Former Independent Editors Fight the good Fight for Facts in Time of Fake News

Bk Paper TigerIt’s a sad and worrying time for print media worldwide highlighted here in Paper Tiger: Iqbal Survé and the downfall of Independent Newspapers by Alide Dasnois and Chris Whitfield (Tafelberg). They capture the devastation of a country in  trouble and how that impacts on almost every aspect when it starts to unravel. DIANE DE BEER, a former Independent journalist, celebrates the few journalists who are willing to fight for the facts in a time of fake news:

Print media is in trouble and has been for a while, but quite a few have found a way to counteract the negatives.

The NY Times, for example, returned to the basics, hiring  the best journalists they could find, and after the initial slump, their numbers have been climbing with a strong online presence. It’s tough to beat good journalism. Think of the Gupta Leaks and everything that followed in this country.

Good journalism is probably what editors/journalists Alide Dasnois and Chris Whitfield thought when they heard they had been bought by Iqbal Survé’s Sekunjalo Independent Media Consortium for R2 billion.

But the joy was short-lived because the day after Nelson Mandela died, Survé fired Cape Times editor Dasnois, seemingly because she disrespected Mandela by honouring the great man with a wraparound because of the dire deadlines. Yet many believed it really turned on a negative story used in her paper about one of Survé’s companies.

“In the dramatic days that followed, Independent’s newsrooms across the country were torn apart by suspicion, recriminations and what many of the journalists believed was a witch hunt to expel those not prepared to toady to Survé.”

That’s how the blurb on the back of Paper Tiger reads. As an Independent journalist at the time, I remember clearly the feelings of things flying apart. I was in my final four years after 30 years with the group and knew Dasnois, who had been an editor at the Pretoria News for a short time before she was appointed to the Cape Times.

I found her to be someone of unquestionable integrity, so I knew we were in trouble. I lasted a few more years, no choice really, but when we were offered retrenchments a year before my retirement date, I was grateful for the opportunity.

Shortly after I left, a half-page column by Des van Rooyen (often referred to derogatorily as Weekend Special because of his short stint as one of Zuma’s disastrous Minister of Finance appointees) appeared in the Independent Papers and I knew I had dodged a bullet.

Even when you’re not directly affected (in your writing, for example, because you’re in the arts), there are certain signs that are tough to ignore – even at the end of your official working years without any other options.

I never met Survé, even though all staff were sometimes summoned for a meeting in Joburg. I was the only arts journalist in Pretoria, which meant I had the excuse of work. It’s a sad state of affairs, knowing what the group represented and what they were before they were first plundered by the Irish, a situation also thoroughly discussed in the book.

According to Mwasa (Media Workers’ Association of South Africa), some 18 years after the initial investment by the Irish Independent Media (Sir Anthony O’ Reilly was the CEO), few of the contributions expected from foreign direct investment had been made. In fact there was an outflow of much of the local operation’s profits.

For those of us working there, the dramatic changes were quickly visible. During the period, for example, from 1999 to 2010, the operating margins were increased from 12,5% to 21,1%. Far from boosting employment numbers however, there was a significant reduction in employee numbers. These dropped from 5 223 at the time of the initial transaction to 1 500 at the end of the Irish run.

I remember that on my 40th birthday in 1992, we were 10 journalists in the Pretoria News arts section. That’s the number of signatures I counted on my birthday card. By the time I left at the end of 2016, I was the only one left, even though with the new democracy, the arts in this country expanded generously as it would have because of the improved circumstances in South Africa.

Instead of investing the money generated locally was used to pay off the Irish company’s debt. The consequences were evident everywhere as anything that could be cut was cut and the editors were pressured to run a financial rather than a newspaper concern.

On June 2 2009, in response to a message from Tony Howard to staff about “tough trading conditions”, Dasnois wrote to him summarising the situation at the Cape Times: she noted that she had worked on five of the company’s newspapers, three of them as editor, and had “witnessed the relentless stripping away of the capacity of those papers to offer the quality journalism which our readers demand and deserve”.

Something had to give and in the end, that’s why the South African Independent Media was sold and a different can of worms emerged, one that appeared to promise much at the start, especially as the circumstances at the newspaper group were so dire.

The rest reads like yet another of those fantastical stories that seem to have become a trademark of business in our desperate country. Good people are the ones who appear to pay the price, while those already bloated rise to the top.

It’s a sad state of affairs, and one we can only hope makes a sharp U-turn in 2020. The signs are there that the game is up for those who believed they could get away by making the rest of us pay.

In the final chapter, aptly titled A Sad Day For Journalism, the opening paragraph reads: By 31 December 2016, Sekunjalo Independent Media (SIM) had accumulated losses of  R617 million, and liabilities exceeded assets by R393,8 million. By 30 June 2017, accumulated losses had grown to R752 million, and liabilities exceeded assets by R547 million. SIM owed R909, 459,000 to the China Development Fund, R662,722,000 to the Government Employees Pension Fund (through the Public Investment Corporation) and R243,987,000 to the Southern African Clothing and Textile Workers’ Union. Half of this was payable in August 2018, and the rest in August 2020. In addition, the Government Employees Pension Fund held preference shares to the value of R433,180,000, which had to be serviced at the prime interest rate.

The rest is still playing out and those who worked at Independent, those who still read the papers, and those still working there, are watching and waiting…

It’s not as if newspapers needed any further debilitating and destructive forces to hasten their demise. There were many good people who worked hard to tell the real stories of a country in flux. That was not to be. But you can only fool some of the people some of the time…fortunately.

It’s a fascinating read as I knew it would be, given the authors. Working with one of them for just a short time was a high point in my newspaper career. I knew Dasnois would finally see her day.

The final sentence in the book shows her firing for the farce it was. And that at least makes you smile.

In the meantime, even though the full story has been told repeatedly, nothing yet has changed. But we’re hoping…