Manyi wrapped up and left on the shore

Faleste was an ancient French form of capital punishment in which the person was tied up and left on the shore to be carried out by the tide. I suspect this is what the Guptas have done with Mzwanele Manyi.

The Gupta family have sold Manyi their media company, which houses the newspaper The New Age and the television news channel ANN7. On the face of it, this is a deal that should increase media diversity and introduce new black ownership. But when it comes to the Guptas, nothing is ever quite what it seems, especially when it is wrapped in the Bell Pottinger rhetoric of “radical economic transformation”.

The deal is vendor-financed, which means the sellers have lent the money to the buyer to do the deal — they paid Manyi to take it away. He now owes them R450m, and it is not clear how he intends to pay this from an unprofitable operation.

Of course, the Guptas never ventured into the media to make money. They did it to cultivate friends and favours in the state, who would repay them with other, more lucrative, deals.

I expect Manyi is not doing this for the money either. He is doing it for the reasons many egocentric publicity seekers get involved in the media: they expect it will bring them prominence, power and influence.

What has he bought? A newspaper, The New Age, that either gives away most of its copies or sells them in bulk to parastatals who feel it is their duty to support a friendly newspaper with public resources. Either way, its circulation is so murky that the figures are not even audited by the newspaper industry’s Audit Bureau of Circulation. Without those numbers, there is no basis on which to advertise, so those in the government and parastatals who have done so were probably in breach of the Public Finance Management Act for abuse of public funds.

ANN7 has fluctuated between 6% and about 12% of the pay television news market, dwarfed by the SABC with about 20% and eNCA, which has more than 50%. Such a small audience cannot cover the cost of 24/7 television, even when it is done on the cheap.

What these outlets have achieved as they relentlessly pursued their owners’ agenda of cultivating friendship with President Jacob Zuma and his faction of the ANC, is to lower the barriers of entry into journalism. They were relentless in pursuing the Gupta campaign against the likes of Pravin Gordhan and in supporting Zuma, his allies and his chosen successor and former wife, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma. They have led the calls for the ANC to act against those ANC MPs who voted in favour of the no-confidence parliamentary vote. They have done so with little concern for balance or fact.

All of our media have a point of view, but only a few are prepared to throw out journalistic principle and professionalism in pursuit of such views. ANN7 and The New Age are the Fox News of SA, opting for alliances and favours over journalism and truth. One of their strongest on-air voices was discredited former ANC spokesman Carl Niehaus. Another was Manyi, who has been relentless in his advocacy of the Gupta-Zuma nexus and their “white monopoly capital” rhetoric.

Now Manyi owns these two outlets, which means there is little real change in the media landscape. No one would describe Manyi as a guardian of journalistic balance, ethics or editorial independence. These were direct Gupta outlets, and now they are becoming indirect outlets. It is one of those cases where the more those involved proclaim transformation, the more things stay the same.

There are those who have circulated a petition calling for DStv to throw ANN7 off its platform. This is a questionable approach as monopoly pay-television owners should not decide what news choices we have. They should carry them all — though it would help if they held the likes of ANN7 to some basic journalistic principles and standards.

With the launch of the Gupta outlets a few years ago, we were promised media that would support the ANC and challenge the narrative of a critical private media. What we got was an intra-ANC factionalism, because they did not so much support the ANC as support Zuma and play on internal disputes within the party to cultivate their relationship with the president. Manyi will use these outlets in his own highly factional campaigning.

So, there he is on the Saxonwold shore, hands tied by a R450m loan, waiting to see which way the tide will flow. It is going out.

*This column first appeared in Business Day, August 23, 2017. Note that Harber is a former editor-in-chief of eNCA.

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