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New Frame achieved much, but was also an unworkable pro...

Defend Truth

Opinionista

New Frame achieved much, but was also an unworkable proposition given its very high costs

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Richard Pithouse was editor-in-chief of New Frame from its launch to close.

In the days since New Frame had to confront a serious and potentially fatal funding crisis, there has been some thoughtful engagement and reflection. But there has also been an accumulation of factually incorrect statements, malicious innuendo and outright slander.

At its best, journalism is a vocation rather than just a job. It’s certainly true that journalists sometimes do extraordinary and on occasion courageous work in holding the powerful to account. But it’s not always acknowledged that journalism is itself an exercise of power, an exercise of power that should be subject to public critique.  

Of course, all public debate should be grounded in reason and evidence. In the days since New Frame had to confront a serious and potentially fatal funding crisis, there has been some thoughtful engagement and reflection. But there has also been an accumulation of factually incorrect statements, malicious innuendo and outright slander. Alarmingly, the entirely unevidenced conspiracy theory about the reason for the funding crisis that has circulated online has been treated by some as if it were credible, including by some journalists. To my knowledge, no one who has claimed, whether via social media or in a published article, that there has been something untoward about New Frame’s editorial practices has sought to measure these claims against what we have actually published.  

New Frame had a number of objectives at the outset. We wished to think, carefully, beyond the liberal consensus that dominates most of the media, to produce work of very high quality in terms of how it was edited and presented, and to hold to the highest standards of ethical and professional rigour. We did not always reach beyond the liberal consensus consistently enough, or far enough, but we certainly did succeed in consistently publishing work of the highest professional and ethical standards, and presenting it very well. We developed the best sports and culture desks in South Africa and a world-class podcast. 

We were able to achieve this for two reasons. The first is that we had a superb set of editors, each of them journalists committed to the highest ethical and professional standards of their profession. The second is that we had the gift of unprecedently generous funding for four years, funding that allowed us to do some extraordinary work, present it beautifully and support a large network of freelancers as well as our own people. Our ability to pay freelancers well and to treat them and their work with respect meant that New Frame was able to become an important part of the material as well as the symbolic infrastructure of our shared intellectual life. But this cost real money. We spent about R122-million in four years. That kind of funding is a black-swan event. 

The accolades that we received for the work are impressive. Achille Mbembe described New Frame as “one of the most exciting political, intellectual and cultural projects to emerge in Africa” and “arguably the top intellectual media platform on our continent”.

Sisonke Msimang wrote that “New Frame is one of the most vital voices in the Global South.” 

People such as Angela Davis, Noam Chomsky and Robin DG Kelley thought it worthwhile to invest their time in interviews with New Frame. We published work by people like Achille Mbembe, Paul Gilroy, Lewis Gordon, Pumla Gqola and Silvia Federici. We did exceptional work on issues like political repression in Durban and Eswatini, labour, police violence and last year’s riots. During the riots, a good number of the best newspapers in the English-speaking world contacted us for advice. 

Fact and fiction 

The record of what we have published is on our website and stands as an objective measure of our editorial decisions. But since it became clear that we did not have funding guaranteed after the next few months, a number of  people have made allegations about our editorial processes without making any attempt to check this against the work that we have actually done.  

The claims of editorial impropriety have taken three forms. There have been claims that external actors, namely, Irvin Jim and Roy Singham, influenced our editorial decisions. It has also been said that New Frame had an editorial bias towards Numsa and the political party that emerged from Numsa, the Socialist Revolutionary Workers’ Party (SRWP). Daily Maverick’s Rebecca Davis adds a new claim — that there was something untoward about our coverage of Abahlali baseMjondolo. The final claim has been that there was some sort of editorial prohibition on critical coverage of Myanmar, Russia and China.  

It is a plain fact that Jim has never had a discussion about New Frame editorial policy, or any specific article or issue, with any New Frame editor. I have met Jim a number of times, as I have met many grassroots activists and trade unionists across South Africa, and he once asked me to speak to a group of general secretaries from a number of unions about the international political significance of movements of the urban poor. But none of the other New Frame editors has ever had a conversation with him. For a significant chunk of the almost four years in which New Frame operated, I was seriously ill and the publication was run and managed by other editors, with Monica Laganparsad taking the lead. They could hardly have been under the influence of a man whom they had never met or spoken to. 

It is imperative for me to state publicly that Laganparsad is among the most decent, ethical and professionally serious people I have ever worked with. In the period when she was solely responsible for editorial decision-making at New Frame, she was, I have no doubt, the best working editor in the country.  

Roy Singham has never made a donation to New Frame. He has, though, supported foundations from which New Frame has received funding. This is an important distinction, because in the wake of the funding crisis at New Frame the question of funding has become intensely personalised in a way that is never the case with, say, the Open Society Foundations or the Gates Foundation. 

It is important to understand that, not unlike the ways in which George Soros has been subject to anti-Semitic forms of suspicion in eastern Europe, Singham has been subject to quite intensely racist forms of suspicion in South Africa. 

He grew up in Jamaica and is of mixed heritage, but his name — Singham — results in him being racialised as Indian in South Africa. The old colonial caricature of the nefarious Indian controlling African people abounds. He has been presented as “a Gupta”, and that exact phrase has been repeatedly used in the more toxic reaches of the sectarian left. Political suspicion has also been projected on to him because of his history as a black radical, including a period in the League of Revolutionary Black Workers in the auto factories in Detroit. 

The fact that he now lives in China has been openly presented as grounds for suspicion. I doubt very much that the fact that Bill Gates lives in the United States, and has done business there, results in allegations that publications funded by the Gates Foundation are covertly driven by an insidious pro-US line. 

I have never reported to Singham or any other individual. I report, as is standard in donor-funded organisations, to a board that in turn sends proposals and reports to foundation boards. Singham does not sit on the boards of any of the foundations that he has supported.  

Our initial mandate, discussed at the outset with both the foundation that funded our start-up costs and our board, was set in terms of two broad principles: to be on the side of the working class and to be Pan-African. We committed to try to undertake this via the creation of an open, rational and non-sectarian and, therefore, inclusive left space. 

Laganparsad and Lukhona Mdluli, who ran the operational side of New Frame, had met Singham, in a cursory way, back in 2018. Neither of them has had any contact with him since then, in person or otherwise. There is simply no way that he could have exercised any influence on them in the period when I was seriously unwell and away from work. Singham never once contacted me about any particular article or sought to give me a line on any issue. Similarly, the board never once discussed editorial positions with me.  

Paranoia and bitter enmity

The claim that New Frame had some sort of bias towards Numsa and the SRWP has its roots in the sectarian left, a space well known to be riven with paranoia and bitter enmity. Anyone who spends a few minutes looking at what we have actually published will swiftly see that these claims are entirely bogus. It would have been bizarre if New Frame had ignored the largest trade union in the country, or placed some sort of ban on the mention of the name of its general secretary, on the grounds that this would risk inflaming sectarian hostilities.  

The record shows that we have covered a wide range of trade unions and carried out all our reporting on unions according to high ethical and professional standards. It is an undeniable fact that there has never been a specific focus on one trade union or a particular personality in the trade union movement. Both Numsa and its general secretary have appeared in Business Day with far more regularity than New Frame

The claim that New Frame was somehow a project of the SRWP or a propaganda vehicle for it, or that there has been some sort of editorial bias towards the party, is both bizarre and completely at odds with the empirical record of what we have published. New Frame has published nine articles that mention the SRWP — 0.02% of our articles. Of the nine articles that mention the SRWP, seven mention it only in passing, generally in one or two sentences. There is only one article that is specifically about the party. It is a report on the launch of the party in 2019, something that was widely covered by the mainstream media. The New Frame report followed standard journalistic practices and included a critical comment from Steven Friedman, a respected commentator who is certainly no hack. We covered one event in which the SRWP participated along with other organisations. Again, that event was covered by the mainstream media and our report holds to good journalistic practices.  

Just as it would have been impossible for us not to cover the largest trade union in the country, it would have been an equal dereliction of journalistic duty to ignore Abahlali baseMjondolo, the most significant social movement in the country. Each of our reports on this organisation adheres to high standards of professional rigour. It is true, of course, that I have been associated with this organisation since its formation. But this is hardly a secret and the New Frame people who wrote about the movement — and who did so with great enthusiasm and professional excellence — did so under the authority of other editors. 

The claim that people were forced to write about Abahlali baseMjondolo is a simple lie. To my knowledge, nobody had ever suggested that there was any sort of editorial pressure with regard to our coverage of Abahlali baseMjondolo prior to the questions that Davis sent to me while she was preparing her article on New Frame for Daily Maverick

I stand by each of the articles that we have published on this movement and am, in fact, particularly proud of the exemplary work done by Nomfundo Xolo. The record shows that we covered a wide range of grassroots organisations, including the Amadiba Crisis Committee, the Unemployed People’s Movement and more. 

The record of what we have published as well as the written records of editorial discussions also show that the claim that there was a prohibition on critique of Myanmar, China and Russia is plainly not true. 

Myanmar 

We have published a large number of articles that mention Myanmar, a good number of which are substantial pieces, and there is a consistent and vigorous critique of repression in that body of work. It is true that a staff member did suggest a piece on Myanmar that, after some reflection, I declined to publish. The central thrust of this article was an argument about how Western NGOs should respond to the situation. The article, with its valuing and centring of Western agency, may have worked for The Guardian but it was not what we were looking for. My response was to invest considerable time in looking for a better alternative and we found an excellent piece in Sidecar and duly contacted the editor there with a request to publish, which was eventually granted. Unfortunately, Sidecar took a very long time to get back to us, by which point the article was too out of date to use. The now former staff member who suggested the piece on Myanmar developed a grudge and has since made disparaging public statements that are simply not credible. 

China

Anxiety with regard to our coverage of China first emerged among a tiny number of our staff members after the publication of an article in an obscure magazine at the beginning of this year. As Davis notes, that article, in high Cold War mode, alleges a global conspiracy to fund pro-China organisations. The article is rife with empirical errors, bad faith and conspiratorial thinking. It would never have passed muster with New Frame’s rigorous editorial standards. The author is a discredited writer. The well-known Southern Poverty Law Center retracted his work and issued an apology to the victims of his slander. Nevertheless, two staff members became very agitated after the publication of the article.  

The record shows that New Frame has plainly published articles critical of China and Chinese-owned businesses in Africa. Ironically, we published a number of articles critical of China by Darryl Accone, the former staff member who Davis quotes saying that there was a reluctance to be critical of China. The record also shows that we published articles on China recommended by Accone. I did insist that this reporting avoid Sinophobia, a position by which I stand. The only article on China that was ever considered for publication and then spiked was a positive report on the eradication of absolute poverty in China, and not a piece critical of the Chinese state. 

It has been noted that we have not published a substantive piece on Xinjiang. This is true, but that doesn’t indicate anything at all about our editorial policy. After all, there are numerous regions and issues around the world that we have not published on — including many in Africa — for the simple reason that we don’t have writers in these places and have never received pitches from people who wish to write on these issues. We have only ever received one approach to write about Xinjiang. It came from a PR firm in the US that, according to its website, represents intelligence and military clients. We declined that offer, holding the position that we would seek to use independent writers and experts. I made it clear that if we received a good pitch or a good article on the situation in Xinjiang we would certainly proceed with it.  

It has also been said that we have published many articles on repression in India and that we have engaged with this in a more substantial manner than our coverage of China. This is also true. The reason for this is simple. We share a common language with India and a more connected history, and often receive pitches from Indian writers. The fact that we have never received a pitch from a Chinese writer is just the way things are. It should also be noted that it is generally true, for the reasons noted above, that the South African media tends to have much better coverage of India than China. 

Accone has very strong feelings about China. He told the staff that in personal protest at the conduct of the Chinese state he would no longer speak Mandarin. There was considerable empathy for his deep feelings on this issue, but the fact is that he never wrote or recommended an article on China that was declined. He was repeatedly invited to recommend writers on China. To my knowledge, he did not do so. My best guess is that his anxieties on this matter have their roots in the piece by the discredited US writer and not in the actual record of what we have published. 

Russia 

The record shows that the claim that we did not publish coverage critical of Russia has no merit. The first article that we published after the Russian invasion of Ukraine was by Accone, who wrote of “the acquisitive, domineering and destructive nature of Russia’s invasion”. Our editorial that followed described the invasion as a “catastrophe” and Putin as “an authoritarian who leads a kleptocratic state”. After this, we ran a podcast featuring an interview with Alexey Sakhnin, a leading Russian dissident.

However, some internal opposition to our coverage emerged, again among a tiny number of staff, when we began to run articles noting the role of Nato in fermenting the initial crisis, the role of the US in prosecuting a proxy war and the racial double standards in terms of the treatment of refugees and the coverage of the war in the Western media. The character of this opposition was strikingly race-based and, also, marked by the presence of a very powerful assumption that New Frame should, like much of the South African media, understand itself as part of the West rather than as an African publication. 

The funding crisis 

New Frame reached a point at which we could no longer attract the sort of funding that we needed to run the publication for a very simple reason. Our costs were high and our audience small. We paid our freelancers and junior staff well above the standard rates, spent a lot of money on photographs and had six sets of eyes on every story before it was published.  

By June this year, the monthly cost of running New Frame was more than R2.5-million. The overall cost — in average terms — for each article that we published over the last four years or so was more than R20,000. After close to four years of daily publishing, with around 5,000 articles up on our site, we had an abundance of extraordinary accolades from extraordinary people, but we had failed to build a loyal audience of a meaningful size. 

Last month, we had only 88,263 visitors. No more than 3,900 of them visited more than once. The average length of time spent on the site was only 76 seconds, a soul-crushing figure for everyone who has put such great care into the work. By comparison, GroundUp had 60% more visitors than New Frame and was four times cheaper for per-second reader attention. This is why we are in trouble. The sometimes unhinged conspiracy theories from the more febrile parts of the left that have been floated on social media are just a distraction from these realities. 

New Frame took a gamble on quality, which is expensive. We thought that South Africans deserved to have beautiful things and hoped that we would build a loyal audience that appreciated our work. Although there was a collective editorial investment in the decision to pursue high quality, I take full responsibility for the fact that we played a losing hand. If we had pursued a more modest project, something along the lines of the GroundUp model, we would still be in the game. 

Lines of hostility 

Every well-trained journalist knows that when people who are clearly aggrieved lobby to shape a media narrative, their motivations and the accuracy of what they say must be assessed with great care. Immediately after New Frame found itself confronting a funding crisis, and having to contemplate the heartbreaking possibility of retrenchments, a number of lines of hostility emerged.  

While most people working in the media responded with sadness and affirmation for the work done, there was a degree of schadenfreude from some quarters. This was inevitable, given that New Frame had luxuriated in relative financial privilege for four years while others struggled. The sectarian left, profoundly bitter at the fact that it has failed to build any kind of mass support, seized the moment to settle political scores. This was also inevitable. That space is a permanent site of dogmatism, slander and, on occasion, real thuggery. And, of course, the shock of the sudden possibility of the closure of the publication, and retrenchment, generated deep anger among some staff members. This was both understandable and inevitable. 

But there is also a different kind of vein of resentment among a very small but vociferous faction of the staff. This is profoundly race-based. New Frame accounts to a board constituted, aside from myself, by black women, was always largely run by black women and, after I fell ill in August 2019, was wholly run by black women. Some of the white staff — although certainly not all — consistently acted to undermine, demean and circumvent their authority. In one case, this took a disturbingly manipulative form. We also had to deal with photographic selections from one staff member that were at best racially dubious and at worst outrightly racist. 

When I returned to work, I expressed clear opposition to the treatment of black women in authority by some staff members. That opposition was not uniformly well received. On the contrary, it stoked simmering resentment and hostility among a few people, as did our engagement around extremely problematic photographic selections. 

It was largely the same people who began to deeply resent and, in some cases, push back against our coverage of the war in Ukraine. One staff member became intensely agitated. 

He insisted that any acknowledgement of the role of Nato, and the evident fact that the US was engaged in a proxy war, was a repetition of “Putin talking points”. He vigorously opposed measured and important articles by Nontobeko Hlela, Jeremy Corbyn and Imraan Buccus, describing them all as repeating “Putin talking points”.  

He was particularly upset by the Buccus piece that noted the racial double standards in how the wars in Ukraine, Yemen and Ethiopia were being reported by the Western media. He was also intensely opposed to a piece by Alex Čizmić that dealt with the racism experienced by African students fleeing Ukraine and into Poland. We were told that talking about this racism was a “Putin talking point” and he asked that the headline “African expats say Ukraine is racist, but it’s home” be altered to remove the reference to racism. 

The staff member eventually became strikingly paranoid, firmly stating as fact that “everyone knew” that one of our editors was, against her will, in weekly meetings where she was being given a pro-Putin editorial from a political organisation in Brazil. She had never been in any meeting of any sort with that organisation. 

I could hardly entertain the idea that we should not speak about racism in international affairs on the grounds that this kind of discussion is a “Putin talking point”. Holding my editorial ground escalated the already simmering resentment, a resentment that would later explode into direct threats to damage the reputation of New Frame and a set of named individuals, including myself.  

I have no regrets that I did not take editorial direction from a white man who expressed opposition to articles on racial double standards on the ludicrous grounds that these were “Putin talking points”.  

It is striking that neither this person, nor others who were highly agitated by the pieces that noted the racial double standards with regard to the war in Ukraine, showed any interest in the fact that one state, and one state only, had sought to attain some influence with New Frame. The state is the United States, and the overtures made to New Frame included a surprise unscheduled visit to our offices by the US ambassador, who invited me to a monthly meeting at the consulate in Cape Town called “On the rocks and off the record”. 

A good number of the claims that have been made by a very small group of former and current staff members are opportunistic and dishonest attempts to settle scores. In most cases, this can be easily demonstrated by looking at the record of what we have published, or speaking to the full range of people who have worked at New Frame. It should be noted that since two staff members went to war on social media in the wake of the funding crisis, and two former staff members made disparaging comments to the media, a number of other staff members have contacted me and other editors to express profound concern at this conduct.  

When Davis approached me for comment, she attached a written statement from a white staff member who has made various unfounded and often public allegations since the funding crisis became apparent. This is the same person who had tried to suppress mention of racial double standards and racism in the context of the treatment of refugees from the war in Ukraine and the reporting on the war. I gave her the names and contact details of the two black people who he actively sought, in a highly manipulative way, to effectively displace from their duly constituted authority while he was working at New Frame. If she had spoken to them before writing her article she would have developed a strong sense of the character of one of her key sources and perhaps some useful insight into the sources of his resentment. DM 

Daily Maverick’s Rebecca Davis responds:

It is not true that the “white staff member” referred to in the final paragraph was one of my “key sources”, as evidenced by the fact that the article published by Daily Maverick drew only one fact from the written statement in question: that the staff member was personally interviewed by Singham for his job at New Frame. This is a fact that has not been disputed by Pithouse, and clearly undermines the narrative that Singham’s relationship to New Frame operated at the kind of distance suggested. 

Pithouse instructed me that if I was going to air the views of this particular staff member, it would “of course be necessary” to contact particular sources, whose details he sent me, who would be able to cast this staffer’s professional conduct in a negative light. I am unused to being pressured in this way by the subjects of stories and found it particularly strange from an editor. Regardless, the people Pithouse wished me to speak to did not work in the New Frame newsroom, which was the sole focus of my story. 

The notion that my reporting simply reflected the views of a few embittered journalists, who Pithouse has repeatedly sought to paint as either racist or closet conservatives, is not correct — and also an impossible claim to make since Pithouse does not know who my sources are. Indeed, the published Daily Maverick article, which already ran to around 4,000 words, reflected a fraction of the total information I was given, most of which I could not ethically publish without risking revealing my sources’ identities. 

In Pithouse’s response here he once again fails to answer the central question posed by my article: Why did Roy Singham suddenly pull funding to New Frame? He also fails to address two outright lies exposed by my article: 

  1. That Pithouse explicitly told staff that Singham did not have any current “profit-making businesses”, when Pithouse admitted to me that he had “no idea at all what business, if any, [Singham] has done” in the last five years; and
  2. That Pithouse told me he “recused [himself]” from all editorial work regarding Abahlali coverage as a result of the close and ongoing work he does with the movement, when I have seen email correspondence definitively showing Pithouse objecting to Abahlali coverage prior to publication because it was not sufficiently positive.   

Since the article was published, close associates of Pithouse have launched extraordinary attacks on me on social media. These intimidation tactics are beneath contempt. It is never comfortable for journalists to write about fellow media practitioners — but, as Pithouse correctly notes here, journalism “is an exercise of power that should be subjected to public critique”. DM

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  • So many problematic statements in Pithouse’s response. From the race essentialism – any criticism or complaints by his own white staff writers must be be racially motivated because they are white, to the denialism about Roy Singham and repeated obsession with racialising everything. Criticise Singham – it must be because you believe he is Indian and harbour racist beliefs towards Indians. Criticize the management and oversight of the New Frame? It must be because it is managed by black women and you are racist to black women. Everything becomes about race, and any criticism – especially by white staff – is racially motivated. This is completely absurd.

    Not to mention, it most certainly IS a concern that he lives and runs businesses in China, since it is well documented that the Chinese government exerts extreme pressure on anyone resident in China – especially foreigners – to avoid any criticism of the Chinese state or its actions, let alone fund media that might be critical of China.

  • The ad hominem attacks are stupid, embarrassing and come across as paranoid. Maybe that’s what you think, sure, but try not to put it out in public.

    More recently, in ‘Counterpunch’ RP concluded that “we were attacked because we were critical of the West.” So sadly self-absorbed. Actually, you were attacked because you put yourself on a pedestal. That’s how the world works. From the playground up. Sorry baby-cakes.

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