The closure of any media outlet is normally mourned by all journalists, because of the loss of jobs, diversity and competition. But the announcement this week that pay-TV operator Multichoice will not renew the contract of news channel ANN7 will be no great loss to the news media or the public debate. It will, though, be a setback to the corrupt three-way state capture conspiracy which brought together ANN7, Multichoice and elements of the government, as exposed by the now notorious Guptaleaks emails.
The emails which were leaked some months ago from inside the Gupta clan – which has been at the centre of state capture accusations in South Africa because of their extraordinary inflluence over President Jacob Zuma, his family and members of his Cabinet – included evidence that Multichoice had made multimillion payments to both ANN7 and SABC to get their support for Multichoice’s attempt to influence government policy on digitalisation.
Yesterday Multichoice, which is facing an inquiry by broadcast regulator Icasa, announced the results of its own internal probe. They had made mistakes they said, but there was nothing corrupt or illegal. Nevertheless, they would not be renewing ANN7’s contract when it expired in August, and instead would open up bidding for another black-owned news station.
The night before this announcement, ANN7 ran a piece on the Vrede dairy farm, in central South Africa, which is part of the police investigation into Gupta-inspired fraud, and promised to give us the real story that the rest of the corruption-obsessed media were not telling.
Station owner Mzwaneli Manyi, a former government communicator who was gifted the station by the Guptas, went himself to the farm to show that it was not derelict, but a “world class facility”, a fact being downplayed by the rest of the media. It was a long, repetative piece in the ANN7 tradition of trying to deflect criticism of friends and sponsors accused of corruption and state capture.
They made no attempt to tell us why the farm’s current state is relevant to fraud which happened at least five years ago under different ownership, nor whether it was worth the R220-m of taxpayers’ money that went into it, nor why most of that money appeared to have been pealed off to pay for weddings and other non-farming activities. They did not tell us if the farm was profitable or whether 10 000 litres of milk every two days was a good production level. They did speak to some of the 45 employees who said they and their families depended on the farm, though the townspeople they spoke to all said that the politician’s promises that this farm would benefit the community had come to little.
It was the worst kind of sham, poisonous journalism for which ANN7 has become known. It was based on a false premise (that the media were suggesting that the farm was still derelict) and intended to throw up dust around those accused of involvement in what was by all accounts a fraudulent business venture. It was unmistakenly part of the fight-back campaign being launched by President Jacob Zuma’s supporters, a number of whom are among those accused of fraud in relation to this farm.
One veterinarian took one look at the pictures of cows and tweeted, “Call the SPCA”, saying these bony bovines did not look healthy enough to produce significant amounts of milk.
But Manyi did not get an expert to look at the pictures. What the station did was then produce their dubious group of analysts and commentators who are also funded by the Guptas – none of them dairy farmers, some of them serial fraudsters or under restraining order from intimidating journalists – to say that clearly the other media was hiding the real story as part of the grand white monopoly capital conspiracy.
You would think that this kind of dishonest political propaganda would be the reason Multichoice were not renewing ANN7s contract. But they gave no details of what their mistakes were, nor any explanation of why it was not corrupt, so it was impossible to know how the decision was made. One could only conclude that Multichoice and its parent company, Naspers, was doing what it has done best for over 100 years: move with the political wind to stay onside with whoever is in or going to be in Pretoria’s Union Buildings. With Zuma about to be replaced by new ANC president Cyril Ramaphosa, the Gupta connnection becomes a liability rather than an asset.
This is why the demise of ANN7 is more of a concern to the Gupta network of corruption than journalists or the viewing public. Surely in the post-truth age we have to act against those who knowingly purvey falsity? You could call this the Facebook lesson: diversity in news is of dubious value when it means polluting the air with dishonest journalism. What we want is more, better, independent journalism – and we will have a better chance of getting that if ANN7 is replaced by another station.
There is a precedent in this country for a media outlet that was born in sin and shunned for decades by anyone who cared about news and journalism: the Citizen newspaper. It was started in the 1970s with secret government funds, with the express intention of undermining the Rand Daily Mail, at the time the most liberal and anti-apartheid of our newspapers.
The Citizen went through multiple changes of ownership until this history was bleeched out. But only diehard apartheid supporters would have mourned its closure in the 1980s, just as only diehard Gupta-supporters will mourn the disappearance of ANN7.
What this incident highlights more than anything is the danger of the Multichoice monopoly on pay-TV, which gives it extroardinary power to decide what alternatives we have to the public broadcaster, the SABC. Rather than the future of ANN7, we should perhaps worry about Multichoice having so much power, and using it so cynically.
*This column first appeared on Daily Maverick