It’s all true: South African Journalism is in an “Unprecedented Crisis”

zille3-440x281This newsletter is a little longer than usual because it includes examples and anecdotes illustrating just how serious the threat to media freedom in South Africa has become.

With only a fraction of the relevant information available, this issue kept the commentariat going, at full volume, all week.

The focal point of the furore was a scandal involving the Cape Times. It was an issue of such magnitude that Independent News and Media, the newspaper’s proprietors, described it as “unprecedented”.

But, neither the threat to the media, nor the Cape Times crisis, has anything to do with the Western Cape cabinet’s decision to let its subscriptions lapse (as the hysteria over the past few days would have us believe).

Nor has this “unprecedented” crisis got anything to do with the National Treasury’s 2013 circular requiring far-reaching cost cutting measures, including that “all newspaper and other publications for employees should be discontinued”.

In the Western Cape we responded to this circular by reducing our subscriptions, but not cutting them entirely. Some officials no longer receive any subscriptions; others receive fewer titles. And, because we subscribe to a cutting service, most subscriptions are redundant anyway.

When we do actually subscribe to newspapers, or renew subscriptions, we are increasingly discerning about accuracy, relevance, factual reporting and insightful analysis.

Of course, this constitutes a crisis for some editors and journalists, many of whom believe they are above criticism and that anyone who challenges factual inaccuracy, misleading headlines, or even outright inventions and plagiarism, is attacking media freedom.

Many people confer “special product status” on newspapers, and reject the idea that customers have a right to choose between different products. It is time to face a simple fact: Media freedom means that writers can write what they like (within the law) and readers can read what they like. What’s more, readers have the right to complain about shoddy reporting and breaches of the press code. And they can also stop subscribing.

None of these actions constitutes a threat to media freedom. In fact, consumers who use their power can only lead to long overdue improvements in the quality of some titles, or their demise, whichever comes first.

The old adage that no-one should quarrel with journalists because they “order ink by the barrel” is well and truly obsolete. Every citizen can now publish whatever they choose on platforms that attract far more readers than any newspaper ever has. They can also fight back when they are misquoted and their views misrepresented. That is one of the key reasons why newspaper sales are declining and why some editors and writers are in a panic.

In government we look for publications that can be relied upon to produce articles – critical or otherwise — that are accurate, topical and relevant, and are staffed by journalists with integrity, who report accurately and who understand that readers are consumers with choices. We have deep respect for many excellent journalists and publications, and we read them diligently.

But the days are long gone when readers have to tolerate the kind of attitude displayed by the editor of the Cape Times, Aneez Salie. Here’s an example.

Recently his newspaper ran a seriously misleading front page headline — “Schools Win Closure Fight” — above an article that was also misleading. It dealt with the long-running saga of the Western Cape Education Department’s attempts, over three years, to close 17 under-utilised or dysfunctional schools and re-accommodate learners in better quality educational environments.

After several court hearings, the WCED finally won a unanimous judgment in the Supreme Court of Appeal, on 16 out of the 17 closures. After this resounding victory, the WCED decided to re-look at the cases of those schools where circumstances had changed. This led to the Cape Times’ misleading headline and story.

As a result, the Media officer of the Western Cape Education Ministry wrote to the Cape Times requesting the right of reply in an op-ed within the same week.

She received an extremely rude rejection note from the editor, which included this little gem: “An accident of birth is no longer a passport to the front of the queue at the Cape Times.”

This is not the only example of Salie’s use of the race card and rudeness to his readers, to defend shoddy reporting.

Based on long experience, I have advised my colleagues never to give verbal interviews to the Cape Times (amongst other newspapers). I advise them to ensure there is a written record of what they said and any reply received. This is precisely what MPL Beverley Schafer did when she was asked by a Cape Times journalist to respond to an ANC statement on unemployment in the Western Cape.

The article in the newspaper the next day misrepresented her position completely. It reported her as having “admitted that job creation in the Western Cape was deplorable”. Of course, she had said nothing of the sort. On the contrary, her comment set out the Western Cape’s impressive job creation record in the context of population migration.

After Ms Schafer’s repeated complaints, the Cape Times eventually printed a tiny correction, which conceded that that “the ‘deplorable’ error was introduced in the editing process.”

I asked a statistician to work out the odds of accidentally typing the word “deplorable” into a media statement during the editing process. After some serious calculations, involving probability theory, he concluded: “the odds are 141-trillion to one”. So one can only conclude the insertion of the word “deplorable” was malicious and intentional.

Nor is the Cape Times’ attitude confined to politicians and their staffers.

Take the scathing email Salie sent to a Cape Town engineer, John Carver, after he wrote a short letter to the newspaper enquiring: “How is it that a Cape Times reporter happened to have his camera ready at the exact moment a UCT student threw poo on Rhodes’ statue?”

Salie’s ranting reply ended in the following sentence: “We’ll just assume you are part of a racist campaign against the Cape Times – and we will deal with you.”

It is surely reasonable to ask why any reader should continue subscribing to a newspaper that treats its customers in this way.

But the final straw (on top of the editor’s persistent rudeness and racism, and the newspaper’s persistent, tendentious, misleading and inaccurate reporting) was a story that we believe was a mixture of plagiarism and invention.

It involved a baby called Thomas, allegedly born with foetal alcohol syndrome to an alcoholic mother called Rose (no pseudonyms). Thomas was apparently leading a miserable life, having fallen through the cracks of the Province’s social welfare system. Furthermore, the article alleged that the notorious and illegal “dop” system (which involves part-payment of workers in alcohol) was still operating on farms in the Western Cape’s Wellington area.

Our request for further information, (without requiring the identity of the newspaper’s sources) to enable us to locate and support the child, and prosecute farmers breaking the law, elicited a one word answer, in capital letters, from the editor: NO.

Let me be clear on the plagiarism aspect: Entire paragraphs were lifted, word for word, from a 2012 article published on the World Socialist Web Site ( This even included a quote attributed to the founder of the Foundation for Alcohol Related Research (FARR), who had never spoken to the Cape Times reporter.

When I blew the whistle on this in last week’s issue of SA Today, the Independent Group immediately sent out its attack dogs to shift the narrative back to the outrage of the non-renewed subscription.

In two separate radio interviews, Independent’s Chief of Staff, Zenaria Barends and its Executive Editor, Karima Brown, vehemently denied the plagiarism accusation, saying that their “preliminary investigation” revealed no evidence thereof, but that they would subject it to peer review.

To go on air and openly lie to thousands of listeners about such a serious offence is, frankly, astonishing. The two articles are easy to find. Some sites like Grubstreet have even placed them side-by-side to demonstrate the obvious plagiarism. Anyone who has seen them will know the truth. For both Barends and Brown to claim that they have “investigated” and found nothing of concern, tells you all you need to know about their intentions, and the credibility of Independent Newspapers.

Their strange defense wasn’t limited to radio interviews either. An editorial in the Mercury, (another “Independent” title) went to great lengths to paint the Independent Group as crusaders for truth and excellence, citing the Cape Argus exposé in 2009 of the “brown envelope scandal” that led to the firing of former Western Cape Premier, Ebrahim Rasool, as evidence.

Only problem is, the Cape Argus didn’t expose this scandal, (which revealed that its own journalists were receiving payments to write flattering pieces on Rasool and undermine his political opponents). It was actually the Mail & Guardian that exposed it.

The Argus initially gave its reporters the benefit of the doubt and even offered to pay its reporters’ legal costs in a defamation case. They only joined the story after at least two Mail & Guardian pieces had already been published. When one of their journalists confessed, there was no place to hide.

In fact around this time, the Independent Group’s newspapers in the Western Cape enthusiastically supported Premier Ebrahim Rasool’s appointment of a political hit-squad (in the guise of a Commission of Inquiry) to bring down the DA-led coalition government in Cape Town. Their record in this saga is something to be deeply ashamed of, not used as an example of crusading journalism.

None of these facts are difficult to verify, but fact verification evidently does not feature very highly on the Cape Times or Independent Newspaper’s list of priorities. If anyone has any doubt, just follow a twitter timeline with the handle @WaitingDucks.

Despite all these examples, we have never advocated withdrawing advertising from the Cape Times or any other title. Adverts are, and will, continue to be placed by an agency with a mandate to target appropriate readers. We have also never advocated a newspaper boycott. In fact we have never even cancelled a subscription. We have only taken a decision to allow subscriptions to lapse when they have run their natural course.

What’s more, we do not make such decisions public. The Cabinet decision on the Cape Times only appeared in the media because someone saw fit to leak it, with the clear intention of manufacturing a bit of “outrage”.

I can imagine that the discussion in some newsrooms went something like this: “For weeks we have written about Nkandla, Eskom, the Spy Tapes and Zuma’s 783 counts of corruption, the illegal attempts to fire the head of the Hawks and the SARS Commissioner. We need a bit of balance! What has Helen Zille done lately? Oh WOW! Her cabinet decided to allow a newspaper subscriptions to lapse!”

When you need to manufacture a crisis, any issue will do.

Predictably, the cheerleaders at the front of the lynch mob have been the ANC.

Posing as outraged champions of press freedom are the very same lot that gave us, amongst others, the Secrecy Bill, the hopelessly disproportionate ad spend to subsidise the “connected” New Age newspaper, the “capture” of the Independent Group with funds from the Public Investment Corporation, the transformation of the SABC from public broadcaster to a state/party broadcaster, threats to withhold large chunks of advertising from publications that “insult” the president, and calls for a boycott of the City Press for printing an image of the infamous Spear painting.

Somehow the Western Cape Government’s decision to let its subscription to the Cape Times lapse has been equated with each of these sinister actions. And after following the arguments for almost a week in the media and on twitter, I’m still no closer to understanding the logical link.

But trying to introduce a logical argument into an outrage-manufacturing storm is like trying to reverse the vortex of a tornado.

If it were only the ANC saying these things, we could dismiss it as the usual grandstanding. However, they were joined by a host of journalists and other commentators, including the South African National Editors’ Forum (SANEF), whose Vision statement includes: “To promote the quality and ethics of journalism…” (Yes, really!)

Throughout all of this, neither SANEF nor any of the mainstream press, has breathed a word on the ethics of the Cape Times FAS article. If the blatant plagiarism and apparent fiction are not a real threat to the “quality and ethics of journalism” then I don’t know what is.

I also failed to find, either on the internet or twitter, any condemnation by SANEF of the appearance, resplendent in ANC regalia, of Karima Brown (“Independent Newspaper’s group executive editor and Vukani Mde, editor of opinion and analysis) at the ANC’s 103rd birthday celebrations.

But SANEF has been vocal on the decision of the Western Cape government to allow subscriptions to lapse, a decision that has absolutely nothing to do with SANEF’s mandate.

Indeed, given that SANEF aims to promote the quality and ethics of journalism, it should be leading the charge against unethical and inaccurate journalism. But a look at its website and twitter timeline shows it has become a mutual admiration society for journalists, and protects them whatever they do.

It would obviously serve no purpose to take up any issue with them. But we do use any available channel, including countless complaints to the Media Ombudsman, most of which we have won.

A few weeks ago I also wrote an open letter to Dr Iqbal Surve, chairman of Sekunjalo Media Consortium, owner of “Independent News and Media SA”, about blatant instances of bias.

I have not had a written reply to my letter, but I have had a request for a meeting, to which I agreed. In the radio interview with Independent’s Zenaria Barends (mentioned above), she claimed that, try as he might, Dr Surve could not get an appointment to speak to me, and was only offered 30 minutes in April.

Which is about as accurate an account of events as the average Cape Times article. Dr Surve first suggested a date (4 February) which coincided with a close family bereavement, so I proposed an alternative (10 March). This did not suit Dr Surve, so I suggested 7 April, after which I heard nothing for weeks. My office again requested a response to this date, and was told that it too did not suit him. I then suggested 14 April, and I am yet to hear back from his office. With so much dishonest spin doing the rounds, it is important to set the record straight.

But let me turn to the real crisis for media freedom that I mentioned at the start of this article, (and set out in my January letter to Dr Surve). It is the “capture” by the ruling clique of the ruling party in South Africa, of large sections of the print and broadcast media to serve their interests. We have seen it in the “fig-leaf” Surve, a self-confessed ANC cadre, has provided for the ANC’s purchase of the ironically named “Independent” Group of newspapers, in part using public funds from the Public Investment Corporation, for the ridiculously high sum of R2-billion.

We have seen it in the outrageous and unlawful subsidies paid by the state to the newspaper run by President Zuma’s close associates, the Gupta Family, in the form of commercially unjustifiable advertising revenue, free television airtime and sponsorships from state-owned enterprises (despite the fact that most are in financial crises themselves); We see it in the inept and clumsy attempts by President Zuma’s close confidant, Communications Minister Faith Muthambi, to turn the SABC into a party political broadcaster and a state-owned enterprise.

We have seen it in the silence of SANEF on almost every issue relevant to “quality and ethics” in journalism.

This is indeed a crisis that warrants the label “unprecedented”. Even under apartheid, the use of taxpayers’ money to subsidise newspapers in the interests of a political party, constituted such a scandal that it led to the downfall of a President (John Vorster) and his Minister of Information (Connie Mulder). These abuses seem like minor acts of corruption by current standards.

So the media are indeed in crisis. And part of the crisis is that many editors and journalists (and SANEF) do not recognise this crisis for what it is. They need to wake up to the fact that the crisis has nothing to do with readers who speak truth to their power. Or who allow their subscriptions to lapse.

This newsletter has regularly written about “state capture,” the phenomenon whereby the Zuma faction of the ANC uses cadre deployment to capture institutions of state that should be independent, and abuses them to extend their control.

There is a parallel and equally sinister phenomenon. It is called “media capture”. It is pure sophistry for many titles and journalists to claim the role of independent, investigators “speaking truth to power”. While some still are, far too many have become mere extensions of the party that has captured them, using public resources to extend their power.

That is the threat to media freedom that South Africa has to face. And we had better have the guts to do so, otherwise it will be one of the factors that contribute to the destruction of our democracy.

Helen Zille

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