When Cyril met Harry: two men, two intertwined lives, two very different times

Business Day last week used a photograph from its archives of Cyril Ramaphosa and Harry oppenheimer deep in conversation in 1986. Behind this picture, lies an unexpected story …

The two men are sitting close together, their eyes meeting, both smiling openly, their hands almost touching. You might think that warmth and friendship flows between these two giants of South African history in this picture of their first face-to-face encounter in June, 1986.

You could not be further from the truth. If there ever was evidence that a genuine, un-Photoshopped picture can tell a lie, this is it. The story behind it, though, is a complicated one that tells a great deal about these two men, and their role in how this country has unfolded in the 30 years since then.

On the left is an ageing white man, Harry Oppenheimer, the epitome of mining capital in the apartheid era in which this photograph was taken, and head of a sprawling family dynasty which at its height owned over 60% of the Johannesburg Stock Exchange assets. He is impeccably dressed, as always, balding, hair slicked back, in a suit and tie, a dignified 76-year-old elder statesman of liberal capital.

On his right, in a casual jacket, open-necked shirt and corduroy trousers is a 36-year-old Cyril Ramaphosa, with shaggy beard looking every bit the fiery young revolutionary. He was the general secretary of the National Union of Mineworkers and a rising voice in the trade union and resistance movement.

They had come together for the first anniversary celebration of The Weekly Mail newspaper (now the Mail & Guardian). So surprised were we that this penniless, “alternative” newspaper had survived one of the most conflict-ridden years of that period – with an uprising in most of the townships, state of emergencies with serious media restrictions and near-warfare on the factory floors – that a major celebration was in order.

We wanted to do something rare and constructive: show that two very different men in the middle of the toughest political battles of the time could share a platform and show appreciation for the role of the media, even a noisy upstart like The Weekly Mail. This was long before the ANC met a business delegation; it was a time when the business-trade union relationship was deeply hostile.

Oppenheimer had been one of many individuals who had made a modest contribution of R5 000 when we started the newspaper. Our purpose as an “alternative” newspaper was to give the kind of coverage to the likes of Ramaphosa and his union that much of the mainstream media did not, which meant that we had a good working relationship with him. You could say that the paper might not have existed or survived if it was not for these two men and what they represented.

But it was not easy to get the two to agree to speak from the same platform. It was a tough year on the mines, marked by repeated strikes, conflict and death. In January strikes on mines had led to the deaths of at least two policemen and 16 mineworkers; in November/ December as many as 47 were to die in a number of mine clashes. At the time of our meeting, NUM was demanding a 30% increase, the Chamber of Mines was offering 12% and strike ballots were being called. That same week, clashes between NUM and a rival union left 11 dead. It was the year of the Kinross mine disaster, claiming 177 lives and leading to one of the biggest ever stayaways. Workers were also to strike because of the detention of NUM leaders. Could they put all of this aside for the evening?

The two men were on opposite sides of a brutal war for control of the mines, but their lives were interlocked, as were their futures. Oppenheimer had been a pioneer in accepting trade unionism in his compounds and entering negotiations, while Ramaphosa had used this opening to forge a socialist trade union that was making its mark on the country’s biggest private sector employer after only four years. Both anticipated political change, but they were poles apart in how that would be achieved and what kind of society would emerge.

Oppenheimer was a liberal of the distinctly South African kind. He supported a free market and opposed apartheid, was a great philanthropist and supporter of the white parliamentary opposition, but operated a business that benefited fundamentally from cheap migrant labour and lived a life of extraordinary racial and class privilege. He sought change, but opposed the sanctions, boycotts and armed struggle of the liberation movement.

Ramaphosa was a fiercely outspoken activist at the head of a militant union that was confronting the most powerful state and corporate interests. He lived on the edge, risking his freedom and safety every day, to ensure the downfall of everything that Oppenheimer represented and its replacement with a socialist order.

Before this night, they had never met each other.

Ramaphosa was the first to accept our invitation, sensing an opportunity. It took many complicated conversations with Oppenheimer’s executive assistant, Patrick Esnouf, to secure his attendance. For Oppenheimer, the risk was greater, and it would take a bold heart to do it. Fortunately, Esnouf liked the idea and assured us he was working hard to make it happen.

They arrived at the Market Theatre at roughly the same time and I introduced them to each other on the steps leading up to the main theatre. They sat down on plastic seats in front of an unexpectedly large crowd, and Oppenheimer turned to talk to his counterpart. This was when the picture was taken.

We had asked each of them to say a few words about freedom of the media in those difficult times. But the ever-shrewd Ramaphosa had other ideas. His speech was a fierce and rousing denunciation of the mining bosses, the conditions of mineworkers and the political situation, delivered in the Marxist language and with the rhetorical flourishes of the trade union movement.

In the audience was a phallanx of mineworkers and union officials, who cheered, sang anti-capitalist songs and took charge of the floor.

I was in the chair and very worried about how we would contain this confrontation and protect our guests. Oppenheimer looked increasingly uncomfortable. When he got to his feet, he had to deal with aggressive chanting, singing and dancing – until Ramaphosa signalled to his followers to let Oppenheimer speak.

The message was clear: Oppenheimer might have unparalleled corporate, social and economic power, but Ramaphosa commanded a mass following that was ready to demand power. The tide was turning, and a new generation with a different language, dress, attitude and ideology was seizing the stage.

Oppenheimer, a veteran of 10 years of raucous debate in parliament, where he had sat on the opposition benches, responded with applomb. “We have just listened to a long and impassioned speech from Mr Ramaphosa, made more impassioned by the absence of fact,” he said.

He apologised that he had not expected to have to deal with the topics raised, but said strong words about the situation in the country, the states of emergency and media freedom.

Ramaphosa, having made his point, led his men home. Oppenheimer withdrew more quietly. What we had seen were two men who had the graciousness and charm to engage with each other (as shown by the picture); the leadership to confront each other (not shown); and – above all – a smart pragmatism.

At midnight that night the government declared a new national state of emergency. A number of activists evaded arrest because they were still at the party.

Footnote: Oppenheimer’s assistant, Esnouf, was packed off to South America soon afterwards. I was told exile was his reward for talking his boss into taking part in the event, but he says that although he feared losing his job, Oppenheimer “was his usual gracious self and very forgiving”. Since Esnouf rose to be chair of Anglo American in South America, he recovered.
Before he died in 2000, Oppenheimer oversaw the sale of a significant chunk of his industrial empire to a black empowerment consortium, in which Ramaphosa played a leading part.
Ramaphosa, of course, used the charm and pragmatism we saw that night to lead the constitutional negotiations, enter and succeed in business and then return to politics.

*This article first appeared in Business Day

A golden era for investigative journalism? Or a last hoorah?

Hennie Serfontein died last week isolated and forgotten.

That a leading investigative journalist of the 1960s-1980s should end his life this way was a reminder of the vulnerability and lack of recognition of our bravest muckrakers.

Serfontein took over the expose of the Afrikaner Broederbond after the journalist who broke the story in the Sunday Times, Charles Bloomberg, fled the country in 1963. Bloomberg died a few years ago, also unrecognised and in near-poverty.

Week after week for over a decade, these two produced front page coverage of one of the most important stories of the day: the role the secretive Broederbond was playing in the apartheid government and how key appointments and decisions were being made by this covert organisation. Interestingly, their work was based on masses of documents which originated from a whistleblower, whose motivation and credibility was questioned in the same way that the source of the current #Guptaleaks documents is being doubted by those who don’t like what we are learning from the leaks. It emerged later that the Broederbond documents originated with Beyers Naude, now considered a national hero.

Serfontein’s exposes were stopped when Tertius Myburgh took over the Sunday Times editorship, leaving Serfontein frustrated and embittered. But his work
continued for many years. He was the first person to report in the Weekly Mail (now the Mail & Guardian) in 1989 that the government had been in secret discussion with Nelson Mandela while he was in Pollsmoor Prison for more than two years. It is worth remembering that Thabo Mbeki stood up in New York and, with a straight face, denied the story and denounced the newspaper for falling for “government propaganda”.

Now we are in a new era in which our investigative reporters are again at the fore of exposing corruption and state capture – and are being targetted both politically and physically. And it comes at a time of decreasing space and resources for this kind of expensive and time-consuming work.

A few years ago, handing out the Taco Kuiper Award for Investigative Reporting, I commented that we had received a large pool of world-class entries and it was notable that there were at least four top-class investigative teams at our major media outlets. They had been responsible for exposing the Nkandla story, ousting two successive commissioners of police, one of whom went to jail, and jailing a prominent MP, Tony Yengeni, to cite just a few of their triumphs. It was something of a golden era for muckraking.

Within a few years, though, with the newspapers facing collapsing circulating and revenue, most of these teams had been dismantled or dispersed, and the prospects for this kind of reporting looked bleak. We began to see more factional, tendentious reporting based largely on different elements of the state and ruling party leaking dubious material about their intra-party rivals. This peaked with the dubious SARS rogue unit story, which the Sunday Times later retracted and apologised for.

#Guptaleaks have revived the field of investigative reporting and highlighted what a critical role it plays in our democracy. At a time when many of our institutions of accountability – the Hawks, the NPA, the Public Protector’s Office, the SABC – have been rendered ineffectual and others – such as Parliament and the Judiciary – are under pressure to fall in line, our private sector media institutions are more important than ever in sustaining a democracy under attack.

It is significant that the #Guptaleaks hard drive, containing some 200 000 of the most revealing emails, came first to the small, somewhat fringe, but feisty, online operation, Daily Maverick (DM).

DM didn’t have the staff to deal with it, so they pulled in Amabhungane, the independent investigative journalism unit that originated in, and a few years ago broke away from, the Mail & Guardian. The formidable team of AmaB, as they are known, were working on the material, raising money to move their team and the source to safety out of the country, when someone became impatient with the two-month delay and took it to the Sunday Times on the eve of the ANC’s crucial NEC meeting. Some say AmaB/DM were too slow, but they say there were doing what journalists have to do: verify and secure the source.

The Times group (which has just changed their name to Tiso Blackstar) has now put together a war-room to tap the full potential of the document dump, and DM/AmaB have teamed up – unusually for the cutthroat competitive world of journalism – with mainstream outlet News24, leading to a regular flow of powerful stories. The Mail & Guardian, long the bastion of such reporting, sits on the sidelines, as does the Gupta media (New Age and ANN7) and the Independent group, both compromised by their owners’ closeness to the Zuma government. The SABC should be the medium that takes this story to a mass audience, but, financial and politically bankrupt and without effective leadership, it is struggling to find its voice again.

Fortunately, the existence of the internet and an independent body such as AmaB ensures that no editor can kill the story completely, the way Myburgh did with Serfontein’s story.

But can this new surge of investigative reporting be sustained? What future is there when the media is under such financial and political pressure, and when ruling party allies have a tightening hold on a growing number of media institutions?

AmaB gives its material for free to partner publications, and is sustained by philanthropic grants of about R8-m per year. Without the likes of the Open Society, Bertha, Claude Leon and Raith foundations, and the Millenium Trust, this work would not be done. They and DM’s new unit, Scorpio, make constant appeals for crowdsourced funding. It is reminiscent of the 1980s when alternative papers that were prepared to confront and expose the apartheid government relied on international funding. When that funding dried up in the early 1990s, the only one to survive was the M&G.

This investigative work is costly and risky and those who support it have to face the risk of being sued and physically attacked, as we saw with the violent disruption of an AmaB town hall meeting last week. It requires a serious financial commitment and a long-term journalistic vision to keep it going.

Do our media owners have that? With much of this work increasingly dependant on philanthropy, are the private sector and civil society looking for ways to ensure that this work can continue?

Our democracy may depend on it.

*This article first appeared in Business Day

For the record

My letter to Business Day this week, correcting a piece of misreporting.

Dear Editor,

Paul Pereira’s interesting piece on the Oppenheimer legacy in corporate social activity (Corporate charity as political intervention, August 22) stated that the Weekly Mail newspaper had been saved when his Anglo-American Corporation paid its print bill. This is not true.

Many people invested in the launch of the newspaper in 1985; Harry Oppenheimer’s R5 000 was among the more modest contributions. When the paper was threatened with closure in 1989, he was one of eight business leaders who wrote to PW Botha to say that such an action would fuel the sanctions campaign. When the paper could not pay its print bill around 1991, we negotiated a settlement with the printer, Caxtons, giving us time to pay our debts. The paper was in fact rescued in subsequent years by the Guardian of London, which is when it became the Mail & Guardian.

I hope this makes it clear that the paper’s relationship with white monopoly capital is more complicated than its critics would have it.

Anton Harber
Co-Founder, Weekly Mail/Mail& Guardian

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.

The triumph of transactional politics in the ANC

Call it transactional politics.

It is the root of the ANC’s malaise. It explains the rise of the Gupta family, and the ANC’s incapacity to deal with them or President Jacob Zuma, even though they know this will cost them at the polls. It is crucial to understanding the presidential race. And it tells you what kind of ANC we will likely have in the foreseeable future.

It is summed up in this quote from a person close to Cyril Ramaphosa’s presidential campaign: “Nobody donates money to the ANC for philanthropic reasons, or because they love the party or what it stands for. It is all about what you can get back if you contribute to the party or back a winning candidate. Every rand we get comes with a payback expectation.”

The party needs a lot of money, as does each presidential candidate to campaign and buy votes. The winner gets to control a huge pile of patronage – the capacity to influence appointments, tenders and opportunities in and around government. And the first people to gain from the patronage will be those who helped the winner get there, knocking on the Luthuli House door to demand payback.

So every element of campaigning is a transaction: what will you give me if I support your campaign for office?

And these transactions cascade downwards. The president will have control over the top level of appointments, whether it is to the Cabinet, SOE boards or key government positions. Those appointees will have control over the next level, and they in turn will have influence at the next …

At each level, people want to get noticed and put up for positions, and to do so they have to offer their support to those who might give them those positions, or at least influence the choice. If it is not a position they want, it might be a tender.

Either way it is a transaction, and this style of politics now runs from the top to the bottom of the organisation.

This is why the ANC campaign is conducted largely behind closed doors, where deals can be struck, rather than in the American style of getting out, shaking hands and kissing babies to win favour with citizens.

In the US presidential election, it is the voter who in the end will choose the candidates and the president. Hillary Clinton had her party and the establishment behind her, and she had done every deal to line them up. She lost because she did not connect with voters. Donald Trump, on the other hand, did not have the party machinery behind him but won anyway because he connected with a certain class of voter.

To win the ANC presidency, and become presumptive national president, you don’t need popular support. You only need the vote of a majority of the roughly 4 000 branch delegates at the quinquennial elective conference. Endorsements will help, but more important is the capacity to deliver delegates, who will arrive at the December conference not bound by the mandates of their branches.

You can strike a deal with these 4 000 in two ways: you can buy their individual support, or you can buy those who control or influence those delegates by making promises to them about the rewards of such support. Most likely you need a combination of different transactions at these two different levels.

This is why slate politics is so important: you get the first level of support from key controllers of votes, such as provincial leaders, by offering them positions alongside you in the party’s top six. You back me, and I will back you. And that person then goes down to the regions in his province and offers the same: back me and I will look after you.

It is why slate politics and the buying of votes, however strongly condemned by everyone, does not disappear. It is why the voices of the elders, and those who plea for the return of values and principles, are not being heard: they are not transacting.

It was significant that Numsa members were recently concerned to hear that their general secretary had met quietly with one of the presidential candidates. They know what happens in those closed meetings.

It was summed up also when secretary general Gwede Mantashe said of ANC MPs who were considering breaking ranks in next week’s no-confidence vote: “If they had a conscience, they should have discovered that before they allowed their names on the ANC list.” The last thing you want is an MP with a conscience which may override the deal that gets them their jobs.

I don’t want to suggest that transactional politics is unique to the ANC. That would not be true at all. Jonathan Rauch of The Atlantic argues that it is not only “an inescapable reality in a functioning constitutional republic”, but it is desirable because it “means give-and-take, bargaining within the process, reciprocal back-scratching to achieve compromises”. It is, he is saying, the oil in the democratic machinery.

What is notable is that it has become the over-riding, crudely-executed culture within the ANC at all levels, submerging questions of values, ideology, public interest and the common good.

The Gupta family are not the only ones practising this kind of politics, just the most effective. The few who stand by conscience, principle and tradition are standing on the sidelines.

This from a party that was built on a set of values, and purports to speak on behalf of “the people”.

There is also a difference between making broad promises to interest groups (which is what electioneering is all about) and promising opportunities to individuals as rewards (which may cross a legal or ethical line). It is the latter which has taken hold of the ANC.

That is why the coverage of this year’s election contest is all about who is backing who, rather than any substantive discussion of policy and its implementation. Policy is just the rhetoric thrown about to hide the sordidness of the deal-making.

This kind of politics is divisive, which is why the ANC is so ridden with factionalism, and it is not transformational. Transactional politics precludes a transformational politics. It is all about cutting up the cake and sharing it around, not changing the recipe.

The pervasiveness of this mode of operation in the ANC means that all the presidential candidates have to play that game if they want a decent run at the highest office, like it or not.

To get key provinces behind you, you have to transact with provincial leaders who are corrupt, perhaps even implicated in political killings in their areas.

To raise money, you have to offer the promise of post-election patronage to those who bring delegates, rather than those best suited to those posts or tenders.

To manage the process, you have to look after those responsible for auditing branches, accrediting delegates and managing the ballot.

In other words, even if you are clean, you have to go through a dirty process. And you come out at the end carrying a massive bag of bespoke patronage.

*First published News24, August 3, 2017

Four trends to watch if you want to get behind the ANC horse-race

We follow the ANC leadership campaign like a horse race, setting the odds on every candidate, working out who is wearing blinkers and who carries a handicap. We get excited when one pulls ahead, worried when the other catches up and keep a wary eye on the outsiders gathering pace from behind.
But like most horse races, this one may be decided by things that happen out of sight.

Here are four megatrends that you should be watching — and worrying about — if you want to understand what could shape or distort the outcome of the presidential race at the ANC’s elective conference in December.

• Chatting recently to a campaigner in one camp, I asked jokingly if they had enough money to buy the ANC branches. There are about 4,000 of them, each sending two delegates to the elective conference and in a competitive race, it would get costly.

I got a serious answer: “We have worked out that it needs R500m. Fifty thousand rand for a Diepsloot branch vote, up to R2m to R3m for Sandton.”

I don’t know why I was shocked at this casual admission of how deep the rot is, as the buying of ANC branches has been common knowledge for some time, along with the creation of fake members and branches.

The ANC’s own organisational reports reflect this, such as this one from October 2015: “Membership trends are a worrying factor. This is more so in relation to the prevalence of gatekeeping in branches and bulk buying of membership that creates branches … tendencies such as the use of money in order to manipulate the outcomes of electoral process in the organisation are totally unacceptable.”

The Mail & Guardian reported that membership fraud is already being investigated in four provinces and that as many as 200,000 memberships in the biggest province, KwaZulu-Natal, are under close scrutiny.

The surprise lies in the sharp rise in the price. Previous talk had been about an average of R20,000 for a delegate’s vote. Measures have been put in place to try and contain this. Cellphones have been banned from voting booths, as they were being used to prove how one voted in order to claim one’s payment.The central auditing of branches has been tightened to try and pick up anomalies. But a call to have members, rather than delegates, vote — because there would be too many to buy — has been postponed for future discussion. And it is common cause that the auditing of branches under ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe is so chaotic that it remains open to dispute.

This trend is significant because it indicates what candidates have to do to win, or what their supporters have to do on their behalf. It means that whoever wins may be as compromised as the incumbent. The deals they will have to make to get there will shape their leadership, as they will have deep debts and large favours to return.

It also opens up another scenario: that the conference gets bogged down in disputes over fake delegates and bought votes. Whoever loses could dispute the result, as has happened with the KwaZulu-Natal provincial structure. This would mean competing claims to legitimacy and victory, with the courts left to sort out the matter — a long, messy and complex business.

• A University of Cape Town-based research project has recorded 255 political assassinations since 2000, part of a general pattern of targeted killing on the rise. In 2016, assassinations that could be identified as politically motivated hit a peak of 27 (one every fortnight) and taxi killings hit 56.

The taxi killings are relevant because they have created an industry of killers for hire, which means it is relatively easy and inexpensive to hire a hitman.

Most of the political deaths have been related to local disputes, particularly in KwaZulu-Natal, but with so much at stake in December and so much depending on the control of branches, this trend is likely to grow.

This is one of the most underreported and neglected aspects of our politics, probably because most of these killings have happened in small towns without much media attention.

Already, we have reports of death threats being made against ANC members who have spoken out against President Jacob Zuma. When protesters wanted to march on Luthuli House recently, we saw so-called party veterans mobilising — with jackboots and camouflage clothing — in a way designed to threaten and intimidate.

It is clear that things are getting ugly in the run-up to the December conference. The only question is just how ugly.
• In recent years, we have watched as the institutions fundamental to our democracy come under threat, with many losing their credibility, independence or capacity to function effectively.

It has happened at the National Prosecuting Authority, the Special Investigation Unit, the Directorate for Priority Crime Investigation (Hawks), the South African Revenue Service, the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC), the parliamentary speaker’s office and the public protector. These are all institutions of accountability that would be expected to put a brake on the abuse of public office.

The judiciary has remained standing, though a mysterious break-in that led to the theft of judges’ personal details have raised fears that even they are vulnerable to attack.

Can the same happen to the Electoral Commission of SA (IEC), which has been the bastion of credible elections in our country since the arrival of democracy?

Will Zuma and his supporters move in much the same way they have moved at other institutions to ensure that they have pliable leadership in the IEC before the next election, when they face for the first time the prospect of not winning a majority? There is no sign yet of the IEC being compromised, but why, we have to ask, do we believe it can remain immune from the pattern we have seen at so many other state institutions?

• Fake news is not a new thing — politicians and others have long used various levels of “dirty tricks” and disinformation to try to influence their fortunes and manipulate voters.
What is different now is that social media has massively boosted the capacity to do this as information can be spread on a mass scale without gatekeepers, verification or ethical consideration, at great speed.

It played a major role in Donald Trump’s election as US president, as well as the Brexit vote for the UK to leave Europe. There were attempts to interfere in the French election.

In SA, we have seen that one faction has made use of British public relations firm Bell Pottinger to try and distort our political discussion and infuse it with racial bile. It is no coincidence that we have had a sudden flood of fake news websites, paid Twitter campaigners and rent-a-protesters aiming their vitriol at critics of Zuma and his allies.

In the US, this is accompanied by attacks on conventional news media, designed to undermine their credibility. We are seeing a rise in the harassment of journalists to such an extent that last week, the South African National Editors’ Forum applied for and won an interdict to try to stop such threats. In the run-up to the December conference, we can expect the scale and temperature of this to rise drastically. We have seen in the US and UK the extent to which it can distort national politics.

Taken together, these trends present a bleak picture of what can go wrong in the next few months. On the other hand, we have seen a resurgence of independence at the SABC and civil society institutions fighting back against the undermining of state institutions, so the fight is not over. These trends present a warning of what we have to watch out for and might miss if we are focused solely on which individual has their nose ahead in the race.

*This first appeared in Business Day, July 12, 2017.

What it means when a non-financial journo wins Financial Journo of the Year

It was of some significance that the Sanlam Financial Journalist of the Year Award was won not by someone who writes about markets, industries or monetary policy, but a hard-nosed muckraker specialising in exposing state shenanigans.

Susan Comrie is not a conventional financial reporter of the type that has dominated the 42 years of these awards. She works for amaBhungane, the independent investigative unit which has taken a lead in the #statecapture and #guptaleaks exposés.

Ama-B, as they are commonly known, have barely featured in these awards before – but this year Comrie won the Business and Companies category and the Print category (for her work in City Press) as well as the overall award. And Ama-B reporter Craig McKune also won the Online Financial Journalist of the Year category.

This highlights where the action is, and where the interest of the business and business journalism community are focussed: on investigative financial reporting as a bulwark against corruption. Investigative reporters have put themselves at the forefront of holding our government to account at a time when many of the institutions of accountability – such as the National Prosecuting Authority and the Public Prosecutor – show themselves to be compromised and ineffectual.

The tone of remarks at the awards event reflected this: the fate of businesses like Sanlam is dependant on the country’s prosperity; that prosperity is at risk; so they are looking for ways to reduce that risk. And that does – or should – means support for the muckrakers they would normally keep at a cautious arm’s length.

“At a time when South Africa faces a myriad of challenges, the role of financial journalists, in particular, is important in supporting the country in the efforts to build the sustainable and inclusive growth which we must all strive for, Sanlam Group CEO Ian Kirk said. “There have been many occasions when the media has proven its commitment to this role, but in recent times, particularly since that fateful early evening of 9 December 2015, this could not be more relevant and evident …

“While the country is currently consumed with the revelations that have surfaced from the leaked emails which seem to connect the dots, when all of it is done, we are dependent on financial journalists to report on the implications for the country’s economy and the impact on all of us. That is why Sanlam has continued to support these Awards and other initiatives aimed at contributing to the advancement of journalism, either through training or recognition,” Kirk said.

I hope this means that business will think about how they need to support our journalism, particularly of this hard-nosed investigative sort, and ensure that bodies like Ama-B survive the financial and political challenges they face.

It was also noteworthy who did not feature in the awards – and what this says about the shrinking range of financial journalism. Independent Newspaper’s Business Report got barely a mention, and that was true too of another long-time contender, Media24’s FinWeek. The rejuvenated Financial Mail won two categories (Claire Bisseker for economics, and editor Rob Rose for financial markets) and others went to MNet/Carte Blance, Moneyweb and Forbes magazine.

* The Lifetime Achievement Award went to another fiercely independent, hard-nosed muckraker, Anne Crotty – and it was much deserved.

Lessons from Monty Python and the Holy Grail

FANS of Monty Python and the Holy Grail will remember the Black Knight, who would not allow King Arthur to pass. When Arthur chops off his arm, he dismisses it as, “Just a scratch … I’ve had worse”. When he chops off his other arm, “It is just a flesh wound”. He uses his legs to kick the king’s butt, until one is hacked off. “The Black Knight always triumphs,” he cries as Arthur takes off his last limb. “All right,” Arthur says as he rides past him, “we’ll call it a draw.”

Journalists, faced by President Jacob Zuma’s resuscitation of the tired threat of a media appeals tribunal and the Protection of State Information Bill are feeling like the Black Knight. We fight to protect our media freedom, we lose a limb, we dismiss it as “just a flesh wound” and the king rides on. Both these threats to rein in the government’s media critics have been promised for years, but we have never seen so much as a concept document for the tribunal and the bill has been sitting unsigned on Zuma’s desk for almost two years.

This is not to say that these are not real threats that need to be fought by those who value media freedom, but they do have the dual effect of leaving a sword hanging perpetually over our heads and distracting from the substantive issues facing the media.

There is a lot wrong with our news media. Newsrooms are shrinking and there is less of the basic reportage needed to keep citizens abreast of what is going on and less of the editing that brings quality control. One major daily newspaper has just six reporters, which is wholly inadequate to do the basic job.

There is a homogeneity to the voices and images we see and hear that does not reflect the diversity of this country. Investigative journalism may be strong and important, but it has a narrow range, focused primarily on stories of corruption. None of these problems are attended to in any way by what government has put on the table.

Meanwhile, government is increasingly using its power and resources to promote journalistic sycophants and sideline its critics.

It has seized more direct control of the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) and ensured the public broadcaster is not as critical as it was in the 1990s. It put together a deal involving Chinese allies, Public Investment Corporation money and a friendly front-man to take control of one of the country’s biggest newspaper groups and bring it closer to the governing party.

The government is using parastatals and provincial governments to pull advertising revenue from critical newspapers and put them into more friendly ones. It has the SABC sponsoring the New Age newspaper and South African Airways taking out mass subscriptions at a time that these institutions need taxpayer bail-outs.

And it is quietly creating a new range of state-owned government mouthpieces to serve its purposes. Departments have been instructed to move their job adverts from papers such as the Sunday Times to the government’s Vuk’uzenzele, even if this will not reach the target market.

The draft policy on support for community media, which has drawn little attention, signals the same patterns. It proposes to sideline the agency set up to support community media, the Media Development and Diversity Agency, probably because it works at arm’s length from the state, and to set up an office in the Department of Communications to take over this role.

It proposes a new model of provincial, community TV, funded by the provinces, which probably means more government media and less funding for independent media.

All of this collectively has the effect of shrinking the space for independent, critical media — the lifeblood of our democracy.

And yet the government wants us to focus on the tribunal. As the king rides past us, he tells us, “We’ll call it a draw.”

*This column first appeared in Business Day, 22 October 2015

Why the Independent Media panel on reader commentary disappointed

The panel advising Independent Media on its handling of hate and other objectionable online reader commentary has recommended that these newspapers start pre-editing all online reader commentary or close it down.

This is worrying. It will cost significant money to pre-edit all this material, so management will be tempted in these tough times to shut it down – which would be a retrogressive step.

Besides, pre-editing worries me, as it closes down the space for conversation and debate rather than targeting the seriously problematic material.

The panel was set up by company chair Dr Iqbal Survé who was concerned about the amount of hate speech and other offensive material in the readers’ comments on the company’s news sites. It seemed somewhat over-the-top to have a six-person team to go through such an elaborate process to set policy on a standard media issue. But this might have been because Dr Survé wants to take firm action without evoking even more of the hostility he has faced in the media world.

And it seemed strange to put together a team without anyone with much frontline experience in handling this problem. Just two weeks ago, there were two international experts in town discussing how they have grappled with this issue in England and Germany – James Lamont, managing editor of the Financial Times, and Anita Zielina, formerly of Stern – both of whom had fascinating and important ideas on this front. It seems that the panel did not hear what was being said by some of those on the cutting edge of this global debate. A pity.

In short, the panel recommended that the company:
– adopts a narrow definition of unacceptable speech which takes into account local conditions
– appoints internal moderators to vet all reader comment prior to publication (rather than cleaning it up afterwards)
– that all commentators be required to register to ensure that are accountable for their views and do not abuse anonymity
– that if this proved unaffordable, it would be preferable to close down commentary than allow it to continue uncontrolled. The report indicates that this was a majority, and not a unanimous view of the panel.

I am with them on the narrow definition of what should be considered unacceptable. There needs to be great care to avoid the temptation to remove what is merely controversial or even offensive.

And I can (reluctantly) accept the requirement for commentators to register. Anonymity does sometimes allow difficult things to be said which need to be said, but it also makes it too easy to dish up hate speech or defamation.

I believe it would be in the interests of open debate and discussion to avoid pre-editing, but rather have moderators who can move quickly to remove material which crosses the line and even blacklist repeat offenders. Readers’ help can be solicited to make this fast and efficient, as can technology.

But if the pre-publication moderators have a light touch, focusing only on the truly problematic material, then the temptation to be too controlling can be avoided.

I am worried that the panel has opened the door to Independent – under pressure like all newspaper groups to cut costs – just closing down commentary, or closing most of it down, as this is contrary to the spirit of open and free exchanges of views on the internet.

But what concerns me the most is that they have proposed only a defensive policy, rather than a positive one which would embrace the value of user participation in online discussion and debate. Perhaps this is because they were asked to come up with a strategy to deal with hate speech, rather than what would have been a more progressive attempt to encourage and enable good, valuable and rich reader engagement.

There is both a moral and a business case for a more positive approach. The moral case is that we want South Africans to be active, participative citizens and this involves engaging in public debate, even if we don’t like some views.

The business case is that every site needs to work on its “stickiness”, its capacity to keep its audience involved so that they stay with the site. And participation is crucial to this.

A site without reader commentary would be a step back towards old media rather than embracing the interactive, participatory power of new media.

Lamont told of times when the FT had simply closed down comment sections when they were abused. But he also spoke of the value of the online conversation and the need to find ways to highlight the good, intelligent, informed and useful commentary, and isolate the rubbish. And Zielina spoke of ways of embracing readers as moderators and recognizing and encouraging those who offered worthwhile commentary – and not just homing in on the negative.

Ode to a big dreamer: Lesley Perkes

We all have dreams, but some of us have huge dreams. Lesley Perkes was one of those who didn’t mess around with the small stuff. She was an endless source of ideas and passion for huge public art projects that could change our city and the lives of those in it. Decorating massive towers, putting huge paintings on huge buildings, mobilising dozens of artists to speak out about political and social issues … These were the things always on her mind.

And she was one of the few people who actually pursued their big dreams. She had endless energy and persistence in trying to convince the city or corporate South Africa to do bold and different things. Many of those who worked in the city’s cultural bureaucracy will tell you how she hounded and pursued them with ideas and plans, refusing to let anyone equivocate.

Lesley cared about people, about art, culture, public space, public discussion, about her country and city – not as a place or a site, but a space occupied by real people.

She had little time for cant. At her funeral, one of her friends told me that whenever he saw her she would say, “Haven’t you made enough money yet? Isn’t it time you did something useful?” And she had a bunch of suggestions, I expect, for what this person could do.

The attendance at her funeral was a tribute. It was one of the biggest I have been to in a long time, and the crowd was all kinds: young and old, businessmen, bureaucrats and bums, artists and con artists, musicians and mavericks. Mostly mavericks, come to pay tribute to a marvellous, big-hearted maverick.

*This tribute fist appeared in City Press Online, February 2015

New ANC approach to media is crafty, smart and more effective

On a recent morning, I woke up and over a cup of coffee and since my newspaper deliveries were late, I turned to social media. It was a few days after the Charlie Hebdo massacre and within a few minutes I was alerted and linked to multiple layers of argument over the issue. Those expressing sympathy, those expressing difficulty with sympathizing with them, those who expressed sympathy with others … it was rich, complex, informative and challenging.

I also found and watched Trevor Noah’s superb performance on the Daily Show in the US, a few interesting local articles and some quirky links to entertaining material I would not otherwise have known about. Since these had been posted or ‘liked’ by my ‘friends’, it was quite likely that they would entertain me.

Then I turned to traditional media. I could flip through the city’s morning newspapers in minutes. Johannesburg has eight of them, from five different owners, so there is no shortage. The important stuff I had already read online, where I found a much richer, more varied selection of interpretations than could possibly fit into the papers. The lesser stuff was barely worth my time. And the interesting opinions and columns I had already read online.
I have known it for some time, but our newspapers are sclerotic. They are failing to rise to the challenge presented by online and social media, still living in an age where they could define and control the news flow. They are dull. They are not telling me much beyond the surface of what is happening in our country today. They are failing us as citizens, and failing our democracy. No wonder my students look at me with amazement when I suggest it is a good idea to read newspapers.

To understand what lies behind this, one has to understand the change in media strategy in the governing party, a change in the way they fight what they have called in policy papers “the war of ideas”, that lies at the core of this.

ANC media policy has gone through three phases since 1990. When they came to power, they had very open media policy: open up broadcasting, transform the SABC into an independent public broadcaster, give support and subsidy to build community media, criticize and engage with the private media – particularly newspapers – but essentially leave them alone. Push the private media to transform, they were saying, but do not interfere with them.

The second phase came a few years ago. Fed up with the criticism and scrutiny they were getting from quite a hostile newspaper sector – and let’s face it, it was quite hostile – they threatened intervention. They called for an inquiry into a Media Tribunal, which would have dismantled the press self-regulatory system and replaced it with a statutory one; and they drew up the Secrecy Bill which was a direct threat to the investigative journalism which was making the lives of key leadership so uncomfortable.

But those measures ran into strong opposition, including within the ANC itself, and it was doubtful whether they would pass constitutional muster. The threat of a Media Tribunal – always a crude and unworkable idea – has been moved to the backburner, a silent background threat; a watered-down but still problematic Secrecy Bill has been on the president’s desk for a year without signature, and without explanation. That strategy had not got very far, mainly because it was crude and pursued in a rough and ham-handed way. It only got the ruling party worse media coverage.

That led, I believe, to a third phase, unannounced, subtle and only discernable now that it has been in place for a while, operating below the radar. The ANC saw how it could use its power, influence and access to state resources to support the emergence of more friendly media and put the squeeze on critical. This happened in a number of different ways:

– Instead of complaining about the influence of advertisers, the government began to realize it was a power they also held, since collectively they were one of the biggest media spenders. But this power was dispersed among scores of different state and parastatal entities, so they moved to centralize control over media buying and began to shift their spending to media they wanted to support and withhold it from those they were angry with. This had to be done discreetly, as it could easily fall into conflict with the Public Finance Management Act if they were seen to be making political decisions about spending public money. The most egregious example of this was the R43-m sponsorship by Eskom of New Age business breakfasts – a massive overpayment from a parastatal that was not flush with cash. It emerged just this week that the government was giving New Age with its 150 000 readers 10% of its spending, about the same as the Daily Sun, which has about R5-m readers.

– The ANC also used its influence in the Industrial Development Corporation (IDC) and the Public Investment Corporation (PIC) and its allies in China to put public money behind the purchase by an ally of Independent Newspapers, one of the biggest newspaper groups in the country. Again there was gross overpayment and dubious use of public monies. My understanding was that it was key ANC leaders who put this coalition together. It is no coincidence that the structures of ownership in the Sekunjalo Independent Newspapers are murky; this is part of the pattern of back-door influence. Dr Surve moved quickly against independent and critical voices on his newspapers.

– At the same time, there began a much more direct and aggressive move to seize control of the SABC and bring it into line. This involved direct intervention in the SABC board and key and controversial appointments, and these individuals were protected as long as they could deliver suitable content.

– Critical decisions over set-top boxes were held up, putting an embarrassing and costly delay on the migration of broadcasting to digital. Why was this? Was this just dithering? I think it is because it gave a stick to wield over television companies. It emerged that eTV, lobbying hard for regulation in its favour, was pushed into running unannounced editorial puffs on its news to curry favour with government. Its independence had been quietly compromised.

The ANC had put away the big stick, and were now using state resources, patronage and state power to reshape the media to its liking. The party has control of parliament and this gives them considerable influence over key appointments and public funds and they have been using this to exert influence over private media. The result has become dramatic in recent months, with a tangible and visible dimunition of the space for critical, independent, accountability journalism. This new approach was crafty, smart, insidious and more effective.

Of course, some of this is legitimate politicking. Media ownership, control and influence are contested spaces in a democracy and so they should be, whether one is talking of public or private media. The government and the ruling party are entitled to lobby and push for more and better media coverage as much as anyone else. Independent media is always under pressure from every quarter that wants to compromise its independence. Where it is of concern is where government activity crosses the line into the abuse of public money and position – such as when the Minister writes to SABC board members to call them to account, or parastatals waste money on overpriced advertising and sponsorship.

It is important to see that this comes at a time when other institutions of accountability – such as Icasa, the broadcast and telecoms regulator – are either neutered, and ineffectual, or under attack for their critical independence – like the National Prosecutions Authority and the Public Protector. The ruling party has direct influence over most of these institutions and the key positions within them because they control parliament and these institutions answer to parliament. And that is why the private media is so important – it is one of the very few powerful institutions of accountability which stands outside of direct state control. So it has a special role at a time when other institutions are under pressure.

You also have to place this against the background of what is happening in media and journalism globally. This comes at a time when the media is under severe financial pressure anyway, and therefore more vulnerable to political and financial manipulation.

It is well know what financial pressures the industry is under: The rise of digital, interactive and social media has undermined the business model that has driven news media and paid for journalism for about 150 years. Journalists drew audiences, and these were sold to advertisers, who subsidized the cost of the content. But traditional media, particularly newspapers, can no longer draw enough advertising to pay for journalism in the same way.

Globally, the results have been:

– Shrinking newsrooms, particularly the loss of more expensive specialist and investigative reporters

– A breakdown of the barriers that protected journalists from the influence of advertisers. This is best symbolized by the rise of ‘native advertising”.

– A growth in populism, tabloid journalism and its digital equivalent – clickbaiting – as outlets seek to minimize cost and maximize audience in an increasingly competitive market.
We are left asking how we will pay for journalism, particularly the more expensive and risky investigative, accountability and independent journalism that is the lifeblood of our work and our citizenship.

South Africa had something of a respite for some years, along with countries like China and India, where there was still space for traditional mass media to grow. What happened in this country is that the rise of a new generation of tabloids from about 2002, led by the Daily Sun, revived the newspaper market and hid the fact that the older titles were stagnating or shrinking. But this all changed 2-3 years ago, when all the newspapers started to show dramatic loss of readership. This has accelerated in the last year; even the papers which appeared to be relatively immune, such as the weeklies and the isiZulu newspapers, are now seeing serious readership decline. To illustrate how serious this is: the Star, which peaked in the early 1990s at about 210 000, is now 84 000; the Daily Sun, which was at 500 000, is done to about 265 000; the Sunday Times, which was also around 500 000, is well below 400 000; the Mail & Guardian, which had seemed relatively immune, has shrunk from around 50 000 to under 40 000.

This would not be a problem if readers and advertisers were moving to the internet, but the internet is too fragmented, and too much information is free to make the old model work.
Globally, we can see that some newspapers are finding various ways forward in developing new and different sources of online revenue. We can contrast the approaches of the New York Times and The Guardian, both of which have invested hugely in building large global online audiences. The New York Times’ revenue is now based on subscriptions and they are earning significantly from this. The Guardian is free, and earning money from a whole range of services around the website. The Guardian earned a not insignificant £60-m from their website in the last financial year, so their losses are dropping. But their open website has made them a leading, if not the leading, global newspaper and they are expanding aggressively. With the wikileaks and Snowden stories, they have thrust themselves to the forefront of what Sheila Coronel at Columbia University has called ‘a golden age of investigative journalism’, propelled by the power of the internet.

These papers – and others who are scoring some success online – like the Financial Times, the Wall Street Journal and the Daily Mail – have very different approaches, but they one overriding factor in common: bold and aggressive investment in experimenting with different approaches to winning audience and revenue. The difficult we have in this country is that our owners are failing us: where they need to invest for a long-term turnaround, they are cutting costs to maintain short-term profits and putting us in a downward spiral. The Guardian is fortunate to be owned by a Trust, which is backing the editorial strategy and throwing everything at it; the Time is fortunate to be backed by a family which cares about the future of journalism. One of the key issues in South Africa is that we have few owners with this kind of long-term vision. By and large, we are being failed by our owners who have preferred to harvest quick profits and then exit. One of the issues we need to be discussing is forms of ownership, as our current forms are failing us and there are others – such as Trusts, Non-Profits – which need to be more fully considered.

The only South African company which has put long-term and serious investment into the internet is Media24, and this has made it the dominant local online player – and they should get credit for being first and being prepared to throw a good deal of resources at new media. As a result, News24 is by a long way the biggest news site in the country and quite often it is their Afrikaans newspapers which are the best at covering daily news. But Media24 led the retrenchment brigade last year, getting rid of some 440 people, ramping down, for example, their investigations unit. Their investment now is focused on e-commerce as the primary source of revenue. They have recently tasked editor Andrew Trench to build an online newsroom of 20 people, so there is some hope there of some significant investment in online original content.

Where there is investment in the internet media, very little of it is in original content. Our mainstream news websites carry largely agency copy, they are homogenous, they are dull, they are unchallenging. There is very little investment in experimenting with new ways of storytelling, in exploring the power and range and potential of the web. There are those websites that do not grow out of legacy media, which are stand-alone – notably Daily Maverick, which is more spunky and plays an important role in our national conversation – but this is largely in the real of opinion and analysis. The lack of finance and investments in fresh content means that the big gap is reportage, the big gap is having reporters out there, on the ground, telling us what is happening in this country. In a world which is seeing a resurgence in long-form narrative, we have no outlets here for anything more than 1 000 words, or any new forms of investigation and storytelling. We have no shortage of opinion, but we have huge gaps in our reporting of everyday life.

And let me say that cannot look at the South African media without raising the issue of diversity. While our newrooms, management and ownership have changed significantly in the last 25 years – we can debate whether they have changed enough, but then they have never changed enough – but content is more homogenous, more constrained, more limited than ever. Under apartheid, we had a leftwing, a rightwing and an active trade union media. Now our media speaks by and large with one voice, bang in the middle of the political spectrum. Vast swathes of our people barely appear in our media except as victims of poverty, as violent protestors and as perpetrators and – less frequently – as victims of crime. Their voices are only heard when they take to the streets to protest or, tragically, to loot the stores of foreigners.

I would like to add an historical perspective: there have been a few periods of SA history when the media has fallen quite out of step with accelerated political events, and alternative voices have risen to fill the space. I would identify three periods of heightened political activity, which left the mainstream media behind and led to the emergence of new voices:

– the late 19th and early 20th century, with the emergence of new black independent voices in the form of John Dube, Sol Plaatje, Jabavu and others. Most of these characters went on to play a key role in the formation of the ANC.

– In the 1950s, with the radicalization of the ANC and the emergence of the new generation of Youth League leaders, such as Mandela and Sisulu, we saw the emergence of the Leftwing Guardian as well as Drum magazine

– In the 1980s, the township uprising saw the birth of a new set of alternative newspapers across the country, ranging from the Weekly Mail to Grassroots newspaper in the Cape.

All of these publications in all three eras were small and marginal, but carried a weight and historical importance that outweighed their numbers. They punched above their weights. All emerged because of technological breakthroughs which made them possible: in the late 19th century, the setting up of printing presses in mission stations around the country; in the 1950s, the emergence of cheaper, faster web presses; in the 1980s, desktop publishing. All were driven by small groups of highly motivated and committed individuals. None were motivated by money.

Do the same conditions exist now? I am not sure, but I do think there are lessons to be drawn from those experiences.

And let me end by saying that we have three really important assets in dealing with this situation.

– We have our freedom, the protection of our constitution and our constitutional court. So it may be getting to find outlets to publish challenging material, but if we do, we at least now have the law on our side.

– We have a long and rich traditional of investigative reporting, and this has been true in recent times, when we had 3-4 powerful investigative teams doing important work. A golden era might now be under pressure, and might be coming to an end, but we have role-models, we have a tradition of feisty independence in at least some quarters to draw on, and this is very important.

– We have always and still have a number of dedicated, committed journalists, many of them frustrated, many of them hiding in the corners of our mainstream media, many battling to make a living – but determined and skilled and eager to join battle.

*This is the text of a talk given to an Open Society Foundation workshop held in Johannesburg, January 30, 2015.

No future of news without investment in people

AT A Future of News seminar at the University of the Witwatersrand last week, Financial Times (FT) of London managing editor James Lamont told how they had turned that operation around.

There were three key elements to their strategy of dealing with the loss of print readers and the difficulty of generating revenue on the internet. First, they charged for online access from early on, unlike the many who give away their online product. They ensured that the content was good enough to make their readers happy to pay for it. And they are working hard to engineer innovation and experimentation in what was a staid, old-style operation.

About two years ago, they hit the turning point when they started to earn more from their online subscriptions than the print product, and now they have rising profitability. Almost everyone’s job at the FT has changed significantly, but they still employ about 600 journalists around the world. Lamont — a former editor of our local Business Report — describes his function as preserving journalists’ jobs.

They make their profit not despite having so many people, but because of it. And that is what South African newspaper owners seldom realise — and why our industry is on a downward slide.

Almost across the board, the strategy of our news media companies has been to cut costs to maintain profitability in traditional media, without putting these resources into new media. Serial retrenchments have taken place in the past few years, and this shows in the product quality. It is a myopic approach that dooms them to a slow and painful death. Unless there is investment in the content people need and want and delivering it in the ways people want to consume it, there is no reason for people to take out their credit cards to pay for it.

The attitude of most local owners is captured by last week’s announcement that the national news agency, the South African Press Association (Sapa), will close. When Sapa needed investment to change its business model, it was not there. When other news agencies, such as Bloomberg and Reuters, were adapting to the changing world, the newspaper owners who controlled Sapa were cutting costs. Now there is not much left to save, and what should be a foundational news institution will be lost.

Every day I pick up our newspapers and — with only a couple of exceptions — I find stuff I have read via social media, where it is faster and often has more depth and complexity because of a wider range of sources and angles. Our newspapers are almost all being run for short-term profit, and with very little smart investment to take them into the new era.

The lesson from around the world is that those institutions — such as the Guardian and New York Times — that spend on quality content are the ones that are pulling through. Of course, these are international titles with masses of money to spend, and it is difficult to compare our local products in a small market, but most of our industry seems to know only how to slash costs.

Never mind the sclerotic print products. Local news websites are almost all dull and badly produced. You only have to read a story or two to know that there is little investment in the skills and talent it takes to do it half well. There is lots of opinion, because that’s cheap, but very little of the hard reporting and imaginative storytelling that is the lifeblood of journalism. The Daily Maverick website stands out, but that’s largely for its analysis rather than on-the-ground reporting.

The new owners at Independent News & Media are investing in technology and platforms to try to make up for years of neglect, and hopefully this will be followed by investment in people.

Media24 has appointed respected editor Andrew Trench to put together a new online newsroom, and that is promising. Though this company has always paid more attention to new technology than its counterparts and, as a result, its News24 site dominates the online news market, it is not because of the quality of the reporting, writing or editing. I hope this will be changing now.

*This column first appeared in Business Day, 12 February 2015

Wearing party colours is honest. But is it wise?

Journalists Karima Brown and Vukani Mde should be congratulated for their honesty in posting pictures of themselves in ANC regalia on social media last weekend.

These two, the group executive editor and group editor of opinion and analysis at Independent Newspapers, have caused a row about whether journalists should parade their political affiliations in this way. But at least they are being more honest than those journalists who try and hide their biases, histories and affiliations – usually unsuccessfully.

“We are ANC, we are committed, and we are proud. Take it or leave it,” is the attitude of the two key editorial policy-makers at one of the country’s biggest newspaper groups – and it is a transparent attitude. Brown went online to say that she had given up her membership of the ANC when she became a journalist, she would not apologise for being Left and a socialist and that her reporting on the ANC “had never been anything but factual”. That last bit is, well, not quite factual.

There are, broadly speaking, three lines of thinking among journalists on the issue of political affiliation. The first comes from those who stick to the rather quaint notion that they can be truly objective. We are professionals trained to leave our personal views at the door and cast aside our prejudices, this group argues.

More common nowadays are those who say that journalistic neutrality may be elusive, even impossible to achieve, but – like perfect beauty – is still an ideal worth striving for. One can see the virtue of such an approach in reporting routine news events, such as car crashes or court cases where the main purpose is to convey a set of conflicting facts and allow the audience to form their own view. It is particularly valid in the age of social media when the flood of rumour and opinion puts a premium on solid, trustworthy reporting.

The Brown/Mda position would be that we should stop trying to achieve the impossible or pretend to be what we are not. We should acknowledge that we all have biases and be open about it. If the audience knows where one stands, they can consume one’s reporting with this knowledge and make their own judgments. This approach allows journalists to be engaged and passionate, rather than dispassionate and bland.

South Africa has had many well-known journalists with party-political affiliations. Think DF Malan, first editor of Die Burger and later Prime Minister. Most of the Afrikaans newspapers were so in thrall to the apartheid government that they failed dismally to cover the horrors of that system of government.

On the other hand, there are some journalists who doubled up in politics who have done fine work. One recalls Sol Plaatje and John Dube, both pioneering newspapermen of the early 1900s who also were the first president and general secretary of the ANC.

Most of the country’s best and worst journalism has come from those who identified with a political cause.

To be fair, neither Brown nor Mde are uncritical of the ANC, though they write from an “inside” perspective and their criticism generally falls within narrow parameters. One is reminded of those Afrikaans editors who argued that they led from the front in the National Party, pushing for reform. They might have, but did they cover what they should have covered?

This is what matters at the end: the quality of their journalism – and it is not clear that this is determined by political affiliation.

A great deal depends on what kind of publication or broadcaster one works for. At a public broadcaster like the SABC, party affiliation should be out of the question, as their journalists need to be seen to answer to no political party. At smaller or niche privately-owned media, it is more common to take up advocacy as a way of carving out a place in the market.

There are complications, however, for more general, mass market outlets. Brown/Mde represent not just themselves, but a major media company whose readers and staff come from across the political spectrum. Does this mean, readers might ask, that we should see the paper as a voice of the ANC? Will they block stories which might touch a raw nerve in the governing party? Are they too close to power to be critical?

Journalists at Independent might start to ask themselves if party support will help them get promotion – the kind of attitude which has poisoned the SABC. They will recall that senior reporter Donwald Pressly was fired last year when his name appeared on a Democratic Alliance nomination list.

But, argues Brown, the issue with Pressly was that he kept it from his employer. She and Mde have never hidden their political views and are not standing for office.

But does Independent have a clear policy on these issues, consistently applied? If so, why are we not hearing about it?

Brown and Mde have been honest. But, one may ask, have they been wise?

*This appeared in City Press, 18 January 2015