The Predictable Implosion of the Cape Times – Part  2

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But Survé’s leadership has been a wasteful, self-aggrandising disgrace. The newspapers are barely recognisable as products of journalism and it is a wonder any are still on their feet. But as this amaBhungane story shows, Survé’s time at the head of these once fine titles is coming to an end.

The writing’s on the wall for Iqbal Survé Peter Bruce 21/11/2019

Then there is Independent Newspapers. In their excellent book, Paper Tiger, two former editors track how corporate interests combined with hubris have caused considerable damage to what was, and is, the biggest English-language newspaper company in the country.

Page 58 SANEF Inquiry 18/1/2021

As I pointed out in the first part of this article, the venomous purge of respected journalists and columnists at the Cape Times after the Sekunjalo takeover in 2013 ­alienated its traditional white suburban subscriber and advertising base.

A significant example was when Gasant Abarder, Survé’s replacement as Cape Times editor of Alide Dasnois, terminated the contract of John Scott in a terse email. Abarder – shockingly and perhaps under instruction – refused to publish a letter from Scott explaining why he was no longer writing for the newspaper where he had worked for decades, including a spell as editor. His letter was published in Afrikaans in Die Burger and, within hours, a translated version had been posted on Facebook. Scott was immediately hired by Die Burger and, as a subscriber, I now enjoy his inimitable humour – in English – every Saturday. This, alone, would have been deeply offensive to thousands of previously-loyal readers of the Cape Times who instantly realised that Scott’s column was ended not because they no longer wanted to read it, but because he is white. For obvious and dishonest reasons they were not consulted about a decision which resulted in them receiving less value for their subscriptions than they had anticipated and they must have realised that this was yet another move to deprive the paper of white skills – to its manifest detriment.

Alienation of subscribers and advertisers: The core audience and advertising base of the Cape Times at the time of the Sekunjalo takeover when the daily circulation exceeded 30 000 copies was the white residents in the city’s ‘leafy suburbs’ and that had been the case since 1876.

To divisively attack, denigrate and demonize an ethnic group which contributes significantly to your bottom line and continued existence as a company is a bizarre form of commercial suicide, but Aneez Salie took this to the extreme in his editorial of 3 September 2018:

No longer do we serve primarily the descendants of the English colonists.

We are humbled and deeply grateful that you the readers warmed to this approach with loyal support, rejecting calls for a boycott by those colonial, unrepentant racists who once prostituted the Cape Times for their narrow political ends.

So, according to Salie, every person in Cape Town who is of colonial descent is an ‘unrepentant racist’ who ‘once prostituted the Cape Times’ for ‘narrow political ends’.

By definition this would have included one of his predecessors as Cape Times editor, the courageous Tony Heard, whose grandfather, Arthur Henry Heard, was born in Hastings, England.

The reputational harm to a newspaper caused by such editorial opinions which are the antithesis of Nelson Mandela’s ideal of nation building through reconciliation is tangible as the latest ABC figures for the Cape Times illustrate and confirm.

To show his appreciation of this viewpoint and approach, Iqbal Survé then rewarded Aneez Salie by giving him editorial control of all the INMSA newspapers.

‘Transformation’ mantra

‘Transformation’ was the Sekunjalo takeover mantra of Iqbal Survé and his early hirelings Karima Brown and Vukani Mde. What then happened was that he closed the Argus Cadet School, gateway to journalism employment for decades of black journalists and lost talented newsroom staff of colour to a degree which is without parallel in South African newspaper history. Among those who have left his employ – besides Brown and Mde – are Moshoeshoe Monare, Philani Mgwaba, Makhudu Sefara,  Wally Mbhele, Steve Motale, Ellis Mnyandu, Unathi Kondile, Gasant Abarder, Lynette Johns, Yunus Kemp, Caryn Dolley, Lebogang Seale, Jovial Rantao, Lindiz van Zilla, Gertrude Makhafola, Chantall Presence and Fikile-Ntsikelelo Moya.

The Daily Maverick article by Fikile-Ntsikelelo Moya provides a damning insight into the ‘transformation’ policy of Sekunjalo Independent Media.

What the latest ABC figures for the Cape Times and Cape Argus show is that there has been no concomitant circulation growth in the black market to make up for the fatal loss of white subscribers and advertisers in Cape Town.

At the launch of Paper Tiger in Cape Town last year, one of the authors, Chris Whitfield, told the audience that he had had the opportunity to work in some of our major cities in the previous few months and, based on his experience of more than two decades in newspaper administration, the Sekunjalo newspapers selling in those cities were not carrying sufficient advertising to be financially viable. It was at this event that a former editor of the Cape Times, Tyrone August, said that under the then editor, Aneez Salie, the paper had become a “pale shadow” of its former self and the current ABC circulation figures of the newspaper show that his assessment was correct.

What is significant is that the Cape Times carries substantially less advertising than the other morning newspaper in Cape Town, Die Burger. Is this not further evidence of how fewer and fewer of the city’s residents want to be associated this newspaper and its owner?

Hagiographic puff pieces

Another alienating factor for the existing subscribers and advertisers after the Sekunjalo takeover in 2013 was Survé’s expectation of sycophantic coverage and the  unprecedented stream of hagiographic puff pieces which followed – see here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here – would have left pre-2013 subscribers and advertisers feeling discomforted at first and nauseated thereafter.

Since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, his self-exposure in his own newspapers had been relentless  – see here and here and here and here and here and here.

The previous owner of the Independent newspapers, Tony O’Reilly, featured in them once or twice a year at most.

A claim in Paper Tiger  that this de facto policy of self-aggrandisement has resulted in Survé and his family being monotonously featured in his newspapers every week has not been denied.

Yet another routine Iqbal Survé tactic that will have estranged former subscribers and advertisers is his constant SLAPP litigation threats that come to nothing – see here and here and here and here and here.

Former Cape Times subscribers and advertisers will also be aware that while the Oppenheimers and the Ruperts and Naspers – see here and here and here –  have donated billions of rands to the country’s Covid-19 Solidarity Fund, there has been no concomitant contribution from the self-professed philanthropist who gained control of the newspaper in 2013.

The thousands of former readers of the Cape Times  will have felt that their decision to cancel their subscriptions was vindicated when they read of Iqbal Survé’s negotiations with the Guptas, of his following their example in withdrawing from the SA Press Council at a time of unprecedented public backlash against Sekunjalo fake news and when they became aware that, unlike amaBhungane, Daily Maverick and News 24, Sekunjalo Independent Media has played no role whatsoever in the Guptaleaks exposés.

What would also have irritated them is the degree to which basic proof-reading standards have been abandoned since Aneez Salie was given editorial control of the Cape Times.

If you can’t even spot the spelling mistake in the headline on your front page lead, then you shouldn’t be in the newspaper business.

What is clear from the latest ABC figures is that what I call the ‘Sekunjalo Stench’ has adversely impacted on all the INMSA titles – the Pretoria News  is now selling less than 2000 copies a day in a city which is home to two and a half million people. As Tim Cohen pointed out: ‘You could print it on a set of photocopiers.

Media tragedy

This is an evolving media tragedy in a decade which has seen the number of people working in this sector cut by half.  Newspaper House in Cape Town’s CBD is home to the Cape Times and the Cape Argus. Gasant Abarder, yet another former Iqbal Survé employee, writes in his recently- published book that when he became editor of the Cape Argus in 2009 prior to the Sekunjalo takeover in 2013, it had 57 staff. When he left the company in 2018 it had 10, a total which included the editor. It could have even less staff now – and it shows.

I have been told of some among the few remaining Newspaper House reporters who have had to leave their homes because of a salary cut of 40%.

In retrospect, Iqbal Survé’s approach made no sense – with the help of the PIC’s Dan Matjila, you pay R2 billion for a flagging, asset-stripped company which is probably worth half that amount but which is rich in institutional knowledge, packed with hard-earned skills and some of the finest journalistic talents in the country.  You then start driving such people out of the company. In terms of conventional business logic and practice this is inexplicable  – unless you have been assured from the start by Dan Matjila that you don’t have to pay back the almost billion rand GEPF loan because, after a few years, the debt will – in theory – no longer exist.

That’s what happenedinitially at least.

What Paper Tiger and the evidence before the Mpati and Zondo commissions and the submissions to the SANEF inquiry into ethical journalism have shown us is that once the initial goal of driving out newsroom staff of integrity had been achieved, good-faith journalism ceased to exist at the Cape Times.

Looking back: Iqbal Survé brought four people on board at the start of the takeover in late 2013. Karima Brown and Vukani Mde and Amy Musgrave and Gasant Abarder – all have since left.

Brown and Mde were appointed after they wrote an article in defence of Jacob Zuma. In a recent Daily Maverick article on 31 January, Rebecca Davis provides evidence, unrefuted so far, which seems to indicate that Brown and Mde were on the payroll of Arthur Fraser’s State Security agency through a news outlet called Southern African Report.  She also points out that around the time that Fraser personally signed off on two Project Wave tranches of R10 million each to ANA, the CR17 campaign came under intense attack in Survé’s newspapers and the attacks on Ramaphosa and Pravin Gordhan, see here and here and here have not ceased since then – with understandable political consequences.

Inevitably, this has eroded trust in the Fourth Estate as a whole.

The promise in 2013 of ‘transformation’ and of increasing the black subscriber and advertising base has catastrophically failed as I have pointed out in this article and the vertiginous decline in the daily circulation figure of the Cape Times provides irrefutable proof of its predictable demise as a trusted newspaper of substance and ethical repute.

As the SANEF Commission points out in one of the anchor quotes to this article, the Sekunjalo takeover was never about ethical journalism but has always been exclusively focused on promoting Iqbal Survé and his business and political interests.

My sense is that Iqbal Survé will suffer history’s rebuke as will his obsequious praise singers – see here and here and here  – and that the hundreds of people who no longer work for him and the thousands of former subscribers to his newspapers – as the latest Cape Times circulation figures indicate – will feel the rebuke is deserved.

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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.