/ 14 August 1987

Sacked editor Tony Heard speaks

Axed Cape Times editor Tony Heard rejected an offer by Times Media Ltd worth close to R1-million – because it carried a constraint clause which would have effectively muzzled him, sources on the newspaper said this week. The "package deal" involved Heard remaining on the TML payroll for two years, to write a history of the company to coincide with its 50th anniversary in 1989. But he would be constrained from criticising the company during that period on pain of dismissal, senior Cape Times staffers told the Weekly Mail. Said one source; "Heard was made a huge offer – but given no choice."

In an interview this week, Heard confirmed his rejection of the offer – in the face of "enormous temptation" – but refused to discuss its details, saying he did not want "an undignified squabble from which no-one wilI gain." Nor did he want to hurt the Cape Times or create difficulties for his successor, Koos Viviers, for whom he has a high regard. "All I want to say about the terms of the arrangement is that they required me to be inhibited in my future conduct and activities. I would have been muzzled." 

Following "heated exchanges" between himself and TML chairman, Stephen Mulholland, his lawyer negotiated a severance payment "which he believes is my due, with no strings attached whatsoever", Heard said. Heard's dismissal last Friday was greeted with shock but little surprise. Whispers about the security of his position started circulating after the November 1985 publication of his interview with banned African National Congress leader Oliver Tambo, which earned him the Golden Pen of Freedom award from the International Federation of Publishers. They grew louder as he embarked on a round of international speaking engagements, causing him to be dubbed the "absentee editor". Journalists joked about him being "Heard, but not seen".

One senior Cape Times staffer said: "Heard was buried many times, but somehow managed to stick around. There is a great sense of relief that Viviers has taken over – he is very professional and enlightened. But the point is not that Heard has been replaced by a good man, but rather that a fighting editor has been taken out of the arena."

So why was Heard sacked? Until June he was receiving "glowing letters of commendation" from Mulholland about the paper's performance. Then there was "a period of discussion, and then I was fired", he said. "It strikes me that the chairman of Times Media Limited and others seem to have a remarkably innocent attitude towards public affairs in saying this action is not political." None of the discussions focused on the political line he pursued.

"But the sacking of an editor, in the absence of some horrendous public misdemeanor, is at least partly a political act because, in South Africa today, it takes place in a politically charged atmosphere – and some editors are more political than others," Heard said. "South Africa is in a vastly polarising situation and liberals get thinned out. One shouldn't be sentimental about it: I am surprised there are so many liberal institutions left. You can't have illusions about it if you're going to be a Liberal in Africa.

"Basically, they felt that after 16 years it was time for a change. And if you discover you no longer have the confidence of the board, who gets fired? Not the board. I was never under the illusion that I could rely on some power base to save me." 

Mulholland – a friend since boyhood when they attended Durban Boys' High School together – would have preferred him "to be the editor he wanted me to be. "One must look at how TML newspapers are edited these days: Mammon-orientated to maximise profits, very conscious of the strength of the advertising rand and the fears, prejudices and concerns of white South Africans at the expense of the future South Africa which lies, inevitably, around the corner.

"The philosophy is to ensure that a newspaper can afford whatever high principles it chooses to hold. But I believe this could also subvert one of a newspaper's primary functions – giving a lead to public opinion. It has to be balanced against the needs of the broader community."

Heard's future is as yet undecided. He has been invited to address newspaper and other groups overseas, and might take up a foreign university's offer to spend some time there. "But I am diffident about spending too much time outside the country. Mulholland has denied suggestions that Heard's dismissal had political motivations.

In a statement this week, he said: "We seek only to meet the practical needs of the newspaper. Anyone who suggests otherwise is wrong. "The appointment of Mr Viviers as editor of the Cape Times surely renders absurd suggestions that Mr Heard's departure is in any way politically motivated," he said. "If my services were regarded as worthwhile, I'd be delighted to associate myself with the broad democratic movement in South Africa, which I happen to believe in.  But I am not in a position to impose myself on anyone," Heard said. In the meantime, he plans to get in some surfing.

This article originally appreared in the Weekly Mail


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