Never just a newzzzpaper
Former editor Howard Barrell reflects on a time of sometimes painful transition at the M&G.
One of the stranger aspects of editing the Mail & Guardian is the degree of ‘ownership” of the newspaper that its readers assume. It makes for some salutary experiences.
A typical M&G reader will not merely tell the editor why he or she agreed or disagreed with a particular position the newspaper has taken. Instead, he or she will lecture you aggressively on what the traditions and spirit of the newspaper demand on the issue in question. And you’d better bloody well listen ... to all of it.
I do not know how this might make you feel if you are the paper’s actual owner, as Trevor Ncube is. But, if you are editing the M&G, as I did for two years to 2002, the experience can at first be somewhat disconcerting. Soon, however, it dawns on you: the ‘proprietorial reader” is a source of great strength and reassurance, even when his or her criticisms of you are withering.
The perpetual dialogue — the passion of the argument — is the engine of that strength. Take that away and you have just another South African newzzzzzzzzzzpaper. And the market place has long had a glut of them.
There was an important second strength to the newspaper that I inherited from Phillip van Niekerk, my immediate predecessor, as well as from the founders, Anton Harber and Irwin Manoim. It was — and Phillip must take great credit for this — still a newspaper. Whereas there were perpetual pressures to make it mainly a viewspaper — because sonorous, egg-head think pieces are so much cheaper to produce than first-break news — Phillip understood that it’s a news organisation’s ability to provide its audience with new information that gives it its edge.
Phillip had put in place a first-class investigative team around Mungo Soggot, Wisani wa ka Ngobeni and Ivor Powell. They were, weekly, leaving the rest of the South African media for dead. It was out of this team’s work that the first serious suggestions of wrongdoing in the arms deal emerged at this time.
The first thing I sought to do when I succeeded Phillip was to strengthen the investigations and news sides of the paper still further. And, after some wooing and waiting, the excellent Stefaans Brümmer and Sam Sole joined the staff.
My second major aim was to develop still further an already healthy culture of debate at the M&G. This objective arose out of my own experiences as a member of the African National Congress in the 1980s and in the four years I had spent doing a doctorate on the movement’s operational strategy in the fight against apartheid.
These experiences and study led me to the conclusion that, if there was one thing that might be able to prevent South Africa from imploding into the hopelessness and helplessness that affected so much of our continent, it was likely to be unconstrained debate on all issues. The power of reason, not of authority derived from institutional position or the past, had to win out.
So, at the M&G, all members of editorial staff of all ranks were invited to attend and participate actively in weekly meetings to formulate the newspaper’s stance on issues. I had then, and still have, a quaint confidence in the assumption — it cannot be more than an assumption — that reason is the only defensible source of hope.
My third major aim was to reduce the newspaper’s terrible losses and bring it to break-even. This entailed a couple of rounds of painful — thankfully voluntary — reductions in staff numbers.
And, when it became clear that the United Kingdom-based Guardian Media Group, which had always been generous to a fault in its dealings with the M&G, wanted to sell us on, a fourth aim became to ensure that we were taken over by an owner who would respect the newspaper’s independence.
The second of these approaches — our willingness to argue and criticise — led to repeated and bitter clashes with some in the ANC leadership and government. I say ‘some” because there were others in the ruling party and government who let us know — all too quietly, usually — that they applauded the newspaper’s courage and saw great value in what we were doing. They were often also the sources of important stories that we broke.
The high — perhaps the low — point in these rows followed attempts at a senior level of government to discredit some senior ANC individuals generally identified as Thabo Mbeki’s main potential rivals. This development, combined with Mbeki’s ridiculous positions on HIV/Aids and Zimbabwe at the time, prompted us to ask in a postered leader article if the president was fit to govern.
One result of these chronic rows was that attempts were made to cast the M&G as viscerally anti-ANC. For those of us at the M&G who had worked in the ANC during the liberation struggle, and who were supporting and voting for it at elections, this came as something of a surprise.
But it became clear that underlying accusations of this kind was a profound difference in outlook. On one hand, we saw the free-flow of debate and criticism as crucial to South Africa’s well-being. On the other, some in the ANC leadership, though they had thrown out socialist economics, retained an old political mindset: they still saw themselves as the bearers of history’s greater purposes and, so, as beyond democratic recall. This attitude has caused me to fear, at times, that democracy in South Africa may be safe only for as long as the ANC’s grip on power is not threatened.
The independence we displayed in our political dealings — which included a series of stories that led to the breakdown of the relationship between the leaderships of the Democratic Party and National Party within the Democratic Alliance — made no impression on thatdangerous mindset.
Individually, I found the seemingly relentless battles both tiresome and deeply tiring. It exacted a terrible toll on my family. And I came to feel I had little more to offer in energy and ideas. When Ncube got control of the paper, an outcome I had backed, there seemed little need for me to remain. Here was a rare animal in the media — a journalist who had himself been a ‘proprietorial reader” for many years and, good Lord, one who even knew how to run a business at a profit! Two months after he joined, we broke even on operating costs.
When it became evident that Ncube wanted fresh editorial air on the newspaper, I could not suggest otherwise. So, too, did I. The newspaper deserved better from an editor than I could any longer give it. And it has that now in the form of Ferial Haffajee.