Lies, truth and good Citizen-ship

Let me state my conflict of interest up front: I am the Caxton Professor of Journalism and Media Studies. Caxton now owns the Citizen newspaper. So if I write about the Citizen, I do so at some peril.

Just as, if the Citizen celebrates its 30-year history with a special pull-out supplement, it does so at some peril. Does it deal with the sordid truth about its origins?

It didn’t. I found a one-line reference to the 1976 Info Scandal in the paper’s special birthday edition, but no mention that the paper itself was started with illegal, covert apartheid government money to counter the liberal Rand Daily Mail and promote the National Party government.

Of course, the current owners, editors and staff have nothing to do with that history. When the scandal was exposed (by brilliant investigative journalism on the RDM and Sunday Express), the paper was effectively given away for nothing to Perskor, which Caxton took over a few years ago.

I can understand that the current staff do not want to revisit that horrible history. There are many South Africans on all sides of the political spectrum who do not wish to revisit the less savoury elements of their histories.

Why then did they choose to make a song and dance about their 30th birthday? And then try and pretend there was nothing unusual about it? Why didn’t they just keep quiet?

For those who cannot remember, the government of BJ Vorster tried in the 1970s covertly to buy SAAN, which was then the leading English-language newspaper publisher, owner of the Rand Daily Mail, Sunday Express, Sunday Times and other major titles. They used Louis Luyt as a front man.

When that failed, they gave many millions to Luyt to start the Citizen. Luyt repeatedly denied that it was government money and went so far as to purchase a million copies of the paper himself to shore up circulation. When the scandal was exposed some years later, Luyt finally admitted what he was up to, Vorster was pushed out of office and his likely successor, Connie Mulder, resigned in disgrace. The Citizen survived.

But in its celebration of 30 years, the Citizen only said, quite strangely, that “it remains a paper of the people�.

“Born in 1976,� the proud staff wrote, “The Citizen lived through the death of Elvis and the rise and fall of Muhammad Ali. When it was a fledgling newspaper, the petrol price was 28,6 cents a litre and beer cost 36 cents a bottle.�

“While times have certainly changed, The Citizen publisher Greg Stewart points out the core value of the publication is that it is a platform of debate. The Citizen remains the paper of the people and delivers more news on a daily basis and prides itself on giving back to the community it serves.�

One might have argued that the paper has put its history behind it and slowly clawed its way to at least some credibility over the 30 years. But what credibility can a newspaper have if it is not honest about its own history? Is the truth for others, but not for itself?

The Citizen editors chose to ignore the elephant in their newsroom. I, as a Journalism and Media Studies scholar, cannot.

4 thoughts on “Lies, truth and good Citizen-ship

  1. Addendum: I am now told, by the way, that at least some key editorial people at the Citizen were not happy with the idea of the supplement and resisted it.

  2. See your Managing Managers, 23 March (I think). Guys like Williams and Wilson have been fighting and (I think) retreating step by step on this since Keogh left.

  3. Your comment “Of course, the current owners, editors and staff have nothing to do with that history” refers.

    Please note that I was a founder member of The Citizen in 1976, still is actively involved on a fulltime basis and therefore very much part of that history.

    You seems to be extremely bitter that you (Rand Daily Mail)were closed down by the brilliance of a “St 8 oke”, one Johnny Johnson.

    To call Mervyn Reece, Chris Day and Jan Nel’s reporting of the leaked “Info Scandal” given to them on a plate by “Deep Throat”
    as “brilliant investigative journalism” is pushing it.

    Wessel Oosthuizen

  4. Louis Luyt? Connie Mulder? This article is like a trip down a sort of horrible memory lane – amnesia alley, perhaps? Recall the gales of laughter that ensued in the Wits Coffee Shop when one of my mates (who bought it regularly for its superb coverage of Turffontein) read out a letter to the editor from one demented reader who accused The Citizen of being far too leftist. Ah, happy days…

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