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Written by: Ed Herbst

The Naspers website News24 broke the story about the dismissal from SARS of Tom Moyane at 22:33 on 19 March, a story that Jacques Pauw described in the Naspers newspapers two days later as President Cyril Ramaphosa’s ‘best move yet’:

“The real problem is that President Jacob Zuma appointed people to posts about which they knew absolutely nothing.

Tom Moyane knows absolutely nothing about taxation but nevertheless waged a vendetta against certain people, myself included.

We have various dedicated civil servants but if one looks at the tax shortfall at SARS it becomes obvious that they completely failed to fulfill their duty.”

It was an absolutely riveting story and, immediately I had finished reading it, I logged onto the Sekunjalo-owned IOL website of Dr Iqbal Survé to get the Independent News Media take on Ramaphosa’s decision.

There was nothing.

In fact, the first information that IOL provided was at 5:58 the next morning – six and a half hours later!

Let me give you a striking example of how the IOL website does not even try to compete with the News24 website of Naspers:

Everybody knew that on the morning of 5 February, the People’s Tribunal on Economic Crime would hear the testimony of lawyer Ajay Sooklal, a former agent for French arms conglomerate Thales and its South African subsidiaries during the protracted Arms Deal scandal. Sooklal has indicated that he is willing to testify at the forthcoming corruption trial of Jacob Zuma which starts in Pietermaritzburg on 6 April.

Naspers accordingly had one of its top reporters, Pieter-Louis Myburgh live-streaming Sooklal’s explosive testimony onto the News24 website by midmorning. Marelise van der Merwe was also there, reporting for Daily Maverick.

I checked the IOL website throughout the day and could find no sign of any coverage of this event. At midnight that day I logged onto Iqbal Survé’s IOL website and typed the name Ajay Sooklal into the search bar. I also tried ‘People’s Tribunal’. There was nothing, and the reason for this censorship by omission might be that Sooklal’s testimony about Zuma’s corrupt involvement in Arms Deal scams and acceptance of bribes from arms manufacturers was damning and an ominous portent for him given the current political climate.

(During the run-up to the Nasrec presidential election, Survé openly supported the Zupta faction of the ANC.)

The next morning there was still no mention of Sooklal’s testimony before the tribunal on the IOL website and the last time his name was mentioned – in only one sentence – on IOL was 15 October last year.

Steady decline

The majority of newspapers around the world are losing sales and readership.

Throughout the world fewer and fewer people are buying newspapers and magazines because they prefer live-streamed reporting from their favourite journalists on social media or through online news portals both of which they access through their smart phones or computers.

In fact, a critical factor which won Buenos Aires mayor Mauricio Macri the 2015 election  in Argentina and increased support in the recent mid-term congressional elections, was his decision to abandon newspapers, television and radio and concentrate exclusively on Facebook through which he accessed 70% of the country’s population

The massive impact of news access via smartphone is demonstrated locally by the steady decline in newspaper sales.

Since the purchase from Tony O’ Reilly  in 2013 of Independent Newspapers –  the largest group of English newspapers in the country – by Dr Iqbal Survé’s Sekunjalo consortium – the sales figures of the Cape Times have remained mired at around 30 000 despite the billion rand plus in financial assistance from the Public Investment Corporation (PIC).

Now, according the recent figures cited by the Audit Bureau of Circulation and posted by the MarkLives website, they have dipped below 30 000 for the first time in the newspaper’s modern history:

“In the Cape, Die Burger (Eastern and Western Cape editions) has declined from 50 258 to 47 400. The Cape Argus has decreased from 29 796 to 27 662 (2 863 to PMIE), while the Cape Times has also declined from 30 781 to 29 673 (2 863 copies go to PMIE). Son has fallen from 74 103 to 66 043.”

Furthermore, I am told by contacts in local media circles, that if one strips away the giveaways at airports and schools, the true circulation figures of the Cape Times could be less than 26 000.

I suspect this could be true and I have personal knowledge of this because a friend teaches at a small primary school in Cape Town which has about 60 copies of the Cape Times dumped on its doorstep each week day – 60 copies which the school never requested and which it does not need or read. They do not get a single free copy of Die Burger delivered because that is not how Naspers operates.

I am further informed that the breakeven circulation point is 25 000 after which the newspaper is no longer financially viable.

When interviewed in 2013, Survé indicated that salvation lay in his digital platform, IOL. This enables a media company to make news available to an online audience almost immediately and before the next day’s print edition becomes available.

Experienced staff

For that to become reality you need experienced staff who excel at investigative journalism. Here is a brief and by no means conclusive list of the experienced news personnel and columnists – some with decades of loyal service – who ceased to work for Independent News Media (Pty) Ltd after Iqbal Survé, using the PIC loan, gained control of the company in 2013. Some were dismissed, some chose to resign or take early retirement and around a hundred were retrenched just before Christmas in 2016:

Alide Dasnois, Chris Whitfield, Moshoeshoe Monare, Wally Mbhele, Makhudu Sefara, Philani Mgwaba, Tony Jackman, Allister Sparks, Wendy Knowler, Ann Crotty, Janet Heard, Max du Preez, John Scott, Judith February, Peter Wilhelm, Michael Walker, Dan Simon, A’eysha Kassiem, Fatima Schreuder, Tony Weaver, Henri du Plessis, Di Caelers, Brenton Geach, Babalo Ndenze, Chelsea Geach, Philip Weideman, Jonathan Ancer, Pierre Joubert, Glenn Bownes, Leon Muller, Donwald Pressly, Tyrone August, Tony Carnie, Peter de Ionno,  Lindsay Dentlinger, Billy Suter, Jane Mayne, Dave Chambers, Graham Shaw, Terry Bell, Marianne Merten, Martine Barker, Craig Dodds, Carryn Dolley, Brendan Seery and Melanie Gosling.

There has been a suggestion of asset stripping of the Independent since the Sekunjalo takeover – a matter which Sekunjalo denies – but what cannot be disputed is that, as the above list indicates, the company has been comprehensively stripped of expertise, experience, institutional knowledge and intellectual capital. This has been to its enormous detriment as the decline in the quality of content and the ethical probity of its reporting since 2013 testifies.

Furthermore, investigative journalism effectively ceased with the Sekunjalo takeover and that is manifest in the annual Taco Kuiper awards where Indy reporters have not featured in the four years since the Sekunjalo takeover and where Naspers reporters dominate.

In August last year, Independent Media promised sensational ‘corruption buster’ revelations to come, but nothing of any consequence followed the announcement of this alleged investigative journalism venture

At the most recent Taco Kuiper award ceremony, Indy reporters, for the fourth year in a row, did not feature.

There is another measure of how much expertise a media group has in the sort  of investigative reporting which sees newspapers flying off the shelves and selling like the proverbial hot cakes.

Ask yourself how many books detailing pervasive and endemic ANC corruption have been written in the past year or so by journalists employed by Iqbal Survé and the answer is obvious – none –  and perhaps he can articulate the reasons for this.

In striking contrast we have had – in quick succession recently – the following books from journalists associated with Naspers:

For all of the above reasons, the IOL website is substantially inferior to News24 as a source of breaking news and much the same goes for its newspapers. Much of the  Indy newspaper content is sourced from overseas and a startling example of this occurred on 4 March when the front page lead in the Weekend Argus was a cut and paste article from the Washington Post. Surve’s newspapers, in my subjective opinion, are generating very little original and thought provoking content – far less for example than GroundUp which routinely scoops the Cape Times and the Cape Argus on their own turf. This is ironic because Alide Dasnois, who was viciously driven out of the Cape Times by Iqbal Survé, is playing a singular role in the increasing success of GroundUp.

The worldwide decline of the print media prompted one of our most trenchant media analysts, Anton Harber, to ask in mid-2013 how Dr Dan Matjila, CE of the Public Investment Corporation could possibly justify investing supposedly sacrosanct civil servant pension fund money in a dying industry?

Predictable circulation losses

When Matjila was eventually forced to answer in parliament, he said he wanted to create a ‘Black Naspers’. This was not an adequate response because as the ABC figures show, all the Naspers newspapers are suffering similar and predictable circulation losses. Furthermore, Naspers was started in 1915 without any financial contribution from the government or any of its  agencies at the time.

The first to sound the alarm was Stephen Mulholland and he was followed by Dirk de Vos and then James Myburgh established that no effort was being made to repay the loan.

Survé dismissed them all as racists.

As Chris Whitfield, a former senior editor at Independent Newspapers points out in his insider account of the Indy takeover there was, initially, substantial goodwill about this move which rapidly dissipated.

Interviewed by Mandy de Waal  for Daily Maverick at the time of the acquisition, Survé said:

“If you know anything about me you know that I operate with incredible integrity. I have a standing rule in Sekunjalo: if you do one thing wrong you are out of this company.”

He did not, however, take any action against the editor of the Sunday Independent, Steve Motale, when the newspaper carried a fake news article about the ANC being bankrupt and having to sell Luthuli House.

He also took no action when the Motale published an article falsely accusing the aspirant ANC presidential candidate, Cyril Ramaphosa, of being a ‘blesser’.

Ultimately, though, the question that the hundreds of thousands of civil servants and civil servant pensioners want answered is:

Will our pension fund be enhanced as a result of the PIC loan to Dr Iqbal Survé?

As Anton Harber put it in June 2013:

“This is a high-risk, high-price investment in a declining industry – not the kind of thing one normally spends pensioners’ money on. We will be eager to hear from the GEPF how this fits in with their strict mandate.”

In October last year, the Democratic Alliance expressed concerns about the ability of INMSA to repay the PIC loan and the PIC described Independent Media’s governance as “poor” and said it lacked proper leadership.

“The CEO position is still vacant, [and there is] constant restructuring as a result of a changing business model.”

This is a matter of profound public interest as a result of the R12 billion loss suffered by the PIC in the Steinhoff meltdown.

In September 2016, Survé accused Naspers of having an ‘anti-transformation agenda’ which was ironic given that his own company’s record in this regard is not exactly stellar according to Intellidex research.

Given all of the above, it is interesting to listen to the predictions made by Survé in this SABC interview in November 2014.

At the start of the interview he says:

“The next time we speak I will predict that the real circulation of our titles will probably increase by at least five to ten per cent per title.”

Decline in circulation

How does one reconcile that statement with the figures which reveal the decline in circulation of the Indy titles as released recently by the Audit Bureau of Circulation?

Not only has there been a steady decline in circulation of almost all the newspapers bought by Survé with the help of the PIC loan in 2013 but his IOL website is hopelessly inferior to its News 24 rival when it comes to covering breaking news stories.

What must be a source of ineffable sadness for many older Capetonians is the way in which the editor of the Cape Times, Aneez Salie, has gone out of his way to alienate its traditional core audience, leafy suburb whites. He has done this  by constantly portraying them as racist and by his venomous campaign against the management of UCT and, in particular, its Vice Chancellor, Dr Max Price.

Furthermore, the newspaper features no by-lines by white reporters or photographers and I am told that, since the Sekunjalo takeover in late 2013, a de facto policy of not employing whites has been implemented at the Cape Times and that the last white news personnel working exclusively for the newspaper left in December 2016 and have not been replaced. This has created, it is suggested, a sort of media Orania in reverse. If this is not true, then a simple statement giving the names of such white employees and their ethnic ratio in terms of the total staff complement at the Cape Times would serve to dispel that perception. If it is true then the newspaper is in conflict with the Constitution, the Freedom Charter and our employment equity legislation.

In the absence of any information from Dr Dan Matjila, all of this bodes ill for the country’s civil servants and for civil service pensioners who seem unlikely to receive any return whatsoever from Matjila’s ill-fated investment in a ‘Black Naspers’ if the PIC loan is, as is widely suspected, converted to equity.

Author: Ed Herbst is a retired veteran journalist who writes in his own capacity.

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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.