South Africa

South Africa

Cape Times Dasnois settlement: No place for truly independent editors

Cape Times Dasnois settlement: No place for truly independent editors

History has repeated itself at the 140-year-old The Cape Times. In 1987 the paper’s editor, Tony Heard, was fired by Times Media Limited chairman Stephen Mullholland after Heard had published an interview with the ANC’s banned and exiled president, Oliver Tambo. On Monday the paper’s new owners, Independent Media and its executive chairman, Iqbal Survé, settled a Labour Court dispute with another editor, Alide Dasnois, who was ironically allegedly fired for her handling of coverage of Nelson Mandela’s death in 2013. By MARIANNE THAMM.

Back then, Times Media Limited CEO, the Irish-born Stephen Mullholland, with his penchant for crisp, striped business shirts, was loathed by ordinary hacks like myself in the Cape Times newsroom. Mulholland, appointed in 1986, was grandiose, arrogant, quick to temper. A bully.

A former journalist, he was brought in to slap The Cape Times into financial shape. The previous year, 1985, the then owners of the Cape Times, SAAN (South African Associated Newspapers) had shown a loss of more than R20-million. Mulholland’s job was to chase the money, to make the paper viable, “putting profit above principle” as the Financial Times of London described him at the time in a profile.

Tony Heard had steered The Cape Times through the turbulent, repressive and violent 1980s. He was an inspirational and independent-minded editor who respected his editors and journalists and instilled in them a sense of greater purpose – to bring about political change in the country.

Heard published the interview with Oliver Tambo in November 1985. It was a risky move. He faced a jail term and also the wrath of the paper’s management and owners who were hoping to keep a low profile in politically volatile times. The Security Police arrived and marched Heard out of the building.

The interview earned Heard the Golden Pen Freedom Award from the International Federation of Publishers, but his time as editor was running out. In 1987, after Mulholland had been steering the TML ship for only a year, management got rid of the troublesome editor. Screaming matches between Mullholland and Heard finally resulted in a severance package “with no strings attached”.

In a 1987 interview Heard said:

The sacking of an editor, in the absence of some horrendous public misdemeanor, is at least partly a political act because, in South Africa today, it takes place in a politically charged atmosphere – and some editors are more political than others. South Africa is in a vastly polarising situation and liberals get thinned out. One shouldn’t be sentimental about it: I am surprised there are so many liberal institutions left. You can’t have illusions about it if you’re going to be a liberal in Africa.”

His comments still stand.

Fast-forward to Monday and the settlement for an undisclosed sum by current owners of The Cape Times, Independent Media and its executive chairman Iqbal Survé. The settlement has put an end to two years of animosity in the aftermath of Nelson Mandela’s death in December 2013, when Dasnois still edited the paper.

There are shades of the Heard firing in the Dasnois saga, only this time round the chairman appeared not to have the temerity to tell his editor to her face exactly why he was really getting rid of her.

After Danois’ dramatic sacking, Survé offered several contradictory explanations for his action: that the paper’s circulation had been dropping, that the newsroom under Dasnois was untransformed, and then the “final straw” on 6 December when she had opted, after the late-breaking news of Mandela’s death, to go with a four-page wraparound rather than pulling the paper’s front page lead.

Which that day just happened to be about a report by the public protector implicating one of Survé’s companies, Sekunjalo Marine Service Consortium, in the irregular awarding of a fishing tender.

In her 64-page affidavit to the Labour Court Danois set out how Survé, at one meeting, had referred to the front page story on the public protector’s report on the tender as an “up yours” to himself [Survé]. A bit like Mulholland and the TML management viewed Heard’s publishing of the Tambo interview as an “up yours” to that management.

Dasnois’ affidavit reveals how Survé threatened to use his “billions” to get at Dasnois, how he fumed that she was a spiteful and irrational woman, that she was racist, that she wanted to undermine him, that her decision to go with the Mandela wraparound instead of dropping the lead had been disrespectful to the dead president. The accounts do not amount to a flattering portrait. Instead Survé comes across as a vindictive and defensive man.

There is no doubt that the ailing 11 newspapers Survé bought for R2-billion from Independent News and Media SA’s previous Irish owner, Tony O’Reilly, in 2013 were shadows of their former selves. Over the years O’Reilly had bled the company, sending profits offshore. O’Reilly was close to Mandela and had promised back in the day to be supportive of the ANC.

But as the group stashed profits offshore, local titles became lumbering dinosaurs in a fleet-footed new technological age. Staff at The Cape Times and Cape Argus were slashed, newsrooms combined and rationalised, technology was old and slow (employees were not allowed, at some point, even to use social media). There is also no doubt that O’Reilly’s company carried a lot of dead wood, employees who had worked there for years, who had not “up-skilled” and who were holding on for their pensions. It is true also that the newsrooms of its titles had not transformed sufficiently.

Survé’s Sekunjalo Independent Media (SIM) holds a 55% balance in the consortium that bought O’Reilly’s little treasure trove while controversially the Public Investment Corporation (PIC), a government agency which controls the Government Employers Pension Fund (GEPF), holds 25%, and the China International Television Corporation, together with the China-Africa Development Fund another 20% through an organisation called Intracom Holding.

Soon after buying Independent, Survé purged a number of senior staff – all of whom happened to be white, many of whom happened to be old “Struggle” journalists. Ironically, those sent packing included Janet Heard, daughter of the previously sacked Tony. Their departures were bitter and the battle between those journalists who left and Survé and those who now form his new management flares up now and then on social media in ratty sub-tweets and Facebook posts about media independence, transformation and changing the “dominant political hegemony”.

Mostly it it is a depressingly immature narrative, particularly at this point in the country’s post-apartheid history where the Constitutional Court has found the country’s president and its parliament lacking.

Spinning Monday’s settlement as a “vindication” in Tuesday’s Cape Times, the paper forgot to tell its readers that the story on the front page of the newspaper that came wrapped in the Mandela tribute was about one of the boss’s companies and its involvement in an irregular tender.

Immediately after the settlement, hostilities flared when Dasnois rejected an earlier statement by Survé and Independent that she had offered to drop the matter in return for a payout.

I am very surprised at the statement today by Independent Newspapers, only hours after our settlement in the Labour Court. It is untrue that the Cape Times did not lead with the death of Nelson Mandela on page one on 6 December 2013. I reject with contempt any suggestion that our coverage of the event showed any disrespect to Mandela. On the contrary: the Cape Times produced a special four-page edition, with news, comment, tributes and photographs, which was widely praised. I also reject with contempt the suggestion that I offered to drop the matter in return for a payout,” Dasnois told Daily Maverick.

Earlier, Independent had issued as statement headed “Independent Vindicated as Dasnois settles over Mandela coverage”.

Independent is satisfied that this conclusion represents a vindication of our consistent position, which is that the company has an absolute right to act against any editor who demonstrates poor editorial judgement, and that the adverse market performance of a newspaper is a legitimate reason for an editor’s removal,” the statement read.

However, the tone of the agreement between Independent and Dasnois is somewhat tempered with the group stating that while it did not agree with the decision taken by Dasnois, as editor, to publish a special wraparound, “Independent acknowledges the following; that her decision was not intended by her in any way to show disrespect for Nelson Mandela or his legacy, or to embarrass Independent, its owners or management and was a decision in respect of while Alide was exercising her prerogative as editor.”

Independent also acknowledged that Dasnois’ conduct “was not motivated by racism and it retracts all allegations of racism made against her in the course of the proceedings that preceded the termination of her employment”.

Readers of Tuesday’s Cape Times would not have found any of this in the stories about the settlement spread over two pages.

And thus ends yet another chapter in South Africa’s newspaper history, a history that by all accounts is destined, sooner or later, to go the way of the dinosaur as the universe moves online. Dasnois got out just in time with her reputation and integrity intact. DM

Photo: Alide Dasnois talks to Right2Know protesters outside the Labour Court on Monday. Her litigation had the support of Right2Know and the Open Democracy Advice Centre. Photo: Masixole Feni for GroundUp.

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