An Open Letter to Adri Senekal de Wet

One might imagine that when the editor of a major newspaper calls for journalism to be criminalised, we’d get a few more details. But her opinion piece does not elaborate on what would constitute unethical or fake news, why it ought to be criminalised, who would be the arbiter of truth, or why she wouldn’t be the first to be marched off in shackles.”

Ivo Vegter, Daily Maverick, 10/4/2018

Dear Adri,

Twenty eighteen marks my 50th year in the business of news gathering and dissemination and, in all that time, I have never come across a headline which more succinctly and cogently summed up my sentiments than the one on your article in the Business News supplement of the Cape Times on 9 April.

Unethical and fake news should be criminalised

You are something of a veteran yourself, I notice Adri, and that was underlined by the sheer genius and exquisite irony of your choice of photograph to accompany your brilliant article and its brilliant headline. The photograph shows your boss – to whom truth and courtesy and gravitas – are inviolable imperatives, in animated conversation with Zizi Kodwa and Cyril Ramaphosa.

Nothing could have been more apposite because, as you will recall Adri, ‘Doc’ – as you and Gasant Abarder affectionately call him – did everything in his power to ensure that Cyril Ramaphosa did not become President. His campaign on behalf of Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma culminated in a sordid Fake News article by Sunday Independent editor Steve Motale which falsely claimed that Ramaphosa was blesser and a serial adulterer.

In this regard I would like to refer you to one of the remarks made by ‘Doc’ in one of the unprecedented number of puff pieces that suddenly appeared in Indy newspapers shortly after he became the owner:

“When I talk about the transformation of our media, I’m not talking about owning media brands that will all blindly champion the cause of a political party. I’m talking about transformation so that we tell the South African story: fully, honestly and without agenda.”

Well, when it came to promoting NDZ and undermining the campaign which subsequently became known – despite ‘Doc’s’ best efforts – as ‘Ramaphoria’, ‘Doc’ was certainly not subtle and his agenda was obvious from the start. In fact, in order to employ Steve Motale – Kenny Kunene and Gayton Mckenzie’s tjommie and an avid Jacob Zuma acolyte, – ‘Doc’ fired Wally Mbhele the editor of the Sunday Independent. He dismissed Mbhele for having the temerity to publish an adverse article about one of Jacob Zuma’s main facilitators, the Sobbing Sage of the Saxonwold Shebeen aka Brian ‘Sam Browne’ Molefe who is quite adept as a property speculator and pension enhancer and, it will be recalled, was verbally abusive towards SABC news anchor Francis Heard. Mbhele’s dismissal had as much to do with morality as the prior dismissal of Alide Dasnois for publishing an article about the dodgy Tina Joemat-Pettersson-organised tender which featured in the Public Protector’s ‘Docked Vessels’ report.

In February this year, Steve Motale did what Karima Brown did – he resigned. The number of editors and respected senior news people who have been driven out of Sekunjalo Independent Media or have chosen to distance themselves from its editorial approach is unprecedented in South African media history; Alide Dasnois, Chris Whitfield, Moshoeshoe Monare, Makhudu Sefara, Philani Mgwaba and Wally Mbhele. What does that tell you, Adri, about the news policy and corporate philosophy of Iqbal Survé and about the way in which he treats staff?

Adri, Ivo Vegter has already analysed your ‘Unethical and fake news should be criminalised’ article but I’d like to present for your erudite analysis another media conundrum involving ‘Doc’.

On 27 January last year a front page article in the Cape Times was headlined ‘Cape Times scoops another honour’.

In it, Dr Iqbal Survé aka ‘The Fearless Leader’ is quoted:

“First of all, congratulations to the editor and the editorial team at the Cape Times for having put together a newspaper front page which has been regarded as one of the top 10 in the world at The Newseum for the third time in a year.”

Cape Times editor Aneez Salie is also quoted:

“I’d like to hail our talented team that has come in the top 10 out of 1 000 newspapers on a huge story like Trump, beating even the mighty US papers in their own backyard.”

Purge of white staff

I was puzzled by this because I knew that there had been well-publicised Sekunjalo purge of white staff at the newspaper with senior sub-editors with decades of experience, institutional knowledge and loyal commitment to the newspaper like Glen Bownes and Dan Simon being driven out. So did the Cape Times really blow the doors off newspapers like the Washington Post, the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal? Not to mention The Guardian, the Times of India¸ the Sydney Morning Herald, The Asahi Shimbun, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Le Monde and La Stampa.

You can read the full story here but suffice it to say, the claim was devoid of truth and, on the face of it, seems to have been made in a deliberate attempt to mislead readers and advertisers. Was this done to combat plunging circulation and advertising revenue? Circulation and revenue figures which led ineluctably to the company’s present insolvency as corroborated in Pre-Listing Statement of the proposed Sagarmatha JSE listing which, as we now know, never came to fruition under what seems to be questionable circumstances?

I would welcome your input Adri, but this seems to be a classic case of unethical and Fake News that should be criminalised. I say that because, in my subjective opinion, the false claim of repeatedly defeating the world’s oldest and most reputable newspapers by producing the best front page layouts in an international ‘competition’ that did not exist, could well be fraudulent.

If, Adri, you need more examples of unethical and Fake News articles that have been published by Independent Newspapers since ‘Doc’ took control in 2013 with a R1 billion soft loan from the PIC – and that should by your definition be criminalised – you can find them aplenty with no effort at all.

There has been one example after another, after another, after another, after another, after another, after another,  after another, after another  after another and so on and so on and so on and so on and so on and so on and so on.

In essence, do these articles not manifest a corporate culture of contempt for both the letter and the spirit of section 1.1. of the South African Press Code?:

‘The media shall take care to report news truthfully, accurately and fairly.’

Perhaps you would care to comment on this Adri, particularly in the context of what Joe Thloloe, executive director of the Press Council of South Africa said after Iqbal Survé aped the Guptas and withdrew his newspapers from the Press Council system of accountability and ethical journalism:

‘Forty-eight of the complaints received by the public advocate were against publications in the Independent Media company, which has hived off from the Press Council of SA (PCSA) and established its own in-house system.’

What is a matter of record, Adri, is that ‘Doc’ replaced the Press Council system with his own ombudsman, a long time company employee, as part of a system which required aspirant complainants to pay R5000 upfront and to waive all their legal rights thereafter. Needless to say, there were no takers.

Heroic campaign

‘Doc’ has, with monotonous consistency, claimed that he and he alone is leading a bravely heroic campaign to ‘transform’ the media landscape in South Africa and that his critics are resolutely opposed to this.

In response to the Sam Sole analysis on Daily Maverick, of the ‘Intergalactic Sagarmatha Unicorn’ ‘Doc’ was again quoted in this regard:

‘Group executive chairman Dr Iqbal Survé said the attacks on Independent Media were designed to stop meaningful transformation in the media industry and prevent black people from accessing capital markets’

Help me out here please, Adri.

On 13 July 2016, Glenda Nevill the news editor of the Media Online website published an article quoting Intellidex research. It showed that, in terms of the black ownership as a percentage on the BEE scorecard, the Times Media Group (biggest shareholder Tiso Blackstar) had achieved 58.47. It thus outscored the 55% of Independent Newspapers (biggest shareholder Sekunjalo Independent Media).

Given that ‘Doc’ never challenged the Intellidex figures and did not sue Media Online for defamation, is his claim that companies like Tiso Blackstar and individuals like Sam Sole are seeking to ‘prevent black people from accessing capital markets’ not a shocking example of ‘un-ethical and fake news’ that should be ‘criminalised’?

Then, Adri, there was his Fake News threat against Rhoda Kadalie and the Fake News campaign against Dr Max Price  of the allegedly ‘apartheid UCT’ which drew  critical comment from Jonathan Jansen and which was the subject of an honours thesis by UCT student Ricky Stoch.

Media Orania in reverse?

I would, Adri, also appreciate your input on another matter relating to ‘transformation’ in the media with specific reference to the Cape Times. I was told that the last white newsroom staff working exclusively for the Cape Times were retrenched – along with more than a hundred Indy staff members – with specific intent just before Christmas in 2016. I have, since then and without success, scanned the Cape Times every weekday searching for the by-lines of white reporters or photographers. None could be found. I was told that after the Sekunjalo takeover, it became a de facto policy on the Cape Times not to appoint white staff. All you have to do, Adri, to rebut the damaging perception about a once-revered newspaper having reverted to an apartheid-era job reservation policy – a sort of media Orania in reverse – is to provide details of the white staff employed in the Cape Times news room since Iqbal Survé gained control and proof that this white cohort confirms with the 9% demographic ratio of the white population in South Africa.

When the Sekunjalo takeover was announced in 2013, both Iqbal Surve and Dr Dan Matjila refused to provide details of how much of  the supposedly sacrosanct investments of civil servants in the Government Employees Pension Fund had gone into funding the questionable R2 billion purchase of Independent Media newspapers.  This censorship by ‘Doc’ and Matjila contravened the Bill of Rights provision in chapter two of the Constitution. When, thanks to the honesty of Mcebisi Jonas and the concern of the DA’s David Maynier, Matjila was forced to provide this information in parliament he said he wanted to create a ‘Black Naspers’.

What a crock.

What he was in fact doing, was putting into practice the ANC goal, articulated in 1997 by Joel Netshitenzhe writing in the African National Congress publication Umrabulo, who defined ‘transformation’ as:

“[E]xtending the power of the National Liberation Movement over all levers of power: the army, the police, the bureaucracy, intelligence structures, the judiciary, parastatal, and agencies such as regulatory bodies, the public broadcaster, the central bank and so on.”

At a stroke Matjila effectively placed the Zuma faction of the ANC in control of the largest group of English newspapers in the country. In fact, two of the first senior news executives employed by ‘Doc’ were Karima Brown and Vukani Mde and they were employed after writing an article defending President Jacob Zuma. Furthermore, they then wrote an article threatening the white news staff at Independent newspapers and then the Right to Know campaign  before setting off to an ANC meeting, dutifully wearing ANC regalia.

Ethical journalism died an incendiary death within the Indy newspapers after the Sekunjalo takeover and investigative journalism simply ceased to exist. The Cape Times, in my subjective opinion, has been weaponised as an anti-white propaganda sheet. A disgraceful program of relentless Fake News culminated in the front page lead in the Sunday Independent on 3 September 2017 which falsely accused Cyril Ramaphosa of being a frenetic and adulterous fornicator who slaked his sexual lusts by preying on financially-vulnerable students.

In my opinion, Adri, the odious Cyril Ramaphosa ‘blesser’ article – cobbled together with the help of the ‘new Guptas’ – perfectly defined the concept of ‘Fake News’.

The bottom line, Adri, is that despite all your spin, the attempt to sucker the PIC for a second time failed and we now know Sekunjalo Independent Media is effectively insolvent. In fact, as Tim Cohen pointed out in Business Day:

‘As it turns out, the PIC didn’t play along. The potential investment didn’t make it past the first of four PIC committees that investments need to pass. The first examined only the valuation and decided it was nonsense.’

Does this surprise you, Adri, given that, as Robert Laing pointed out in Business Day, that Sagarmatha’s asking price was more than 100 times its book value?

What’s your opinion Adri? Particularly in the context of what the confidante of the late Brett Kebble and, allegedly of Nelson Mandela, and a sports psychologist of note, said when interviewed by Mandy de Waal  for Daily Maverick at the time of the  Sekunjalo takeover:

“If you know anything about me you know that I operate with incredible integrity.”

Tim Cohen’s conclusion in his recent Business Day article was ominous:

“So what now? It’s really for the PIC to decide, but the fact is that its well-meaning investment, aimed at returning the ownership of a local newspaper group to local hands, is kaput. The PIC needs to start thinking about forcing a merger, otherwise a whole bunch of SA’s long-loved newspapers are going to disappear pretty soon.”

Would I be wrong, Adri, if I said that Iqbal Survé has done immense damage to the reputation of the Fourth Estate in South Africa?

Ed Herbst

Ed Herbst started his news career as a photographer with the Natal Witness in 1968 but quickly switched to reporting while retaining an interest in photography. He joined the SABC in its Pretoria news office as a camera reporter in 1977, one year after television was introduced in South Africa. In 1978 he was seconded to the SABC’s Windhoek office for six months to cover the run-up to the country’s UN-monitored election and was then posted to the SABC’s Sea Point news office. He asked for early retirement in 2005 because of pervasive SABC corruption, news censorship and unaddressed abusive treatment of staff. From 2007 to 2009 he was employed as a consultant in the media department of the Cape Town municipality but became a pensioner when personal circumstances forced him to retire. He now writes without remuneration for local websites about the interface between media and politics. He is writing a book on media capture after 1994.

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