Opinionista Buddy Naidu 24 October 2013

Media’s transformation dream deferred

Last week a fuse was lit that threatens to expose the skeletons in the closet of two of the country's most respected and widely-read publications. I love the profession and am saddened by the turn of events.

It was reported that a group of six journalists at City Press were preparing to lay charges of racism and defamation against their editor, Ferial Haffajee, following a heated staff workshop earlier in the week where they raised issues of “transformation and alleged discrimination”, according to a report in The Star.

One was quoted in another paper saying: “She became offensive when we started raising pressing issues. Emotions ran high. The discussion shifted to the issue of transformation in management.”

The journalists apparently went on to accuse Haffajee of failing to appoint a senior black news editor to help tell stories from “a black perspective”.

Haffajee, in turn, took to Twitter and other media to dismiss the claims and was critical of the apparent  “racist mauling” of some of her (white) appointments. She is quoted as saying: “Racism, no matter who practises it, is abominable and I will speak out against it.” She added: “I saw real Black racism at play and cultural chauvinism that I can’t stomach on Tuesday.”

I love the profession and am saddened by the turn of events. I also feel for those involved who I know, and some of whom I have worked with previously. I am relieved, however, that the proverbial elephant in the room has come to the fore.

I was the national news editor at the Sunday Times from 2010 up until recently and was privy to the goings-on at our sister publication when Haffajee took over. Indeed, many senior black journalists were unhappy with the direction the once “Distinctly African” paper was embarking on. For starters, Haffejee employed a core group of white journalists and managers at the expense of senior black staff.

Secondly, the tone and look of the paper had also changed, with City Press unashamedly using the template of the Sunday Times. However, it was the tone of the stories and the recruitment drive that raised the ire of black staff, who felt excluded and shut out from working key stories or making editorial decisions. I know this because I hired and attempted to hire some of them.

Several senior black journalists and managers have since left. The last batch of three in June, I am led to believe. One even chose unemployment over having a glorified title with key decisions being left to junior white colleague.

However, the case of City Press cannot be looked at in isolation. Look at its competitor and the acknowledged biggest paper in the country, the Sunday Times. I can talk from personal experience, having worked there for 14 years as a general, political, business and investigative reporter, and as the national news editor.

However, due to a change in leadership, several of my colleagues and I were forced to leave. Unlike my colleagues, I did not look back in anger. The paper had given me much – I travelled extensively, met world leaders and celebrities, won journalism awards, fought lots of battles worth fighting for and acquired a unique set of skills that I today use as a reputation and crisis communications consultant.

Having said that, however, my replacement was a retired white male. As a result of these changes (others may call them a purge of primarily black staff), which in hindsight was solely about trimming the wage bill, there are now 11 white managers or section heads, four African, two Indian and two coloured.

Haffajee, meanwhile, is on record as saying she has ten managers, three of whom are white. However, anyone who has worked in a newsroom will tell you that key decisions are made at a news conference held several times each week where the news agenda is mapped out. And, according to colleagues, at any given time there are only two African section heads and at least eight white managers at City Press’ news conferences. The Sunday Times’ conference now is no different.

Statistics on the subject of transformation are grim. In April the 13th Commission for Employment Equity (CEE) Annual Report on transformation of the workplace in the private sector showed that … there was none.

The labour department report revealed that the percentage of whites at top management level remained static at 73%. Interestingly, the report said that, between 2010 and 2012, the percentage of Africans saw a decline from 12.7% to 12.3%.

Census 2011 states that Africans – despite constituting 80% of the population – fare worse than their white counterparts in terms of household income, jobs and education. It said the official unemployment rate stood at 29.8% with 39.8% of African men and 52.9% of African women not working. In contrast, only 8.1% of white men and 12.5% of white women did not have jobs.

A recently-released report by Wits University on The State of the Newsroom found that 55% of the editors in the nine newsrooms they looked at – including the two aforementioned – were black and 45% white, while stating that the figure among management was also dire.

It stated that, in terms of employment equity, the owners of City Press “strives to respect dignity, maintain fair labour practices, and it regards employment equity as a ‘strategic priority’.”

The owners of the Sunday Times said it was their “intention is to eliminate unfair discrimination in the company; take steps to promote equality; to promote diversity; and to redress imbalances”.

Now what does all of this have to do with putting together a newspaper? Simple. A newspaper is a unique beast that represents the character and personality of its editor and staff – in tone, content and look. It represents the hopes, aspirations, frustrations and needs of its team.

Newsrooms, historically, are filled with robust debate and strong personalities. I have sat in many news conferences pitching stories where I was asked the infamous question: “So what? How does that affect me?” I never said it out aloud, but it would not affect you if you were of a certain hue. I have been involved in hundreds of official debates over the treatment of subjects and stories – and informal ones with black staff expressing their frustrations and criticisms at how we continued to demonise black subjects as stupid, corrupt and unable to govern.

I employed competent black staff as a rule of thumb and fought to ensure stories of black achievement and success actually made the paper – all the while fending off cynical and sarcastic comments and that inevitable question from my fairer colleagues.

I witnessed first-hand how we treated black subjects and white subjects. How the death of a white baby was received with shock and horror while the bodies of two infants found in a suitcase in a Cape township was relegated to just a news brief. How noses were turned up at a story on a politician actually doing good and making a tangible difference. This is no way made them racist or ineffective at their jobs but what it did indicate was that Black aspirations and ideals differ starkly to that of our fellow countrymen.

A colleague last week said the City Press situation presented a conundrum and again highlighted the need for the transformation of the media. There is no conundrum. We are a country with labour laws and, more importantly, laws surrounding employment equity and affirmative action. The City Press staffers may have been inarticulate in their argument – from what has been reported they were also unhappy about the treatment of Jacob Zuma and lack of positive stories around him.

But to dismiss outright their concerns as racist is not the solution. There is a debate here about transformation, about South African stories being told from a certain perspective and the need to be aggressively balanced in reporting both positive and negative stories.

Here we have two seemingly powerful publications known for their ballsy reporting and holding truth to power. In fact, a few months back the Sunday Times’ lead story was on black female advocates only making up 2% of the state’s criminal justice system. Yet it did not see the need to ask itself just how many African women it had within its management. (The answer, by the way, is NONE.)

If anything, the events of the last week show that the media industry needs to stop hiding behind its veneer of self-righteousness. Up until now the public debate has been about the racial composition of the ownership of the media. City Press has now pushed that envelope further.

The country’s newsrooms, management, owners and content must reflect the demographics of this country. I have worked under editors with a known, unashamed transformation-based agenda such as Mathatha Tsedu, Mondli Makhanya and Ray Hartley who ensured that, firstly, their houses are in order and that this, in effect, was reflected in the content and tone of their publications.

Before we roll out the race card again we must be mindful that employment equity and affirmative action are legally entrenched and seeks to undo historical prejudices and imbalances. Everyone in every sector has accepted this. What makes the media industry any different? DM


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