
Johannesburg – Dear readers. You might have heard debates about the implications of the removal of Alide Dasnois as Cape Times editor on the editorial independence of our titles, including The Sunday Independent.
I shall refrain from commenting on the specifics and merits of the company’s decision as it is most likely to be a subject of legal dispute.
I cannot speak for the other titles. I am writing to you as the editor of this newspaper.
It is my humble attempt to address whether the trust, the social contract and the commitment between you and this newspaper have been or will be breached or interfered with.
As our primary stakeholders, I would like to assure you that as long as I am the editor of this newspaper, I will abide by the editorial code of conduct and the spirit and the letter of my contract.
The contract states clearly that I am responsible for whatever goes into this newspaper. And I must be able to defend such decisions and the newspaper’s integrity.
The code of conduct goes further to say such decisions must never be influenced by commercial, political or personal interests.
In my previous managerial capacity as the group political editor of Independent Newspapers, executive editor on The Star and now as editor of The Sunday Independent, I have never been instructed by the proprietor on what can or cannot be in our pages.
Our proprietors know that my staff and I will defend this newspaper against such interference.
When Dr Iqbal Survé took over the Independent group (he reiterated this view in The Star on Tuesday), he gave assurance to the editors that he was committed to “the editorial independence of all journalists and editors”.
As the editor of one of his titles, a member of the SA National Editors’ Forum and the press council, I would want to believe that Dr Survé understands our role as professionals and that the group can only benefit from diversity of views and independent, critical minds of its editors.
I would also want to believe that as a businessman, he understands that the newspapers’ commercial success is derived from the credibility of its content, independence and integrity of its editors and journalists.
Editorial independence to me means that the decision regarding the content of The Sunday Independent – whether wrong or right – lies with me.
It means my bosses trust that I will exercise my duties without any interference. It means Dr Survé and his companies – including Independent Newspapers – will also be subjected to our editorial scrutiny.
It means editors will express their views and edit newspapers without worrying about the proprietor’s wrath.
Therefore, I implore you to remain loyal to your newspaper.
It will continue to reflect a diversity of views. Your Dispatches section and the Sunday Debate page will remain “A contest of Thoughts”.
We will remain non-partisan and continue to cover and criticise all political parties fairly.
We will continue exposing the corrupt, the dishonest; and hold leaders to account. For instance, we have and will continue to interrogate the exercise of power by our public representatives and officials – be they President Jacob Zuma, DA leader Helen Zille or Public Protector Thuli Madonsela.
But as veteran journalist Joe Thloloe cautioned the media at the Percy Qoboza memorial lecture in October, we must also not forget to tell the intricate South African story.
He reminded us that the South African story is not necessarily confined to corruption and crime.
“We might argue that at that time the South African story was quite simple; you were either against apartheid or for it and everything else flowed from that initial choice.
“The South African story today is much more complex. It is a story of a people, both the erstwhile oppressors as well as the oppressed, trying to pull themselves out of decades of inequality. It is also a world that’s made much more complex by technology.
“But we as journalists still have a duty to our readers, to the cause or purpose of our journalism, to our societies, to our people and to our language,” Thloloe reminded us.
We also have obligations to our readers because editorial independence, like any other freedoms and rights, is not without its own limitations. Editorial power without accountability is equally dangerous.
The same code and contract enjoin editors to account for their conduct and decisions to you and the public at large.
It is for this reason that we are regulated by the press council, the constitution and the common law.
Also, editors are neither traditional leaders nor presidents-for-life.
Like any other managers, our performance gets evaluated by our bosses.
However, this must never compromise editorial independence and journalistic integrity.
The fading line between editorial integrity and commercial imperatives must remain.
Most editors around the world are under immense pressure to meet circulation targets given the print media industry’s poor performance. It’s tough.
It is no surprise that editors get reshuffled across the board as companies try frantically to remain profitable.
In one company, such reshuffles were seen through a racial prism as transformational considerations seem to have been shelved in the face of this cataclysmic onslaught on our industry.
However, the sooner our bosses understand that this is not a managerial but an industry problem the better.
It requires innovation, and not necessarily the editors’ scalps.