The DA says that The New Age is “openly favourable to the government”. The newspaper denies this claim, though it is certainly a widely-held perception of the Gupta-owned national broadsheet. REBECCA DAVIS tested the notion – by taking the revolutionary step of actually reading The New Age.
Helen Zille’s row with The New Age continues. Last week Zille called on President Jacob Zuma to establish a commission of inquiry into the funding of The New Age, saying that the DA had established that the newspaper receives 77% of its advertising revenue from ANC governments at national and provincial level. But the Presidency was having none of this. On Thursday, it released the figures for government ad-spend over 2011 and 2012. In 2011, it is claimed that government spent R19 million on advertising within Naspers (owners of Media 24, publishers of newspapers including South Africa’s top-selling daily, The Daily Sun). Ad-spend to the tune of R15 million went to Avusa (Sunday Times, The Times, The Sowetan, among others), and almost R9 million went to Independent Newspapers (The Star, Cape Times, Isolezwe, etc). By contrast, The New Age got just R122,700.
Over the last financial year, R16 million was spent on Naspers, R16 million on Avusa, R11 million on Independent and R6 million at The New Age. Of course, you may argue that R6 million is a pretty risky outlay considering that you are advertising in a single newspaper with no audited circulation figures. You might also point out, as the DA has, that this R6 million excludes advertising by individual departments and provinces. Parliamentary replies received by the opposition show, for instance, that the Department of Justice alone spent R1,561,687 on advertising in The New Age. The stated R6 million also does not take into account the bulk subscriptions purchased by government and parastatals, like more than 60,000 ordered by the SAA, or the estimated R37 million received in sponsorship for the newspaper’s business breakfasts.
Nonetheless, the government is presenting its figures as conclusive proof that government ad-spend is not biased in favour of The New Age. In response, DA spokesperson Mmusi Maimane said: “All we know is that the ad -spend from the Presidency has increased in The New Age. And the question we need to ask is what the relationship is between The New Age and the ANC.”
That the two entities are pally is strongly suggested by the government’s willingness to throw money at The New Age’s business breakfasts. But The New Age’s argument has consistently been that the newspaper simply came up with an innovative business model that is now the envy of other newspaper groups, and that allegations of bias on either the side of government or The New Age are fabrications on the part of envious media rivals. “We have constantly challenged the media to show us one example of any undue advantage we have derived from the relationship between President Jacob Zuma and our shareholder,” The New Age chief exec Nazeem Howa wrote in the newspaper on 31 January.
Describing the newspaper as maintaining a “fiercely independent voice”, Howa added: “Independent research house Media Tenor has commended the balanced approach of The New Age, as has the Freedom of Expression Institute.” Neither Media Tenor nor the Freedom of Expression Institute (FXI) was available for comment on Sunday. Media Tenor is an organisation which analyses media content in order to pass on insights to its clients, mainly corporates. On its website, it lists all the South African publications it has analysed. The New Age is not on the list, but comments made by Media Tenor MD Wardim Schreiner in 2011 and 2012 suggest that the company has looked into the newspaper before.
In December 2011, Schreiner was approached for comment by Business Day because the ANC had revealed that it had commissioned its own analysis of South African print media to determine who the leading propagators of unflattering ANC-related content were. (The analysis found that the über-villain in this regard was the South African Press Association (Sapa), though as Business Day noted: “It seems bizarre that Sapa – the agency that provides news content to a wide range of clients without analysis – gets tagged as a leading provider of negative content.”)
At the time, Media Tenor’s Schreiner was quoted as saying that, “The New Age is not pro-government, with more negative reports than positive.” ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe agreed, complaining that The New Age started off as a “breath of fresh air” but due to the loss of individual journalists, had become indistinguishable from other media outlets: “All those newspapers again look the same.”
When Schreiner was interviewed by the Daily Maverick’s Mandy de Waal in August last year, he repeated his company’s belief that The New Age had no particular positive government agenda. “What is different is that The New Age gives government spokespeople a bigger platform than other publications,” Schreiner said. “Government people obviously speak positively about government because that is their job, but the context in which they are being quoted is as negative or positive as that of other publications.”
The Daily Maverick decided to undertake our own, completely unscientific and thoroughly non-comprehensive analysis of The New Age’s recent coverage in order to test for government bias. For the sake of not queering the pitch, we excluded from consideration the articles carried by The New Age over the past fortnight specifically related to Zille and the business breakfasts, as these aren’t representative of its general content. Our resource was The New Age online rather than hard copies of the print newspaper.
The first thing to note is that The New Age, like most South African media outlets, carries a high proportion of Sapa-issued content. While Gwede Mantashe may rail against Sapa’s government-focused negativity, the news agency’s content lacks any overt commentary or analysis, and has – to the best of our knowledge – never been accused of being pro-ANC. As such, one may consider The New Age’s Sapa-produced content as merely neutral.
However, the Sapa stories selected by The New Age for publication are naturally significant. For instance, on 21 January, The New Age ran a Sapa story headlined “LOC honours Zuma”. The story explained that Zuma has been awarded the Afcon silver plate as a “gesture of appreciation for displaying good co-operation”. It’s clearly not a particularly significant story, and the news does not appear to have been very widely reported, at least judging from a Google search. The SABC ran it, possibly unsurprisingly – but then again, so did Naspers’s Sport24.
Our second finding was that The New Age does indeed quote government spokespeople at length. It has also been known to print the full text of speeches given by Jacob Zuma, a somewhat unusual, though not unprecedented, step.
The New Age does not appear to be avoiding reporting on subjects which cast the ANC government or President Zuma in a bad light, though on some occasions the newspaper’s spin on things is subtly different. For example, Public Works Minister Thulas Nxesi’s announcement to the media last Sunday that there was no evidence that public money had been spent on Nkandla was greeted by many media outlets with skepticism. Independent Newspapers, for instance, ran the headline “Nkandla millions ‘whitewash’”. The New Age went with the headline “No Nkandla wrongdoing – probe”, announcing in the first sentence that the investigation had “cleared [Zuma] of any wrongdoing”.
Occasionally The New Age’s articles do strike one as veering off the path of objectivity somewhat. For instance, the newspaper ran a piece on the likely fate of those who had lost at Mangaung last year, headlined “Olive branches for Zuma’s party foes”. The gushing first line is as follows: “Following the ANC’s highly successful Mangaung elective conference, there is no doubt that the majority within the party are still on a high.” Elsewhere, Zuma is described as winning a “spectacular” victory at Mangaung.
As another Mangaung follow-up, The New Age printed a piece by Deputy Minister of Justice and Constitutional Development Andries Nel, headlined “ANC’s respect for constitution”. “The conference demonstrated in word, and in deed, that the ANC is, in the words of President Jacob Zuma a ‘true and honest defender of the supreme law of our land’ and the Constitution,” Nel wrote.
These are cherry-picked examples, and no doubt the ANC would respond that the DA bias of many media outlets prevents the ANC from receiving positive coverage where due. But it should be noted that The New Age has, in the past, also carried biting critiques of Zuma and the ANC, like an opinion piece by Denzil Taylor in which he argues: “Never in its modern history has the party been so weakened and divided. Never has it been so vulnerable as it has become under Zuma’s leadership. Never has the ruling party been so ineffective as a government.”
On a somewhat more cautiously-phrased note, in December 2011, The New Age also ran an editorial headlined “Do the right thing, Zuma”, exhorting Zuma to replace former judge Willem Heath as head of the Special Investigations Unit. “We hope the president does not dismiss the concerns expressed by many across the political spectrum and does not decide to be loyal to someone who appears hell-bent on overstepping his authority,” ran the editorial. “We trust the president will do the correct thing.”
In other words, the newspaper is certainly not blankly uncritical. It is noteworthy, too, that up until Zille’s spat with The New Age, the DA also enjoyed fairly positive coverage in the newspaper. An exceptionally flattering profile of Zille herself from 2011 suggests: “She may seem tough and intimidating but DA leader Helen Zille is one approachable woman with a wicked sense of humour.” (In fairness, they have also run less charitable descriptions of Zille, like this column by Ronald Suresh Roberts, which says that Zille “hovers awkwardly between callow Madam and mature Democrat”.)
In November last year the newspaper quoted Zille extensively on her views that the ANC was falling apart, without any countering government rebuttals. The New Age has also previously highlighted the successes of Western Cape governance, as well as Zille’s personal initiatives. When the newspaper ran an opinion piece casting doubt on Zille’s leadership credentials, it subsequently allowed DA parliamentary leader Lindiwe Mazibuko the space for a lengthy rebuttal.
Something does appear to have shifted in this regard over the last few months, however, possibly with the departure of Ryland Fisher (Disclosure: Fisher is a columnist for Daily Maverick) and the arrival of Moegsien Wiliams, in tandem with the DA’s escalating calls to Parliament to investigate the newspaper. A January report on the Western Cape farmworkers’ protests stressed Zille’s apparent absence from the issue and described her as “terse” and “curt” in response to the newspaper’s questions. In the light of the current dispute between Zille and The New Age, relations are unlikely to warm up much any time soon.
Even if our analysis didn’t find much firm evidence of a pro-ANC slant to the newspaper, however, there is one remaining damaging piece of evidence: the experience of cartoonist Jeremy Nell. Nell, who produces work under the pen-name Jerm, was fired from his job at The New Age last October for making political statements. “My contract at The New Age has been terminated, by the newspaper, because my political cartoons ‘are not aligned with the paper’s vision and mission’,” Nell wrote on his blog at the time.
Cartoonist Zapiro subsequently produced a cartoon in solidarity with Nell. The drawing shows a line of robots and goons lining up outside the office of The New Age editor. On the wall behind them, a “positions vacant” notice is pinned. “Cartoonist,” it reads. “Requirements: Draw well; See the glass half full. Not required: To think.” Combined with the twin effects of The New Age business breakfasts being the only points of contact and the uncertain number of true readers, Zapiro's cartoons remain the lasting perception of many when it comes to The New Age’s editorial choices – even if it may not be justified. DM
Photo: The New Age website.