For people with brains. And an internet connection
22 October 2014 03:26 (South Africa)
Opinionista Chris Vick

First session of Media Appeals Tribunal - a what-if situation

  • Chris Vick
Against the backdrops of high drama in Britain starring the Murdoch father-and-son duo and the ongoing soap-opera around General Bheki Cele, Public Protector Thuli Madonsela and a suspiciously silent President Jacob Zuma, this is a little reverie … What if the dark cloud of a Media Appeals Tribunal was a reality in South Africa, and …

Good morning, Mr O’Reilly, and welcome to the first sitting of South Africa’s media appeals tribunal. We will be discussing the complaint by SA's ambassador to Japan, General Bheki Cele, regarding The Star newspaper's story on impending arrest of Public Protector Thuli Madonsela from July 2011. Could you please state your name and designation, for the record?

Certainly: My name is Tony O’Reilly and I am President Emeritus of Independent News & Media. At the outset, I would like to say this is the most humble…

No need for opening remarks, thank you, Mr O’Reilly. You will have ample time to state your case. Today’s hearing has been called to discuss the role of The Star in reporting on the “imminent arrest” of the Public Protector earlier this month. As a committee, we are analysing this issue so we may better understand the relationship between the South African press, the police and politicians.

I appreciate that, chairman. Let me point out that I am accompanied today by the chief executive of Independent News & Media, my son Gavin…

Mr O’Reilly, I apologise for the disturbance. Some of my colleagues seem amused that you are here as father and son, just a few days after we saw Rupert Murdoch testifying before the UK parliament with his son and CEO of News International, James. Would you like to say anything in that regard, to put my colleagues at ease?

I have no comment on that. [Bangs on table] My son was appointed by the full board of Independent Newspapers plc, and has their complete support. His appointment went through several board committees…

Thank you, thank you. Could you please provide the committee with an understanding of the scale of the media interests of News International?

With respect, chairman, I think you are referring to Independent News & Media…

I beg your pardon. Yes, please proceed.

Our group employs approximately 3,000 people worldwide, and publishes market-leading newspapers in Ireland, Northern Ireland and South Africa. We also have significant media interests in New Zealand, Australia, Hong Kong and Indonesia. In total, our company manages gross assets of €841 million.

And how significant are your South African operations within the group?

If I can quote from our 2010 annual report: “During 2010 the South African division accounted for 34% of the group’s total revenue of €605.3 million and 45% of its operating profit before common costs of €97.4 million.”

South Africa is something of a golden goose when it comes to revenue. Can you enlighten us on the reinvestment of that revenue back into the South African economy?

That is commercially sensitive information which I would need to access. I wouldn’t want to speculate.

This committee is not asking for detail – just  a broad indication of what you are investing in improving quality, for example, through new printing presses, training journalists, that sort of thing…

I would prefer to get back to the committee on that. Ours is a huge global operation. My son is more hands-on in managing our global assets. On any given day, he could be in Australia dealing with an acquisition or in Dublin…

Mr O’Reilly junior, you may want to help the committee at this point… Surely you would have, at your fingertips, an understanding of the extent to which you are reinvesting in this country?

As my father says, I think we would prefer to come back to the committee with specific information on that. Ours is a large business…

As you wish. Help us at least understand the involvement of South Africans in your ownership structure. You presumably have local shareholders or directors on your board? And have you partnered with local businesses, for example, through an empowerment deal?

Those are issues which are under discussion, chairman.

I see. Are your South African interests still listed on the JSE?

They are not, chairman. We delisted the company a number of years ago…

You delisted and disinvested, we could say?

We delisted for commercial reasons, chairman.

And disinvested?

The decision was to delist, chairman.

So the revenue from your South African operations – approximately a third of your total revenue of R5.9 billion a year, according to my rough calculations – accrues to your head office in Ireland, Mr O’Reilly?

Obviously there are huge running costs in South Africa, chairman, and we make a significant contribution to the national fiscus through taxes and other means….

I understand.

Thank you, chairman.

Let us turn now to the issue which brings us here today: Your newspapers’ assertion that the Public Protector faced arrest over work she allegedly did for the justice department. Are you familiar with the issue, and the fact that Ms Madonsela is still walking the streets?

I am familiar with the articles you are referring to, chairman.

Are you familiar with the author of those articles, Mr Jovial Rantao?

He is deputy editor of The Star.

As a committee, we are slightly confused that a news executive should be writing on such matters, rather than one of his reporters. Does this not strike you as strange?

It does not, chairman. Our executives often get involved in writing on issues of national importance.

Are you aware of a Mr Selby Bokaba?

I am not, chairman.

Mr Bokaba worked as a reporter on The Star for several years - at the same time as Mr Rantao. One could say they go back a long way. Although he very recently moved to the agriculture department, Mr Bokaba has functioned for a number of years as a highly visible spokesman for the South African Police Service. Has the deputy editor of The Star ever discussed his relationship with Mr Bokaba with you?

He has not. We tend not to get into discussions with our editorial executives over their sources…

Are you saying Mr Bokaba is a source, Mr O’Reilly, or a spokesman?

Correction, I meant to say spokesman. 

Let me read an extract from the Mail & Guardian of 4 December 2009. The article relates to Mulangi Mphego, former divisional commissioner of crime intelligence, who is said to have leaked a videotape of a secret interview he conducted with Glen Agliotti. In an affidavit, Mr Mphego admits leaking the video to Mr Rantao after a meeting “engineered”, to quote Mr Mphego, by Mr Bokaba. Do you agree that the nature of the relationship between Mr Bokaba and your deputy editor must have been fairly close, in order for Mr Bokaba to have set up such a meeting?

I can’t comment on that. But I would assume the police spokesperson would need to trust the journalist, so that he did not get into trouble. If he did indeed leak the video. But in principle I do not see anything wrong in a close working relationship between reporters and their sources. Extremely close at times.

Thank you. Has the deputy editor of The Star ever discussed his relationship with former police commissioner Jackie Selebi with you?

He has not, chairman.

Are you aware of the fact that he consistently wrote favourable articles about Mr Selebi at a time when most other journalists were pursuing corruption allegations against him, and at a time when Mr Bokaba was Mr Selebi’s spokesman? This includes an opinion piece in which he declared that Mr Selebi was clearly innocent - and challenged anyone to prove otherwise?

I am not, chairman.

Was this ever discussed among your executives?

It was not. But I would like to point out at this stage that The Star forms a small proportion of our entire operations. We obviously do not involve ourselves, as management, in day-to-day editorial decision-making. We leave that to our editors.

And who do your editors report to, Mr O’Reilly?

They report to the MD of Independent Newspapers South Africa.

And the MD reports to your son. So they are not exactly independent or alone when it comes to these matters?

Our discussions with editors tend to focus on financial matters, chairman. We do not, as a rule, get into discussing content or ethics. It’s about the bottomline.

I have another article here, again from the Mail & Guardian, relating to Madonsela. It says “there are indications that the Public Protector may be a pawn in a battle between police minister Nathi Mthethwa and national police commissioner Bheki Cele, itself seemingly part of the proxy fight between President Zuma and his rivals.” In the article, the writer asserts that Mr Rantao has “previously reported on leaks from crime intelligence, notably concerning the Selebi investigation”. What is your comment on that, Mr O’Reilly?

I can’t comment on that. I think those questions would be best answered by the deputy editor or by the editor of The Star, Mr Moegsien Williams.

I see. We have another article here, again from the Mail and Guardian, but this dates back to May 2006. It quotes Mr Selebi on the events on the night Mr Brett Kebble was murdered. Selebi is quoted as follows: “The first person to phone me was a journalist, Jovial Rantao. Then the assistant commissioner called ...” Would you agree that this could create the impression that Mr Rantao was, as they put it, quite close to the action when it comes to having access to police sources?
I believe that all the best journalists have good access to sources – or, as you put it, have to be close to the action – to be able to do their jobs properly. And obviously they occasionally have to scratch each other’s backs, to use a turn of phrase…

Speaking broadly, as someone who has been in the media industry for decades, do you think journalists run the risk of being used by their sources as conduits for false information and leaks, Mr O’Reilly? And that in doing so they might serve a particular individual’s cause, either wittingly or unwittingly?

Chairman, is this committee seriously suggesting that one or more of my employees is being used as a conduit for false information and leaks, or is being complicit in anything other than breaking newsworthy stories? I would take great exception to that. [Bangs on table]

I am not saying that is the case here, Mr O’Reilly. As I say, I am speaking broadly about a principle or practice, and asking your opinion as someone who has been in the media game for a very long time. We would like you to educate the committee. Are you aware of cases where journalists are used by their sources to push a particular agenda, with a particular motive? Or do you believe they always work in the interests of the greater good – the truth, honesty, objectivity, that sort of thing?

As I said, I believe good journalists have close relationships with their sources. Good journalists also use their discretion and judgement wisely, and question motive.

In your opinion, Mr O’Reilly, whose interests do you think were best served by the Madonsela story? When the story was written, could there have been any doubt that one of consequences could be to derail the Public Protector’s report and in so doing, ease pressure on the police leadership? I say this against the backdrop of the fact that Mr Selebi’s successor, Commissioner Cele, subsequently postponed his own media conference twice - and still has to publicly respond to the Public Protector’s report?

I would not be able to comment on motive, chairman. [Son restrains O’Reilly Senior from banging on table] As I say, those questions would be best put to the editor and his deputy.

I see. Are you aware, Mr O’Reilly, that there has been some criticism of The Star over how this matter was handled?

I am aware of some criticism, yes. But as you have said, most of it has come from the Mail & Guardian, which is a competitor to The Star and some of our other titles. Naturally, they would enjoy taking a dig at our credibility…

Since you raise the matter of competitors: Are you familiar with the letter written to the Mail & Guardian in the week of 22 July by Mr Williams?

I am not aware of that letter.

Let me read an extract: “We expect to be criticised by our peers and the public, but such criticism should be fair. Your reporter asks pertinent questions: Was there ever a probe of Madonsela? Who was behind it? Was Independent Newspapers manipulated? By whom and why…” Why do you think the editor of your South African flagship felt it necessary to go out on a limb like that defending the paper in a competitor’s letters column?

I don’t see it as going out on a limb, chairman. I believe it is one of the most appropriate ways to deal with criticism of The Star’s motives. It was an important ethical issue, one which affects the integrity of the newspaper and its employees, and Mr Williams was correct to act as he did, and I stand...

(At this point, proceedings were interrupted by a scuffle – during which a milk tart was rubbed in the face of the Independent Newspapers chairman by South African comedian Loyisa Gola. Gola was arrested and the hearing will be rescheduled.) DM

  • Chris Vick
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Chris Vick has been active in media and politics for the past 25 years.  He runs Black, a communications consultancy, and recently hosted the PowerHour on PowerFM98.7. His email address is chris@codeblack.co.za, and on Twitter he is @chrisvick3.


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