Tough Love Journalism and an Unethical Editorial Charter

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‘In conclusion I want to state for the record that I together with the leadership of this group remain fully committed to the editorial independence of all our journalists and editors. To suggest otherwise is patently false and devoid of truth. More over (sic) in this regard we are awaiting the final report into the establishment of an Editorial Charter and an Advisory Board which would have been presented at our strategic session which started in Cape Town. This process which will now continue in January next year will provide clear guidelines and directives to ensure that we remain truly entrenched as a company that values editorial independence , ethics, balance, fairness and accuracy.’

Iqbal Survé Politicsweb9/12/2013

Abarder said the ombudsman’s office would use “tough love” to ensure Independent Media’s editors and journalists are kept on their toes.

This sentiment was echoed by Group Ombudsman Jovial Rantao.

“It doesn’t matter if you’re a celebrated editor or not, tough love is coming your way,” he said.

Independent Media launches Group Ombud Carlo Petersen 9/5/2017

Almost two years to the day after Jovial Rantao assured readers of the Sekunjalo Independent Media newspapers that, as the company’s ombudsman he would, with ‘tough love’, ensure that the Indy newspapers would ‘continue to produce ‘high-quality journalism that holds up the vision’ of ethical news coverage, the recently-retired political editor of the Cape Times, Dougie Oakes, posted two articles which resoundingly give the lie to that statement.

I’ve never come across a group where lies have been peddled with such glib assurance – and for this, think of its denial over the past few days of having carried a story researched and written by an intern investigative unit.

I’ve never come across a newspaper where a persona non grata list of letter writers forms part of its editorial policy.

I’ve never come across a newspaper which has refused to carry any stories featuring Professor Jonathan Jansen “because he had been rude to Doc”.

According to Oakes, staff at Iqbal Survé’s newspapers are not treated with dignity and respect, interns are exploited, the lies are constant and – shades of Snuki Zikalala’s blacklist – the newspaper forbids any mention of Jonathan Jansen. This came about because Jansen highlighted the vicious campaign the Cape Times waged against the University of Cape Town’s Vice-chancellor, Dr Max Price in particular and UCT in general.

Ethical guidelines

Editorial charters provide the ethical guidelines which ensure honest news coverage and dissemination and trace their origin to the Hutchins Commission in 1947.

Seventy years later the basic tenets of ethical journalism have been finely honed and comprehensively articulated.

So when the South African Press Freedom Commission was convened under the chairmanship of Judge Pius Langa, its report in April 2012 drew heavily on norms already defined over decades in the USA, the UK, Europe and the Antipodes.

Its recommendations led to the Press Council of South Africa as currently constituted.

In a media release on 9 December 2013, Iqbal Survé, who had just bought the Independent Media company with the aid of a R1 billion clandestine loan from the Public Investment Corporation which he is now refusing to repay, stated that we are awaiting the final report into the establishment of an Editorial Charter and an Advisory Board which would have been presented at our strategic session which started in Cape Town. This process which will now continue in January next year will provide clear guidelines and directives to ensure that we remain truly entrenched as a company that values editorial independence , ethics, balance, fairness and accuracy.’

Like so many statements by the ‘other Mandela doctor’, this turned out to be somewhat suspect.

Then on 28 January 2014 the same claim about an ‘Editorial Charter’ was made in an article by Karima Brown and Vukani Mde in which white staff were overtly and presciently threatened. This was the prelude to a purge which saw the departure from Newspaper House – headquarters in Cape Town of the Cape Times and the Cape Argus – of outstanding journalists like Alide Dasnois, Tony Weaver, Janet Heard, Melanie Gosling and Chris Whitfield and the termination of John Scott’s column:

The only obligation he (Survé) owes to his editors is the assurance that within the parameters of whatever that orientation is, they are free and unfettered to run their papers as they see fit. He has given this assurance, and has committed to a new editorial charter that will define editors’ rights, obligations, and lines of accountability. Independent will be the first South African news group to operate according to such a charter, adherence to which will be overseen by an editorial advisory board of prominent and respected persons.

As it turned out, this statement by Brown and Mde was also devoid of truth because Survé’s editors, many of whom have subsequently resigned were forced to carry on their front pages articles defaming distinguished South African journalists as ‘Stratcom’ agents.

The lies and the anti-white vendetta started immediately as did the purge of experienced staff. In the Wits Journalism ‘State of the Media’ report for 2018, one reads on page 31 that the Cape Times does not have a single person in its newsroom with more than 16 years’ experience whereas the Die Burger, the other morning newspaper in Cape Town has 11. Would it not be fair then to say that, with the approval of Iqbal Survé, the intellectual heart of the Cape Times was torn out by people like Karima Brown, Vukani Mde, Gasant Abarder and Aneez Salie?

Ironically, with the exception of Salie, they have all followed the example of the people they threatened and resigned from Iqbal Survé’s Sekunjalo Independent Media company.

I can find no evidence that Jovial ‘Tough Love” Rantao opposed this deliberate evisceration of a once-respected newspaper.

As the fake news articles came thick and fast – in particular from Newspaper House – there was a firestorm of justifiable indignation over this pervasive journalistic dishonesty and the way innocent people were having their lives brutalised in a total negation of an established norm of ethical journalism – do least harm.

So great was the scandal that Sekunjalo Investments Ltd changed its name to the anodyne African Equity Empowerment Investments Limited with beneficial results.

To remove himself and his newspapers from the accountability imposed by the SA Press Council and its code of ethical newspaper conduct, the confidante and business associate of the late Brett Kebble followed the example of the Guptas  – with whom he had sought a partnership – and withdrew his newspapers from the Press Council’s oversight.

SANEF decried this move and UNISA academic Dr Julie Reid questioned how setting up his own system of accountability could possible achieve more honest journalism within the newspapers owned by Survé.

That was never the intention as became obvious when the ‘unique’ editorial charter was eventually published.

Deliberately omitted

It comprised 918 words when compared to the 2509 words of the SA Press Council version and what was specifically and deliberately omitted in its drafting was the conflict of interest provision which is common to all accepted norms of ethical news coverage and is contained in the code of editorial conduct espoused by the SA Press Council but rejected by Iqbal Survé for obvious reasons.

  1. Independence and Conflicts of Interest

            The media shall:

2.1 not allow commercial, political, personal or other non-professional considerations to influence reporting, and avoid conflicts of interest as well as practices that could lead readers to doubt the media’s independence and professionalism;

Within a fortnight of taking control of the Indy newspapers in late 2013, Iqbal Survé wrote a letter to staff which included the following passage:

“I want to be clear and categorical. I want to assure all staff of my sincere commitment to the editorial independence of this group and the right of its journalists to do their work without fear or favour.

“This means no journalist has to fear when writing a story if one or more of the companies in Sekunjalo Group is involved. I do not expect special favours or puff pieces to be written by any journalists. All our stories must adhere to the highest standards required.

“This means they have to be balanced, fair and accurate. What they can’t be is one sided, inaccurate and prejudicial. I have always valued the principles of transparency, fairness and independence.”

Thereafter his editors were prevailed upon to do ‘interviews’ with him which resulted in one hagiographic puff piece  after another after another after another after another after another after another after another after another.

What was also omitted when this cynical ‘editorial charter’ was drafted was the word ‘omission’ because censorship by omission is the hallmark of the propagandist.

But there was a darker side to this brazen abuse of media influence and power for personal aggrandisement, monetary gain and political benefit.

After the Public Investment Corporation finally found some ethical spine and refused to invest in Survé’s ‘mythical beast’, the Sagarmatha R50 billion Intergalactic Highway Fourth Industrial Revolution African Unicorn, he ordered his editors to carry lying articles equating Sam Sole and Ann Crotty and Tim Cohen with the ‘Stratcom’ journalists who colluded with the apartheid regime.

This was strongly condemned by SANEF, the South African Editor’s Forum which called this smear ‘defamatory’, ‘disgusting’ and a ‘sad day for South African journalism’.

And, again, ‘Tough Love’ Rantao was silent.

Adri Senekal de Wet, who became editor of the Business Report supplement which is carried in all of Survé’s daily newspapers after writing a simpering imbongi ode hailing the innate genius and compassion of the great man, then took this further with an appalling attack on one of the country’s most accomplished investigative journalists, Sam Sole.

Once again the silence from ‘Tough Love’ Rantao was deafening and it was left to Brendan Seery, another former employee of Iqbal Survé, to express the sentiments which I am sure I was not alone in sharing:

Were it not for people like Sam Sole, this country would not know a thing about state capture.

One day, Sam and those others will be recognised as professionals, if not heroes.

You, Adri, will end up on the wrong side of history. You may not realise this, but karma is not a brand of margarine.

The statement that Indy journalists were free to write articles about companies within the Sekunjalo company proved, like so many others, to be baseless.

If Peter Flack avers that the Leisurenet saga was suspect, the Public Protector, Thuli Madonsela averred that the Sekunjalo tender for the maintenance of our naval patrol vessels – which was initially approved by the unspeakable Tina Joemat Petterson – was equally suspect.

Predictably dismissed

Donwald Pressly, who was doing some sterling investigative journalism on this tender, was attacked by Sekunjalo even before Survé became his employer and he was predictably dismissed shortly thereafter.

The quoted reason for his dismissal was the leaked information that he had put his name forward for consideration by the Democratic Alliance as a potential candidate.

However, when Karima Brown and Vukani Mde demonstrated their equivalent  and far more openly-expressed affiliation to the African National Congress by attending an ANC rally proudly clad in ANC-branded clothing, they kept their jobs. The hypocrisy was nauseating but they, too, have joined an exodus of editor-level employees unprecedented in South African newspaper history.

Just how devoid of truth was Survé’s statement about respecting editorial autonomy became obvious when Sunday Independent editor, Wally Mbhele, was dismissed because of an article critical of the ANC and Al Jazeera reporter Azad Essa had his column terminated at the behest of Survé’s Chinese investors.

Mbhele was the second editor dismissed by Survé, the first being former Cape Times editor Alide Dasnois and what is significant is that he chose not to contest her allegations in court, preferring to settle her multi-million rand compensation claim rather than testifying under oath.

Once again ‘Tough Love’ Rantao expressed no concern and raised no objections and what made his silence even more egregious in the Azad Essa case is that he is President of the African Editor’s Forum. In the vacuum of his silence, it was left to Tanzanian journalist, Tatenda Gwaambuka, to express concern.

This, in my subjective opinion, was a grievous dereliction of ethical duty which the African Editor’s Forum needs to address with urgency if it is to retain credibility.

Approached by Ferial Haffajee , Iqbal Survé claimed that he did not give orders to his editors. She was able to reveal that he does so through an intermediary, his CEO, Howard Plaaitjies.

Without the slightest concern or conscience Sekunjalo Independent titles seek to besmirch the reputations of those critical of Iqbal Survé’s business methods as his recent attempt to equate the reporting of Business Day journalist, Carol Paton, with Nazism illustrates.

Evil journalism

That is not just vile, gutter journalism, it is evil journalism by a newspaper company which ceaselessly seeks to widen our ethnic divide and does not hesitate to run campaigns which see innocent citizens dragged through the courts or even jailed because they are white – something which, once again, is without precedent in South African newspaper history.

I can find no evidence that Jovial ‘Tough Love’ Rantao has ever condemned these abuses or that he has ever made a ruling in a single complaint against Sekunjalo Independent Media after it followed the lead of the Guptas and  withdrew from the adjudication process of the SA Press Council to avoid accountability – something which is fully understandable as Michael Mpofo and an editorial in The Times have pointed out.

Kevin Hardy and Siphiwe Nodwele, witnesses at the Mpati commission of inquiry into the looting of the Public Investment Corporation (PIC) have further contradicted Iqbal Survé’s claim of editorial independence at Sekunjalo Independent Media. Nodwele, testifying under oath, claimed that articles appearing in Surve’s newspapers and the IOL online portal under the pseudonym of ‘Staff Reporter’ are often written – by order of Iqbal Survé – by AEEI marketing manager Feroza Petersen and  AEEI group chief executive Khalid Abdulla and Hardy testified that Adri Senekal de Wet simply writes whatever Survé tells her to write.

You can read their statements here and here.

What is one to make of the failure of Jovial ‘Tough Love’ Rantao to refute the allegation of constant lies by Dougie Oakes, the evidence uncovered by Ferial Haffajee and the claims by Kevin Hardy and Siphiwe Nodwele that editorial independence does not exist at Iqbal Survé’s newspapers?

Whatever the answer, the market is beginning to send its own message.

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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.

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