People in glass houses

South Africa's news media's much vaunted editorial independence.

Lorenia via Flickr (CC).

Late on Monday, the South African Mail & Guardian ran an online feature contrasting how local newspapers have been covering what’s become known as “Guptagate”, the unimaginative shorthand for the bi-national diplomatic and national security scandal unfolding around the Guptas, a wealthy South African family of Indian heritage, and their outsize influence over the country’s senior government officials, particularly Jacob Zuma, president of the country and the governing ANC. The purpose of the feature, one gathers from the nut graf and captions, is to illustrate that all but one newspaper—The New Age, a daily owned by members of the Gupta family—have been covering the story extensively from a week ago when it first broke. Such reviews of a peer’s coverage are an exceedingly rare practice in South African news media, and this instance particularly highlights the too-infrequently discussed issue of media ownership and its influence on commercial editorial decisions.

Though news be sad, yet tell them merrily

At the heart of the scandal is how the Gupta family, it would seem, used their connections at the Indian High Commission and their influence over South African government officials to obtain permission to land a plane full of over 200 wedding guests at an air force base on the outskirts of the country’s capital, Pretoria, last Monday, in breach of established diplomatic and national security procedures. The guests, skirting paying customs and excise duties, were then escorted by police (or cars decked out to look like police vehicles) to a faux-Vegas holiday resort, Sun City (yes, that resort), where some among them allegedly refused service from the resort’s black staff members and sexually harassed others. Amid the fall out, government ministers went hoarse, professing that they had no involvement whatsoever in any aspect of the whole arrangement. Yet some among them saw no conflict in attending the lavish wedding anyway. Atul Gupta, chairman of TNA Media (the company that owns The New Age), entered the fray when he expressed surprise at the fuss and said South Africa should be grateful for the investment the enterprising family brings to the country.

The bottom line here is: no matter your editorial values, the story was newsworthy. And despite the “Gupta fatigue” now setting in, the story will be newsworthy for some time to come as the inter-ministerial team set up to look into the matter is due to report in a few days.

But curiously, as the Mail & Guardian feature illustrated on Monday, The New Age initially ignored, then underreported (and possibly skewed the reporting of) the story.

This, of course, in its own right, is a mini scandal within a scandal.

It asks whether the editorial team of The New Age, led by veteran editor Moegsien Williams, has acted in accordance with the South African press code. Section 4.1 of the code, revised recently following heavy criticism of media practices in the country, states that “the press shall not allow commercial, political, personal or other non-professional considerations to influence or slant reporting. Conflicts of interest must be avoided, as well as arrangements or practices that could lead audiences to doubt the press’s independence and professionalism.”

From this it looks like a case can be made to say that the editorial team and journalists of The New Age allowed commercial, and likely personal and political, considerations influence how they reported on “Guptagate”. Williams has ways to reasonably defend this accusation, but how the paper went about covering the story certainly has been distinguishably anomalous.

A curious case of selective peer review?

Equally curious, though, is the rarity of reviews of a peer’s coverage like Mail & Guardian’s of The New Age’s “Guptagate” coverage—and that’s not because the news organizations seldom get it wrong. Before The New Age came along, these reviews were reserved mainly for the SABC, the public broadcaster picked on by other news organizations for cowing to political influence and being besieged by endless infighting.

There are obviously some exceptions, sort of. One occasion in recent history that comes to mind is when the Sunday paper, City Press, and Mail & Guardian awkwardly contradicted each other (and Mail & Guardian itself) over whether Zuma had, as his spokesman claimed, a mortgage on his Nkandla homestead. “Zuma has no bond,” the former ran as the Sunday lead. A few days later, the latter ran a story with the headline: “Zuma does have a bond – for R900,000”. A day later, FNB, the bank said to have given Zuma the mortgage, told Mail & Guardian that it couldn’t have because Zuma’s Nkandla homestead was built on communal land. Zuma’s spokesman, however, maintained that there was a bond, leaving the public thoroughly confused and likely misinformed.

But it wasn’t that Mail & Guardian took outright issue with City Press’s reporting of this aspect of a larger on-going story dubbed, surprise, surprise, “Nkandlagate”. One was building on the work of the other and they were both feeling their way mutually along a story that probably, with the benefit of hindsight, hit the pages a little undercooked.

And digital-only upstart Daily Maverick [disclosure: I used to work for Daily Maverick] has in the past taken on the weekly Sunday Times and the Daily Sun tabloid a few times for their reportage.

You could argue that peer review should be left to bodies appointed to fulfill this role formally, namely the Press Council and the SA National Editors’ Forum. Fair enough. You could argue, too, that the offences of the SABC and The New Age have been so exceptionally egregious that they warranted a deviation from the normal practice among peers. Certainly with the SABC you’d have a strong case to make in that respect.

His master’s voice, too

However, what drives other news organizations to look critically and frequently at the SABC and The New Age is the issue of undue outside influence affecting editorial decisions. At the SABC, that undue influence appears to be ANC politics and at The New Age it appears to be the interests of the Gupta family.

But are these other news organizations themselves free of such undue influence?

Let’s tally up the ownership numbers. As much as 90% of the country’s media titles are owned by four companies: Caxton, Independent Newspapers, Times Media Group (formerly Avusa) and Naspers through its subsidiary Media24. Recent transactions at two of these companies, Independent Newspapers and Times Media Group [disclosure: I have book deal pending with the a Times Media Group publishing house], have increased their local ownership, resolving a long-standing imbroglio over excessive foreign interests in the country’s print media.

In addition, these companies themselves are under the control of a handful of media barons, including Terry Moolman, the controlling shareholder of Caxton; Naspers chief executive Koos Bekker, “the Rupert Murdoch of South Africa”; and now Iqbal Survé, whose Sekunjalo Group recently signed an agreement to acquire Independent Newspapers. Times Media Group is slightly more diversified in terms of ownership.

The Mail & Guardian is owned by M&G Media, whose majority shareholder is Zimbabwean-born businessman Trevor Ncube. [Disclosure: I have an irregular blog on M&G’s Thought Leader platform.]

This in itself is no smoking gun. But, as Rhodes University media professor Jane Duncan points out regularly, such a concentration of ownership of titles and media companies is often considered socially detrimental, “as it can lead to a reduction in the plurality of media outlets and diversity of opinion, the homogenization of media content, the prioritization of the views of an elite minority, and the dominance of commercial interests over the public interest; all these negative effects can result in a poorly informed public … Furthermore, if media owners do attempt to censor editorial content, then the risks of a misinformed public are profound,whereas the existence of a plurality of ownership mitigates this risk.”

Speak softly and carry a big stick

The New Age has been subject to scrutiny from its peers from the time it arrived on the scene in 2010, with the relationship between the newspaper’s main shareholders, the Gupta family, and Zuma forming the basis of the scrutiny. Each of the editors that have taken the helm at The New Age (Williams is the fourth in three years) have, feeling the scrutiny, declared publicly their commitment to editorial independence.

The paper itself has been mired in controversy over the massive amounts of funding government departments and public entities have steered its way in the form of advertising and sponsorships of the business breakfasts it holds, particularly when the paper’s readership numbers are unknown.

These are certainly questions worthy of being posed. But because of the modes by which power is wielded, brashly and ostentatiously when first attained then, as the holder matures, cloaked by gaining influence enough to divert scrutiny and get what you want more “softly”, little is being asked of effects of media concentration on the editorial decisions of the country’s other newspaper titles. If anything, some questions are beginning to be asked of the new kid on the block, Survé, and his intentions with Independent Newspapers.

“Survé was given the benefit of the doubt when he was announced as the leading candidate to buy the large newspaper group, but it is impossible to take a view on his purchase if we don’t know who is involved or how it is being funded,” Wits University journalism and media studies professor Anton Harber wrote on his blog.” [Disclosure: I have an ebook contract with Mampoer Shorts, which was founded by Harber and others.] “The purchase of one of the country’s biggest newspaper groups is of huge public interest, and cannot be done in such secrecy. Survé owes it to his staff, his readers and the general public to open up.”

Survé contacted Harber after the blog was posted to say that he was only able to release the details of the transaction after shareholder approval.

Writing on her blog, media commentator Gill Moodie said, “Many journalists are worried about his (Survé’s) close ties to the top leadership of the ANC. And, as this Business Report story told us today, there is no charter for editorial independence at Independent Newspapers.”

Moodie notes that as far as she is aware, no other big media house has such a charter for editorial independence. Instead, as with Independent Newspapers, editorial independence is written into contracts of the editors of each title, if at all.

If you’re not looking for it, you won’t find it

Moodie also points out that conflicts between management and editors have a long history in South Africa and it’s often left up to the individual editors, should they have the backbone, to push back—a difficult task when your job and livelihood are on the line in an industry controlled by so few owners.

This isn’t to say that editors always toe the company line, but the position is precarious and, in terms of editorial independence, untenable.

In 1999, for example, Financial Mail editor Peter Bruce, currently editor and publisher of sister publication Business Day, received a public reprimand from Cyril Ramaphosa, who is presently the ANC deputy president, for an editorial that endorsed former Transkei general Bantu Holomisa (for president) and his United Democratic Movement ahead of the national general election that year. At the time, however, Ramaphosa was chairman of Johnnic and Times Media Limited (now Times Media Limited), which owned half of Bruce’s employer, the Financial Mail.

Bruce stood his ground, but he recalls over a decade later how “unpleasant” it was taking such calls from Ramaphosa and has described the fall out from the endorsement as “the most harrowing two months of my professional life”.

And this Sunday, 12 May, marks the one-year anniversary of the publication of the art review in City Press (owned by Media24, a subsidiary of Bekker’s Naspers) that set the newspaper on a collision course with the ANC and its alliance partners, who demanded that the paper’s editor, Ferial Haffajee, remove the picture that accompanied the review from its website. That picture, naturally, was of ‘The Spear’, Brett Murray’s now-infamous painting that depicted president Jacob Zuma genitals exposed, and the ensuing brouhaha was in some circles called, you guessed it, “Speargate”.

Bruce, believing that Haffajee should have never put the picture up in the first place let alone declared defiantly in her column that “the spear of the nation stays up”, wrote, “With hindsight, as I am sure she will find, it was not worth it. You survive. Time passes. Nothing changes. The Holomisa thing will make it into my obituary, if anyone bothers to write one. The president’s penis will be in hers.”

“In my humble opinion, Bekker would be within his rights to ask his editor to remove the threat to the wider business, though it would do his image as an amiable publishing wizard little good.”

Bruce’s alarming comments barely raised an eyebrow among his peers, at least not publicly. And Haffajee did eventually remove the picture from the website, a decision she later admitted regretting.

So how does the pressure Bruce and Haffajee faced differ from that which Williams is presently under at The New Age amid “Guptagate”? And is it difficult to imagine that other non-professional considerations have affected other editorial decisions at newspapers in this country, contrary to the values of the press code and to the press’s stated goal of enabling citizens to make informed judgements on the issues of the day?

Not very and not difficult at all, are the answers.

Yet only the editorial independence of certain media houses, those ostensibly linked to political power, like the SABC, TNA Media and now, apparently, Independent Newspapers, come under peer scrutiny. This begs the question: how have editors and journalists at commercial media houses come to understand the definition of “the forces that shape society”, as described by the press code, which enjoins them to scrutinize such forces independently? It would seem that to them, private commercial interests that aren’t overtly tied to political interests are outside their purview, as deeply disturbing as that thought might be.

Further Reading

Goodbye, Piassa

The demolition of an historic district in Addis Ababa shows a central contradiction of modernization: the desire to improve the country while devaluing its people and culture.