Helen Zille compared the New Age “sponsorship” row to the 1970s Info Scandal, which brought down two of the countries most powerful politicians, BJ Vorster and his likely successor Connie Mulder. But it is the differences with that 1970s scandal, rather than the similarities, which are informative.
The Info Scandal involved secret and illegal National Party government funding for a rash of local and international projects designed to counter the increasing international criticism of apartheid. Some of these projects were silly, such as the funding of films that showed apartheid South Africa in a positive light. Some were sinister, like the covert funding of the Citizen newspaper. And some had international implications, such as the purchase of a shareholding in an international television agency and a Washington newspaper.
But the critical point is that the funding was secret. This is very different from the ways in which government and parastatals are supporting the New Age newspaper. They are doing it largely through advertising, sponsorship and bulk subscriptions, most of which could not be more public and open.
This raises a number of pertinent questions and issues, but very different ones from the illegal activities of the apartheid Department of Information the 1970s. Nowadays, there are much greater controls over funding and we have a much stronger right to know about state expenditure, with a bunch of institutions available for us to scrutinise it. The old methods of secret slush funds cannot work, and it is new ones that are under question.
Let’s start with the positives. A new newspaper is welcome in this country, and one which was openly and honestly pro-ANC was a timely and healthy arrival. Nothing wrong with that, nor with the fact that the owners are close to the president. Some of their other dealings might be shady, but if they want to throw a big bunch of money into newspapers, that is not in itself a bad thing.
Party-affiliated newspapers and hacks who like to hang out with power seldom produce good journalism. but that is another issue altogether. We are not debating the importance of independent thinking among journalists.
All newspaper owners and backers have agendas and motives and political beliefs and affiliations, so there is no reason to single out the Guptas of the New Age for theirs. What matters is how they manage it, whether they use the paper to impose their own business and political interests, or whether they allow their editorial team to follow an honest news agenda. What matters is the extent to which they add to the diversity of news and voices in our national debate.
All media approach parastatals and government departments for advertising and event sponsorship. There is nothing new or different around that. Nor is it an issue that they partner with the SABC, for which it is an easy and trouble-free way to outsource some political coverage. It seldom makes for good television, but the SABC’s political coverage is a matter for another debate.
The issue here is this: government departments and parastatals appear to be paying extortionate amounts for their advertising and sponsorship, with little to show in return. The Gauteng Premier paid almost R700 000 for a breakfast in which she was the guest of honour, above the roughly R1,2-m that Eskom and Transnet were paying for each breakfast, and the R800 a head the guests were coughing up.
It appears that this is a way of subsidising a newspaper which promises to be friendly to government, and there have been reports that suggest that parastatals and government officials are being encouraged, even pressured, to support the New Age.
This is where things go pear-shaped. The New Age does not have audited circulation figures, so it is impossible to make a reasoned, informed judgement on the value of their advertising and sponsorship opportunities. In the absence of such basic information, those who place their adverts there have no basis on which to argue that it is cost-effective marketing and that it is responsible and appropriate use of public monies.
There can only be one reason that New Age do not give us such figures, and that is that they are embarrassed to publish them. We have to take their claim that they sell over 50 000 copies and give away 25 000 with a big dollop of salt, for they would audit these figures if they were even close to the truth. It is highly likely that these sales are being artificially boosted by bulk sales and exchanges with the same government departments and parastatals.
So it is legitimate and appropriate to be asking of these institutions whether they are acting properly with public expenditure, and call them to account for how they are throwing around cash, on the face of it in breach of public accounting rules.
If they are taking out bulk subscriptions of this, and not other newspapers, then something is wrong. If this is one of a range of newspapers that they subscribe to, then there is nothing untoward.
There are two other historical comparisons here which are worth remembering. The one is that the Citizen got caught faking its circulation figures and dumping copies. New Age is not going this far, but they are also not being open and honest about their circulation.
The second is that the National Party government subsidised the Afrikaans press for years with its printing contracts. The old Perskor, which became the owner of the Citizen, lived off the telephone book contract, for example. When the company finally lost that contract, it was soon to close down.
One other thing: the way the New Age is handling its fight with opposition leader and their chief critic, Helen Zille – playing up claims about her own conduct – points to the abuse of its news pages for the Gupta’s private battle, and does the paper little credit. This morning, the paper had a long article quoting its own editor with his views on Zille, as if he was a third party. Most odd.
Give us a Zille scandal because you have a real and newsy one, not because you are fighting a personal battle with her. It harms your credibility.
The paper would do better to silence its critics by going legit, publishing audited circulation numbers, and focussing on giving better and different news that will give it a real place in our media market, and earn it real support, not overpriced, back-door sponsorship.