Friday’s GuptaLeaks story was important for revealing what looked like a corrupt nexus between the Gupta’s ANN7 television channel, its pay-TV carrier Multichoice and former Minister of Communications Faith Muthambi. But it was remarkable for another reason too: the story came from and was carried by News24, part of the Naspers family and a sister company to Multichoice.
The story appeared simultanously on News24, the independent investigative unit Amabhungane and the Daily Maverick, a product of their agreement to work together on the trove of emails known as GuptaLeaks. It had no byline, but it originated from News24 and was the result of deep digging into the metadata behind some of the emails.
It was deeply embarassing for Multichoice. Already on the defensive for evidence that it had been subsidising the highly-partisan ANN7, this latest story exposed the relationship between Multichoice, the Zuma government, the SABC and the Guptas. It offered the first coherent explanation of why Muthambi and the SABC had broken with ANC policy and backed Multichoice in the battle over digital encryption, a move a few years ago which shocked observors. In the middle of this, as seems to be the case in all such shady government deals, were the Guptas of Saxonwold.
In this deal, Multichoice got support for what they needed on encryption policy to defend their monopoly, the SABC’s then-CEO, the notorious Hlaudi Motswaneng, enjoyed a R30-m bonus, and the Guptas received a R25-m down-payment and an increase in their revenue from Multichoice. It is not clear what Minister Muthambi gained, but you can be certain that she got something for going along with a policy that was clearly against the interests of the public and the ANC.
To say there was a whiff of impropriety about this foursome would be inaccurate. It stank like a week-old carcass.
To publish such a story about a sister company required rare courage, professionalism and principal from News24 editor Adriaan Basson and his team. They had informed their boss, Media24 CEO Esmaré Weidemann, that this bombshell was coming and no attempt was made to dissuade them from doing so.
This act of independent journalism is significant when you realise that Multichoice is the large local cash-cow in the Naspers group, indirectly subsidising the struggling print and internet assets in Media24. Improper behaviour can endanger Multichoice’s pay-TV licence, which would have dire consequences for their whole South African operation.
This story puts their journalism up against their corporate interest – and provides the toughest test yet of whether Media24 will stand by the editorial independence they embraced during the transition to democracy.
Naspers moved in the transitional period from being a voice of Afrikaner Nationalism, deeply enmeshed with the National Party, to one that embraced the new era like no other. Under apartheid, they had Cabinet Ministers on their board, their political editor attended closed party meetings and they made large donations to the ruling party. Some of their editors pushed for reform, but it was cautious reform from with the ruling party, and they avoided covering the worst atrocities of apartheid.
With the transition, they threw off this yoke, changing more than any other company. They became the country’s biggest publisher in both English and Afrikaans, shifted internal culture from a stiff-collared conservatism to bold entreprenuerialism, led the way into digitalisation and new media technologies and expanded globally with extraordinary success. At the same time, their share price moved over 25 years from R12 to now around R3 000.
Chastened by their journalistic failures under apartheid, they gave their editors more freedom than most to enjoy the new democratic order. This includes cultivating some strong investigative reporters, such as those responsible for the latest exposés, though they might not have expected these reporters to shine their light into the dark corners of their own company.
To understand Naspers, you have to understand that deep in their company’s DNA is the capacity to work with – and thrive under – whoever is in power wherever they operated, a fundamental pragmatism that made possible their extraordinary growth.
They were able – against all the odds – to keep their pay-TV monopoly in the new South Africa until 15 years into the new order, when they were powerful enough to block any newcomers. They continued to stay away from producing local television news, for fear that this would cause them political headaches, until they outsourced this problem by commissioning eTV to provide them with the eNCA channel. They later introduced ANN7 and SABC News as a counter to the more independent eNCA.
In South Africa, China and other African countries where they have a pay-TV presence, they have shown an extreme flexibility in getting on with governments and ruling parties, including those of the more dictatorial or corrupt bent. In China, their company Tencent (of which they own 35%) is obliged by Chinese law to run their own team of censors scouring their content for any material that breaches Beijing’s daily list of prohibited topics.
Naspers deflects responsibility for this, passing any questions on to their local partners in Tencent.
But they cannot deflect questions about Multichoice and the questions are not going to go away.
Already under scrutiny is the questionable deal they did with the SABC, where they got control of the SABC archive and support for their encryption policy for a bargain-basement payment of R500-m, of which a chunk seems to have paid the CEO’s extraordinary bonus. Now opposition parties have demanded details of their dubious agreement with ANN7, threatening to take them to the broadcasting regulator and the competitions commission.
Even the new Minister of Communications, Mamaloko Kubayi-Ngubane, has said there must be an investigation into allegations of a corrupt relationship.
These developments are going to test Naspers’ ability to stay onside with government, allow their journalists to continue to do their work and not fuel growing calls for subscribers to cancel their contracts.
In a climate where major multinationals, such as KPMG and McKinsey, have been called to account for their Gupta relationships, at great cost to them, we will see just how pragmatic Naspers can be.
*First appeared in Daily Maverick 27 November 2017