A media story that is not over yet

Review: Vivien Horler

Paper Tiger, by Alide Dasnois & Chris Whitfield (Tafelberg)

We staff were pretty pleased when Dr Iqbal Survé bought Independent Newspapers in 2013. For years the Irish owners of the group, headed by Sir Tony O’Reilly, had been exporting the company’s profits to shore up his failing media empire in the UK and Ireland.

Under O’Reilly, bureaus in London, New York and Washington were closed, as was the Argus Africa News Service. Newsrooms were juniorised and staff was shed. In 2011 the Media Workers Association of South Africa published a case study which pointed out staff numbers had dwindled from 5 223 in 1994, around the time the Irish bought the company, to 1 500.

Assets were stripped. The Pretoria News lost its presses and its printers, the old Argus garage building on its valuable site off Buitensingel Street was sold, followed by the Newspaper House presses and then Newspaper House itself.

When I started as a junior reporter in the 1970s, the Argus boasted three court reporters; a crime staff; defence, religion and shipping correspondents; political staff who covered Parliament as well as provincial and local authorities; education and health reporters; financial and property staff; an arts department; two women’s departments, each with its own women’s editor – which did seem a bit much; its own subbing pool and a well-staffed cuttings library.

By the time the Irish went, most of these had gone too. Newsrooms had been sharply reduced, the cuttings library closed and the cuttings dumped, and a general subbing pool served all the titles in the group.

At this stage the authors of Paper Tiger – Alide Dasnois, editor of the Cape Times, and Chris Whitfield, editor-in-chief of Independent Newspapers Cape – found their jobs increasingly difficult. They write: “Editors’ roles became complicated: on one hand they were trying to bring out credible newspapers, on the other to protect their dwindling resources from cost cutting.”

So there was optimism when Survé bought the group. He said at the time he did not intend to make any major changes in his first 100 days of ownership while he assessed operations.

Late on December 5, 2013 – almost exactly 100 days later – President Jacob Zuma announced Nelson Mandela had died. By that time of evening newspapers across the group had largely finalised the next day’s morning editions, and now had to scramble to get the latest news into print.

As anyone who has followed this saga knows, different newspapers adopted different strategies. At the Argus editor Jermaine Craig opted to clear several pages including page one, page three and the “oped” comment page. Despite various claims to the contrary by people including former Cape Times reporter Tony Weaver and media commentator Ed Herbst, this was perfectly possible in spite of time and equipment constraints.

Dasnois, on the other hand, famously chose to leave the Cape Times as it was and instead carry the Madiba news, comment and tributes in a four-page wraparound.

The Cape Times’s lead for the morning of December 6 – which remained in place inside the wraparound – was a report on the findings of Public Protector Thuli Madonsela into what she referred to as the “improper” awarding of a contract to Sekunjalo Marine Services Consortium. Survé was chairman of Sekunjalo.

The next morning Dasnois was effectively fired.

This was one of the first of a raft of changes to Independent News & Media. Many experienced reporters – of all colours – left over the next few years, some saying they had been forced out, others no longer feeling at home in the company. One of the first to resign was Whitfield, who left in early 2014, followed by most my colleagues and friends.

The subtitle of Paper Tiger is “Iqbal Survé and the downfall of Independent Newspapers” but in fact the book focuses to a large extent on events at the Cape Times around and after the firing of Dasnois.

The book makes for gripping reading, although close followers of what has happened at Independent Newspapers will be familiar with a lot of the content, much of which has appeared in various media in the past six years.

However, in the style of recent local histories such as Pieter-Louis Myburgh’s Gangster State, Pieter du Toit’s The Stellenbosch Mafia, Adam Habib’s Rebels and Rage, and Crispian Olver’s How to Steal a City, Paper Tiger provides a useful and  comprehensive record of events as they have unfolded.

But times roll on. In the past week the Public Investment Corporation, which provided a chunk of the money Survé used to buy the media company, filed liquidation proceedings in the Western Cape High Court against Sekunjalo Independent Media, which the company has rejected as “incompetent, mala fide, malicious and frivolous”.

Clearly this story still has a way to go.


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