In 2004, not long before it was finally shut down, the senior editorial team of ThisDay newspaper gathered for a regular daily news conference.
There was suspicion in the air of the glass-walled boardroom at its Sandton offices, to put it mildly. The Nigerian businessman and owner of both that paper and the original ThisDay in Lagos, Nduka Obaigbena, had never been clear about his motives for launching the paper and had proven financially intransigent when it came to paying salaries. But the editor, Justice Malala, was still more than a little taken aback when, during discussion about a political story, he was accused of editorial interference.
“I’m the editor!” shouted Malala, half outraged, half laughing. “It’s my job to interfere with editorial!”
If Obaigbena ever did try to steer the political direction of ThisDay in South Africa, or to micromanage its coverage of sensitive issues, he didn’t do a very good job; the paper failed to realise political patronage or advertising largesse of any kind, and failed in a little over a year as a result. Had he tried such interference, Malala’s exchange suggests, he would probably have found his efforts frustrated at every turn.
Which is not to say that publishers and proprietors have no influence over their publications; history is rich with examples of just such behaviour. It is only modern South African history that lacks media barons willing to pervert news outlets in a quest for influence or power – and the near future will show whether that will come to be seen as a temporary aberration.
That is certainly the hope of a broad cross-section of the ANC’s broad church. The party has for many years complained that, though it consistently receives the majority of votes in most of the country, it finds almost all publications in the country combative and often outright opposed to party policies and beliefs.
It has had, for roughly the same length of time, ambitions to launch its own media platforms, or to create mass-consumed government publications, attempts that have variously failed and fizzled. Building new media outlets, the party and the government soon found, is both hard and expensive.
Which may explain the combination of excitement and concern within the ANC when Mvelaphanda, the investment vehicle for Tokyo Sexwale, made a play to acquire the parent company of the Sunday Times, the Sowetan, and other titles. Those in the ANC who considered Sexwale an ally seemed to believe his ownership would change the nature of coverage in those papers, as did those who feared or mistrusted him. Whether or not a proprietor could influence news publications was never part of the debate.
Mvelaphanda never did seize and hold control of what is now the Times Media Group, but the Gupta family has now launched the ANN7 satellite news channel to complement its newspaper, The New Age, and again, the assumption is that ownership equates to control of editorial direction. That The New Age has had no discernible impact on debate in South Africa may be a function of its lack of reach rather than a lack of intent, and the ruling party’s hopes for it remain alive.
Unlike Mvelaphanda, Iqbal Survé’s Sekunjalo has succeeded in taking control of an established, important and influential media group. Unlike the Gupta outlets, the Independent Group need not build up audience and credibility from scratch.
Like both those groups, Sekunjalo has said it intends to produce solid journalism, which includes critique of the ruling party and the government where criticism is warranted. And as in those two earlier cases, ANC leaders are hopeful that a change of ownership will bring a change in tone and emphasis.