Opinionista Stephen Grootes 1 February 2018

Good riddance, ANN7

On Wednesday afternoon DStv announced that it would not renew its contract to keep ANN7 on its bouquet. The decision raises difficult issues about censorship, and particularly about the monopoly enjoyed by MultiChoice. There will be many who are worried about this decision. But actually ANN7 must go, because it should never even have been started. Such willing purveyors of lies should not have been given the opportunity in the first place.

Let me just get some of the emotion of this moment out of the way first. As someone who has spent much of his life trying to get to the facts, and then to place them before an audience, and then to have an opinion on those facts, it is incredibly frustrating to come across people who just make them up. In a politicised environment it is tough to get to the bottom of things; just look at the different reports on the ANC’s current relationship with President Jacob Zuma. But when someone comes along who claims to be doing the same thing that you do, but actually has a completely different mission, I think journalists like me have every reason to be annoyed.

I also think that I am allowed to ask if the people who go out on a mission to make up facts to suit their paymasters’ directive are actually evil. The skewed reporting of ANN7 would be enough to many, but, much worse, there is evidence of deliberate attempts to manipulate expectations at certain moments.

During the ANC’s conference in December 2017 there was a long period of waiting before the results were announced. Hours before anyone else, and without attributing the information to anyone, ANN7 claimed that Cyril Ramaphosa had won convincingly. They even interviewed people in the suburb of Soweto where he spent part of his youth. But when the result came it was actually an incredibly narrow victory. Can you imagine playing the currency markets at the time; if you knew what you were doing, you may have been able to make some money? Sometimes, I think, people forgot that ANN7 was never meant to be a news channel, it was always a propaganda channel.

There will be plenty of people who moan and complain about the right to freedom of expression and how everyone is entitled to a view and how our political debate will somehow be diminished by the MultiChoice decision. Many of them are people I respect. But I don’t buy it.

ANN7 was started for one reason and one reason only; a group of rich men had so much money that they started their own television station in a bid to keep a particular man in power so they could make more money. And much of the money that they used would have been the proceeds of crime. This is one of those debates where motivation really matters. And you have to ask yourself: is it right that someone can just start a channel like this because they have stolen enough money and see this as a good way to steal even more?

One of the reasons ANN7 is being taken off the air is that it has been a complete failure as a propaganda tool. But imagine if the people who started it had enough money, and enough sophistication, to make it as polished as Russia Today? Imagine if they had been able to make it slick and popular, through the use of attractive presenters who actually understand the text they read on teleprompters, professional technical work, and clever, just slightly tweaked analysis? That would have been a far worse outcome, and we can only thank the stars that the Guptas were cheap and were not able to bring anyone of substance, or style, to their channel. But make no mistake, this was an attempt to poison our politics, to pollute our already damaged discourse.

Within our politics, and within our media politics, I fully agree that journalists hunt in packs. It is very difficult not to. Our audiences are also often very similar: one person can listen to 702, read Daily Maverick and News24 and watch eNCA all in the same day. As a result, we will all be interested in the same events, and often reflect similar opinions. This is also a story about economics, and the economics of media. It is also surely true that as journalists many of us go to the same experts all the time, which means certain voices, such as those who push for Radical Economic Transformation, do not get their fair share of airtime.

But look at the people used by ANN7 as part of their debates. These are not people who have a view and are then given an opportunity to express it. They are also not people who have a view and are then paid to express it, as is often the case on American networks like Fox News and CNN. These are people who are expressly hired to have a specific, pro-Zuma and pro-Gupta view, and then be vociferous about it.

A brief look at the back stories of two of the “analysts” surely proves this.

Tshepo Kgadima was appearing often on ANN7. In 2014 he was appointed chair of Petro-SA. Business Day found that he had allegedly committed fraud in the past. He then stormed into their offices and refused to leave. Eventually, he was fired. Then, a few months later, he popped up on ANN7. If you join the dots it is surely the case that the Guptas had tried to get him to chair Petro-SA and his own behaviour defeated them. But nevertheless they kept him on the payroll at ANN7.

Then there is the well-known story of Carl Niehaus (Read Unforgiven: The extraordinary tale of Carl Niehaus, by Carien du Plessis in Daily Maverick). The Umkhonto weSizwe Military Veterans Association is a tiny group; it has a grand total of zero votes at ANC conferences. This makes it even less important than even the ANC in the Western Cape in political debates. And yet he is the man, as their spokesperson, who is called at a moment’s notice. And Niehaus, in case you’ve forgotten, is a fraud and a liar. A man who is fired from being the spokesperson of the ANC for being a liar is surely not a credible person to be a “political analyst”.

And there was ANN7’s continued use of the “Black First Land First” movement. This is a group that calls itself a “political party” but hasn’t registered to fight elections. It was the only organisation that went to the Gupta home in Saxonwold to “protect” the family during the anti-Zuma protests after the removal of Pravin Gordhan as Finance Minister. It has also threatened journalists, accusing white journalists (including myself) of racism and other journalists of not “thinking in the way they should”. And there is strong evidence from the #GuptaLeaks that the group got money from the Guptas. In other words, they were all part of the same WhatsApp group. And Moegsien Williams, the former editor-in-chief of ANN7, can claim all he likes to have known nothing about it, but as a former journalist who was once respected, he should have made it his business to know. He, and the BLF, were receiving money from the same people, to attain the same ends.

Shame on you, Moegsien.

But there is plenty of blame to go around here. If there is one thing the 20th Century taught us, it’s that human beings should never hide behind the “I was just following orders” defence. It doesn’t wash. There is blame too for the reporters who played a part in what was happening, and also for other people in the office who helped. Those who left early and managed to get other jobs have shown that it is possible to be in a position like that and act. They used their agency to remove themselves from a position in which they had to sell their souls.

In many respects, ANN7 was part of the same project that once included the British PR agency Bell Pottinger. The people who lost their jobs when it closed knew what they were doing, and why they were doing it. Apart from the cleaners and receptionists, they surely knew it was coming, and thus can take blame. The very same argument is applicable here.

There will be those who say that the news industry is difficult to get into, and they had no choice. Yes, they did have a choice. Very few people get to “live their dream” of going on television. You can join the millions of others who live perfectly dignified lives, away from the limelight, and don’t sell their souls.

In cases like this it is almost always the case that those who enabled this propaganda network, the people with the real money, do not face punishment. But DStv and MultiChoice and Naspers, no matter what your corporate structure, you surely must take blame too. Maybe you thought it would make money, perhaps it was a bid to squeeze eNCA in some way, or it could even be that there was political pressure. None of it makes it right.

The removal of ANN7 from DStv brings up a much more complicated issue, something that all democracies and claimed democracies will have to deal with. All media is contested space. The arguments about the BBC in the UK, about Russia Today, Al Jazeera, eNCA, 702, Daily Maverick, News24, the Sunday Times, and all of the others are proof of that. Objectivity is not something that can be aimed for, and it is foolish to claim that it can be attained. Witness the BBC’s coverage of the campaigns during the Brexit debate in the UK, a simple “he said, she said” form of journalism which led to the side that happily admitted to lying eventually winning.

As Alain de Botton points out in The News. A User’s Manual, all news is inherently analysis. It’s no use being told that the “M3 Measure of money supply has reached a certain level”. You don’t know what that means. Facts have to be interpreted for audiences to make sense of them. This means that your world view comes into play. As a result, around the world, news probably favours the rich, because they are financiers, customers and, ultimately, the people with enough money to send their children to study journalism, even if it is not a well-paid job, especially comparing to accountants, lawyers, et al.

Because of it, there is greater likelihood of media’s inherently middle-class bias in most modern countries. In South Africa, there will be particular features because our poor are so often poor and black, and our rich are often so much richer and very white. But that doesn’t mean that an eNCA or a 702 doesn’t try to tell the complete story. In my view, they absolutely do, and they try bloody hard while dealing with professional spin doctors whose job is to muddy the truth to the point of invisibility. Which means they cannot be treated in the same way as channels like ANN7 and Russia Today who claim to be news channels but are not. At some point someone is going to have to find a way to differentiate these channels by aim and motivation. This is very hard to do.

In closing, it is perhaps worth remembering the incredible difference between the stated aims of ANN7 and what its actual aims were. Its actual aim was to ensure that Jacob Zuma, somehow, stayed in power. Its stated aim was to support the “good news” of the ANC government. It said it supported the ANC.

But no other media institution has been as strongly condemned by the ANC as ANN7. In 2016 the party’s NEC “expressed its utmost disgust at the arrogance, disrespect and reckless journalism displayed by the New Age newspaper, ANN7 News Channel and representatives of the Gupta family.” It had never previously used such strong language against a media organisation, and is unlikely to do so in the future.

It is this that completely reveals the lie. ANN7 was started for only one reason. It was not to provide news reporting, facts, or new debates. Pure and simple. DM