These days, Naspers owns all important Afrikaans news titles. Are their journalists discouraged from commenting on media management at those papers, or too afraid to speak out because they’re scared they’ll make career-limiting comments?
I was at lunch speaking to two Afrikaans journalists, when the subject of Beeld came up. They were talking about Beeld’s news agenda and how an extreme focus on driving copy sales in the press dominates to such a degree the pair painted a picture of morning news meetings as “vulture hunts” – searches for the best new kill that would drive the commercial agenda.
One ex-Beeld staffer, a news photographer, told a chilling tale. He said he’d been on a story with a news journalist and the subject was the mother of a young woman who had been murdered. The mother was distraught and didn’t want to speak to them, but they knew they couldn’t go back empty handed because it was a very high-profile murder. The journalists were persuasive and got the interview despite originally being turned away at the gates to the grieving family’s home.
The story was filed, and the journalists went home after what was an emotionally taxing day. The next morning they opened the paper and saw that the mother’s quotes had been changed overnight. The photographer said this was because the quotes weren’t sensational enough and required more drama.
After the morning news meeting the duo were sent back to interview the mother yet again, because South Africa had fixated on the story and, being huge news, it was driving up newspaper circulations. Instead the journalists went to McDonalds and ate burgers, too ashamed to face the mother again after what had been done to her interview. After a while they went back to work and told their news editor the mother wasn’t there.
I asked them why they didn’t make this a matter of public record. What they said was something I’ve heard frequently from Afrikaans journalists. “Naspers own the Afrikaans media. The company doesn’t take kindly to criticism and if we speak out we might never get another job in journalism again. If you are Afrikaans and exiled from Naspers where else do you get to work in your own language?”
It’s the same reasoning I heard from Christi van der Westhuizen, an Afrikaans writer who used to write columns for Beeld’s “BY”, a regular supplement to the Afrikaans daily. What you need to know about “Van der Weatherize” is that she’s critical and frequently gets up people’s noses. The author of “White Power & the Rise and Fall of the National Party” first worked for Media24 in the mid-nineties after Vrye Weekblad closed down.
“If you want to write in Afrikaans there aren’t millions of options,” says Van der Westhuizen who wrote columns for Beeld from about 1997. “In 2003 I wrote a column trying to look into why the National Party’s support base was being eroded by the Democratic Alliance. Many Beeld readers were people moving from the National Party to the DA at the time. I wrote a critical column looking at this issue and the column was unceremoniously pulled.” Van der Westhuizen was called in by then-editor Peet Kruger who told her she shouldn’t upset the reader. “His take was that one shouldn’t critically question the choices readers make.”
Van der Westhuizen left Beeld and went on to publish her first book, which caught the interest of Beeld’s editorial management – who in 2007 asked her to write columns for them, again. Given her past experience with Beeld, Van der Westhuizen went to great pains to explain her view and explain that her writing would agitate for a thinking citizenry and she wouldn’t kowtow to a commercial agenda.
Two-and-a-half years passed happily until Van der Westhuizen decided to write on the Protection of Information Bill and investigate media practices in news rooms. After submitting her column she learnt that Beeld editor, Tim du Plessis, wouldn’t run it because Henry Jeffreys (now editor of The New Age) had written a column on the matter and it was deemed too similar.
“I looked as his (Jeffrey’s) column and there were two or three paragraphs that were similar, but my ultimate point was on the dumbing down trend in the media that inadvertently fits in with the ANC’s agenda of stymieing the flow of information in society. Henry didn’t say anything about that at all, so I felt there was a substantial difference between the two columns.”
The columnist resigned and cited her column had been censored. “Ultimately what this is all about is the editors’ paternalistic attitude. What that becomes is a steady diet of crime stories, whether Joost and Amore are back together and who Ntuli-Zuma is having sex with or not. This dumbing down trend is discerned across all papers, but some are worse than others.”
I spoke to Du Plessis about this and he immediately became irritated, if not angry with me. “I have absolutely nothing to say. Here is my line: ‘The column was not censored, it was terminated’. The column didn’t meet the standards. The column wasn’t interesting and stimulating and it didn’t meet that standard and, Mandy, that is all I am going to say.” I tried to flesh out his reasoning to which he replied: “No. I am done. Okay? Bye bye.”
One columnist who may have an axe to grind and an irritated editor hardly makes a story. But then the matter of Willie Burger’s getting the boot for being overly critical of Beeld’s media practices in February last year came to light. “I wrote a column for Beeld for eight years and wrote a critical piece on Beeld itself and the editor of the Saturday supplement I wrote for was very upset,” said Burger, professor of Afrikaans Literature, Media and Cultural Studies at the University of Pretoria. The fatal column in “BY” investigated the way different newspapers covered the commemoration of FW de Klerk’s speech related to the unbanning of the ANC and the freeing of Nelson Mandela.
“If you looked at Beeld you would say the whole change in South Africa was brought about by a couple of white men who negotiated the event, thought it out and managed to pull it off. If you looked at the way it was covered by Sowetan you would say there was no white person who had anything to do with this, and that the whole thing was the result of all the black people working very hard to end apartheid,” said Burger. “In my column, I mentioned what I observed at Beeld and what I observed at Sowetan, saying I thought it was a pity 20 years later we still had media living in and creating different worlds. I said what I would have expected from the Afrikaans media was not a one sided, one-eyed Afrikaner world, but rather the whole world in Afrikaans.” The editor of “BY” wrote Burger an email saying his column wasn’t true, wasn’t fair, was overly critical and unappreciative of the good work done by the editorial management of Beeld.
Burger relooked his column, didn’t soften his view and it was published. “I hear that on that same Saturday there was a discussion at Boekehuis with Max du Preez and Tim du Plessis and I was told a journalist mentioned the column to Tim who apparently got very upset. He said something to the effect that people who criticize Beeld don’t understand the kind of pressures the editorial management are under. On the Monday I received the email saying I should not bother writing any further columns,” said Burger. That was Burger’s last column for Beeld.
After the lunch with the two ex-Beeld journalists I was called by yet another Afrikaans writer who lamented the stranglehold Naspers has on the Afrikaans media, and told me about an issue she had with the group and promised to send me evidence of this, but expressed fear about her name being used. I haven’t heard from her again.
Writing stories on hearsay, particularly when your sources are journalists with an axe to grind, can be deemed insidious, but there have just been too many Afrikaans journalists who have crossed my path or spoken out to me on the same lament for the issue to be ignored.
There’s an old joke that Beeld is not a half-bad paper once you get past the first few pages which are too often filled with black-on-white murder. A report by Media Monitoring Africa said while crime doesn’t discriminate according to race, Beeld’s coverage of crime created a skewed perception to the contrary. MMA said Beeld positioned whites as innocent, pathetic victims and the paper’s coverage on crime was not in line with the newspaper’s duties to minimize harm and seek truth. Another accusation against the paper was it told frightening stories without context, background or offering solutions.
Although white murder and crime victims remain a staple at the paper, that joke contains truth in that it’s unfair to overlook the good work done by the paper, including its strong investigative work, aggressive consumer reporting, critical columns and championing of local culture.
But if Beeld is unable to tolerate hearing the truth from its own people, isn’t it killing frank internal discourse? Why aren’t Beeld and other Afrikaans new titles owned by Naspers dismantling the fear and loathing engendered among Afrikaans writers who take issue with the paper’s media agenda, but are too afraid to speak out because they’re scared a journalism career in the language they love will be snuffed out if they do? DM
Mandy de Waal is a writer who reports on technology, corruption, science, the media and whatever else she finds interesting. She loves small stories and human narratives, and dislikes persistent evangelists, bad poetry and the insane logic that currently passes for political rhetoric. Back in journalism after spending time in the corridors of corporate greed, de Waal has written for Mail & Guardian, Noseweek, City Press, Rapport, MoneyWeb, Brandchannel (New York) and a number of other good titles. She now writes for The Daily Maverick because it’s the smart thing to do.
"Joyfully to the breeze royal Odysseus spread his sail and with his rudder skillfully he steered." ~ Homer