On Monday 11 February, most of the editors of Independent Media, which owns 24 titles according to its website, led their newspapers on the same story – a defence of the owner Iqbal Survé after the Sunday Times alleged that he had used investment funding from government pensioners for his IT company, Ayo, to cross-fund the struggling media company and to pay personal bills such as his World Economic Forum membership.
For the rest of the week, the business pages and the opinion sections were filled with fighting talk by its owner.
“This is corporate terrorism – Survé,” said The Mercury.
“Staff kept in the dark about Tiso Blackstar’s financial woes,” said The Star. Tiso Blackstar owns the Sunday Times.
“Ten points made by Dr Survé while publicly speaking on AYO and PIC in live interview,” said the Business Report whose editor, Adri Senekal De Wet, also attacked Sam Sole on Friday, for his investigation into Ayo.
It went on and on.
Last week, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, who also owns The Washington Post, chose to use the blogging platform Medium.com to out the National Enquirer, which was trying to blackmail him over explicit images that were featured in the sexting messages with his mistress, to stop his own investigation, run by the celebrity investigator Gavin de Becker, into the AMI’s (National Enquirer’s parent company) dodgy links with the Saudi regime.
The Washington Post itself has led global coverage on the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Kashoggi, who was a Post columnist.
These are two very different ways of behaviour by proprietors. Bezos is hands-off his title and used his own social media to expose The National Enquirer boss who is, perhaps appropriately, called David Pecker. Survé’s image and words are always all over his titles, which he has always used to advance his business empire, but which he this week appeared to have weaponised in synchronicity, signalling the death of editorial freedom at one of South Africa’s biggest media companies.
“My editors have full editorial autonomy. Please ask them,” said Survé in response to a Daily Maverick query about whether he had instructed his editors to lead their titles in his defence. Daily Maverick sent queries to editors of The Star, the Cape Times, the Business Report and The Mercury.
The Star’s editor, Japhet Ncube, did not want to comment. The rest did not respond to detailed requests for comment on how they chose their lead articles; on whether they believed that Bezos’s hands-off approach to editorial freedom is the right one, or whether they prefer an activist and omnipresent owner like Survé, and on whether they believe they enjoy editorial autonomy.
This is much bigger than Bezos – Iqbal Survé
“It’s amazing, we are the victims of a (sic) corporate criminal gangsters trying to block transformation and we are questioned about our independence. This does not make sense,” said Survé by WhatsApp message in response to a Daily Maverick query.
He did not respond to a follow-up question on how the coverage of the Ayo deal, which is based on two whistle-blowers who worked at the company and on the testimony of a young analyst at the Public Investment Corporation who believed the deal was not financially sound, was an attempt to “block transformation”. He also did not respond to an allegation he made earlier that Sunday Times journalists were practising “brown envelope” journalism – a term that describes articles written in return for a bribe paid in a brown envelope.
While the Bezos blog exposed that he faced extortion about his private life because of the coverage of Saudi Arabia by The Washington Post and because the Enquirer wanted to hide its proximity and sweetheart deals with the Saudi regime, Survé insists there is no comparison on ownership style. In other words, it is a political story, not a private one, so Survé says the comparison is not apposite.
“Jeff Bezos is about his personal life. The attack on myself is an attack on empowerment and transformation by emboldened racists. My editors recognise that this is beyond me. The PIC attack is a smokescreen for rolling back empowerment, especially in the media space. That is why the editors feel they have to fight this battle since they are deeply committed to this empowerment and transformation journey. Jeff Bezos is about his private life; this battle is a fight for the soul of our country and for all black people who don’t wish to be puppets.”
That is one reading of the Ayo exposés.
The other, ventilated before the commission of inquiry into the Public Investment Corporation chaired by retired Judge Lex Mpati, is that Survé’s PIC deals are highly irregular. In addition to the R4.3-billion deal to fund the Ayo purchase, it was revealed in 2018 that Survé defaulted on the repayments of R1-billion to the PIC which also bankrolled his purchase of Independent Media from the Irish magnate, Tony O’Reilly.
It was Survé’s birthday this week and he said he was celebrating with family and friends, so the WhatsApp interview ended there.
Were the editors acting on instruction or did they act in rare synchronicity, Daily Maverick asked media guru Anton Harber.
“One of the toughest things for an editor is, when the owner is a prominent person and in the news, it’s difficult to report on the boss,” he said.
“Jeff Bezos is hands-off on the title. Marty Baron (The Washington Post editor) says he (Bezos) is not interested in the editorial. And The Washington Post coverage will show that it treats Bezos like it treats any other news subject, unlike (with) Dr Iqbal Survé who uses his title to promote himself and his businesses. He has destroyed any semblance of independence (at the titles). It’s tragic; he has killed the Independent spirit,” said Harber.
While the editors did not respond, former staff shed some light.
‘Run on Page 1’
They said Survé sent diktats to editors about the kind of personalised blanket coverage readers and audiences witnessed on Monday through his executive henchman, Howard Plaatjies, who is the chief operating officer.
“It comes with a note saying ‘Run on Page 1’,” revealed a staff member who did not want to be named. Plaatjies did not respond to requests for comment, although his WhatsApp revealed the messages had been read.
Staff said Survé liked his image in his titles as much as the former owner, Tony O’Reilly, had liked his splashed across the pages. Both men allegedly went through filed photographs of themselves (kept in the company’s central photographic archive) and selected the most fetching images while culling those that were not flattering.
Another staff member, who has subsequently left but still did not want to be named, said: “Iqbal is a smart man. The Indy (Independent Media) needed reinvigoration for modern times. He immersed himself in the industry and he took an old company and modernised it.”
Harber agrees that Survé rescued the paper’s online presence by investing in its portal (iol.co.za), which has held its own in a digital news era. The staff member added that Survé had to be aggressive on transformation, especially in the Western Cape.
O’Reilly had asset-stripped the company and repatriated ever larger profits to Ireland to shore up his dwindling media empire there and he had not reshaped the Cape titles for a different time.
“The need for transformation was a reality and a factor. The Western Cape office was rabidly DA. (Western Cape premier) Helen Zille had free rein. But Independent Media has lost quality (now). The editors are dependent (on Survé) and controllable,” said the staff member.
Survé is not the first nor the last owner to abuse his titles. Rupert Murdoch, the Australian and American media baron who defined the tabloid era, especially in the United Kingdom, was notorious for using his titles to push his political agenda; so was Robert Maxwell, another tabloid magnate.
Faced with criticism in Britain about his editorial interference, Murdoch reportedly once said: “I give instructions to my editors all around the world, why shouldn’t I in London?”
Maxwell also used his titles to push his political agendas, including a lengthy fight with the satirical magazine Private Eye, in much the same way that Survé uses his titles to battle other media.
In his blog last week, Bezos said, “My ownership of the Washington Post is a complexifier for me. It’s unavoidable that certain powerful people who experience Washington Post coverage will wrongly conclude I am their enemy.”
Says Harber: “I think there are different gradations (to how owners use their media). The SABC, New Age and ANN7 (the latter two were Gupta family-owned companies) gave soft coverage to the Zuma administration. The Independent’s titles are there primarily, it seems, to serve Survé’s personal interest and ego. It doesn’t take a genius to know it’s a path to destruction and destroys the credibility of the titles.”
Can Independent News survive?
“No, I don’t think it can,” says Harber.
In December 2018, it was revealed that the PIC had written off R1-billion of its investment in and loan to Survé, which suggests the company is in trouble. Late in 2018, the company made another of a series of redundancy offers to staff.
The company retains four titles in the top 10 selling newspapers in the country, according to the website marklives.com, which analysed the latest circulation figures this week. Its big sellers are The Star (on a daily circulation of 75,772 copies) and Isolezwe (73,141). The Cape Argus has a circulation of 27,000; The Cape Times 29,000; The Daily News 23,000; The Mercury 25,000 and The Pretoria News is at 12,000 copy sales a day. Two of the Independent’s titles are among the seven loss leaders, according to Herman Manson, writing on marklives.com. DM