Ken Owen: SA's Last Great White Editor
This article by Mark Gevisser was first published on June 28 1996.
“Have you read the biography of Walter Winchell?” Ken Owen asks me. “At his heyday, he had 30-million readers.
Do you know who turned up at his funeral? His daughter.
When you’re finished writing columns, there’s nothing left. Nasty business.”
Sad about #kenowen. He was first subscriber to Mail & Guardian when we had nothing but a leaflet calling for subscribers to back a dream
— Anton Harber (@AntonHarber) March 19, 2015
South Africa’s Last Great White Editor is finished writing columns. “You really do get trapped in a persona, a cartoon character of yourself, and one of the reasons why I am refusing to write at the moment is that I want to shake off that persona. So I won’t publish for another six months or a year, and then I think what I’ll do first is a little collection of obscene verse. I shall begin working on it next week ...”
These days, there is caustic gloom rather than dangerous electricity around Ken Owen. His words are sourballs that seem to corrode the roof of his own mouth as he swallows them back in a perpetual mumble. I meet him in his last week as editor of South Africa’s largest newspaper, and he overpowers the little office to which he has been relegated. Ever since he came back, the wounded bear, from the slopes of Everest, he has been prowling the ninth floor of the diamond building, no longer indispensable but not quite ready to pack it all in and move down to retirement in the Cape.
The staff at the Sunday Times are divided between those who feel empathy for this grumpy icon - to whom many of them owe their careers - and those who wish he would just clear off. In the front-page Times mock-up presented to Owen by his staff at his farewell, there is a laudatory main article (“Hamba Kahle Cap’n Ken!”) by his successor Brian Pottinger; next to it, running down a column, is a second article which begins: “For better or for worse, Ken Owen never pulled his punches. He was an editor who left his mark on people - whether by the tongue you could scour pots with, the labyrinthian twists of his imagination or, on more than one occasion, with his bare hands.
Told to cut 15 jobs at Business Day after 9/11 I rang Ken Owen for help. “Slaughter them,” he advised, “then go and tell the MD.” #RIPKen
— Peter Bruce (@Bruceps) March 19, 2015
“Owen, who thrived on adversity, practised a unique brand of conflict management. He would deliberately create insecure environments and encourage ruthless competition between staffers - then sit back with glee and see who survived.”
Wow. Who needs enemies? Don’t worry about Ken: he gives as good as he gets. The fact that he was a brawler in his many years as an alcoholic is, he says, “a matter of record”. He has neither brawled nor drunk for 25 years, but “you don’t practise journalism by backing down. It’s a confrontational way of life; an endlessly abrasive life ...” Over at kindler, gentler Sauer Street, where The Star roosts, the editors reside in what is known as “Mahogany Row”; across the road at Diagonal Street, it’s “Stab Alley”. Owen plays right into the metaphor.
The genesis of his current bout of disaffection - and the reason why he did not even think about extending his time beyond the five years’ service he initially pledged to the paper - is a row he had with Times Media boss David Kovarsky two years ago. Kovarsky managed to get permission from the board to fire Owen, but placed him instead on a six-month probation. Owen then ran round telling everybody, proudly, that he said to Kovarsky: “You should have put the knife in when you had the chance. I won’t make the same mistake.”
He didn’t. Shortly theafter, Kovarsky himself was fired. You can rest assured Owen was chief blade- sharpener. The whole story is, notes another editor, vintage Ken; Ken quoting Ken. For there is no other media personality as mythic. He is whatever newsroom cliche you need him to be - the hatchet man, the fall guy, the journalist’s journalist, the dry alcoholic, the battle-scarred hack, the moral cynic. But although he is the only South African media personality big enough to have become a press baron, he was - unlike a Hearst, a Murdoch, or even a little Mulholland - never quite able to shake the newsprint off his fingers. He was too riven with ambiguities, too self-destructive, too moral. If Shaun Johnson is sunshine, Ken Owen is a deep, dark cloud.
And so, no, he does not feel proud about the Sunday Times he leaves behind; on the contrary, there is “a heavy sense of defeat”. He is “fed up. So angry about little things like a headline. I just don’t think I could stay. I’ve utterly lost patience with ineptitude, I think unreasonably so. Maybe because I feel it’s my fault. I didn’t do enough ...”
#KenOwen gone. Fuckit, I didn’t get a chance to say goodbye. I never learnt more from anyone. The scars he left on my back r badges o honour
— Martin Welz Noseweek (@Martin_Welz) March 19, 2015
He failed, mainly, to make The Times a “respectable product. I’m unique among South African editors in thinking Thabo Mbeki’s criticisms [about the media] are valid ... We are incapable of playing the Fourth Estate role in the transformation.” Because of a lack of resources, “We can’t identify issues, and we’re certainly incapable of defining them.” And so, rather than “setting the national agenda ... we keep falling back into another bloody political scandal.”
The fault, for all of this, Owen places at his own door, “perhaps because I was too overdominating” - but, more profoundly, at the feet of his own management: “The threat to editorial independence does not come from politicians. It comes from our own management and the drive for profit. The Sunday Times, in my opinion, makes excessive profits, and these are not ploughed back into the newspaper ... they are ploughed into the greater glory of the commercial interest.”
And so “hooray!” for new owners, if the bid to buy TML away from Anglo American succeeds. “There’s a huge constituency, including people like the speaker [Frene Ginwala], Ramaphosa, Pallo, even Thabo, who have an idealistic view of democracy and the press, which I think is better than the commercially indifferent view we have now. I can see lots of battles to be fought in the future; I’d be happy to take those on ...”
I think we can be certain he will, if he is not too busy sailing solo across the Atlantic or trying, once more, to climb Everest (two things he has vowed to do). His weekly columns, bilious and brilliant, have defined South African political commentary for over a decade: they were dark, uncompromising, disorienting, vituperative. You read them not only because they were the most literate and beautifully crafted sentences in all the land, but because they were, like life itself, so exasperating and so multivalent. They made their author an utterly credible character, an almost novelistic anti-hero whose moods and malevolences, not to mention passions, were manifest. The turns and tides of Ken’s bile were more compelling than any soap opera.
Using a quirky definition of “liberalism” as his sword, he thrashed at evils to the left and right. He understood PW Botha better than anyone, defining “the Botha paradox” as “reform at the cost of liberty”, and being the first to read apartheid as a national socialism that was anathema to the free market. Since 1994, he has been both fulsome in his praise of the new government and extreme in his criticism. He has no truck with his former fellow travellers - people like John Kane-Berman and Tony Leon - who he says “have grabbed the banner of liberalism and taken it rightwards”; he identifies, much more, with “the right wing of the ANC. People like Derek Hanekom and Frene Ginwala and Ramaphosa and Geraldine Fraser.”
It would take nothing less than a Ken column to explain how this ideological mix of personnages all land up, with Owen, on the ANC’s right flank. I suspect they have at least one thing in common : Ken Owen likes them. Owen, remember, was editor of the Sunday Express when it urged readers to vote “no” in the 1983 tricameral referendum: he made this decision at the last minute so as to best his rival at The Times, Tertius Myburgh, who, he discovered, was advocating a “yes”. The political is very much the personal in Owen’s world view.
And so on to his one weakness as a political commentator: an irrational anti-communism. Unlike many other red-baiters, though, he is not responding to any personal betrayal. From a poor white background (his father was a male nurse who became a farmer after receiving a plot of land after World War II; his mother a domestic worker), he barely flirted with socialism: his political epiphany was Alan Paton and the Liberal Party.
His hatred of socialism seems to come, rather, from a streetwise (he was never formally educated beyond matric) contempt for the intellectual snobbery of the left. As editor of Business Day, for example, he built the frail publication’s readership and secured its future by waging a one-man war on the left at Wits University. And like many Africanists, he has been preoccupied, in his columns, with the infiltration of white and Indian communists into the liberation movement. He has damned the Freedom Charter (“half of it trite, half of it socialist- inspired rubbish”) and compared Joe Slovo to Hendrik Verwoerd.
Perhaps this is the reason why he got one thing spectacularly wrong: he refused, point blank, to accept that there was a “third force”, or any state- sponsored violence beyond rogue activity. One senses that this is because he mistrusted those making the claims - the left - almost as deeply as those being accused.
As ever, he blames himself, but for different reasons: that he was too rigid in imposing an accuracy test on the material. “I have been horrified,” he says, “to find it was all true, at the De Kok trial. I was unwilling to believe. My sin was doubt. I knew these people. I thought there were limits to their depravity. I never grasped that they were depraved beyond limit ...”
Earlier in our conversation, he says his most profound regret was that “when the transition came, I realised I had fallen into a complacent kind of opposition ... I was picking away to loosen a stone [of apartheid] here and there ... but really, when the time came, I should have gone into direct opposition and faced the consequences ...” It’s an astonishing admission from a man who gutted Frederik van Zyl Slabbert for doing just that.
I really do believe that Ken Owen is, as he claims, “for the common man”. He writes, however, with a cold intellectualism that is with passion but without empathy. A necklace victim like Maki Skhosana thus becomes a disembodied cipher recruited in the service of an argument, rather than the tragic consequence of brutality; Albie Sachs is thus dismissed without sympathy, because if you live by the sword you must be prepared to die by it.
But Ken Owen, ultimately, has an immense empathetic quality when he allows himself to. It took, for example, one visit to meet the exiled ANC in 1989, and one glimpse of the same Albie Sachs “dropping his guard”, to convince him that he had been wrong about the liberation movement, to fly back to South Africa, and to dash off a column telling white South Africans they had nothing to fear. He connected with fellow human beings: the fact that that was all it took to shift his world view underscores both his humanity and the fragility of his ideology.
“I think,” he says now, aged 62, “it was Huxley who said that after two years in journalism he took what was left of his mind and ran. I’ve been in for 40 years. I don’t know if there’s anything left of mine at all. I don’t know who I am or what I think about myself. And to me, the coming period in my life, if I’m very lucky, is going to be a long preparation for death.”
Somebody - I cannot marshal my sources as nimbly as Ken Owen does - said writing fiction is a preparation for death. Never having worked for him, I never experienced Ken Owen’s bully-boy style of management; his prose, though, is one of my greatest inspirations as a writer. Away from the newsroom, nurturing his empathy down in the Cape, I’d like to believe that he may well write not obscene verse, but an even greater novel than that of his guru, Alan Paton.
Portraits of Power, a collection of Mark Gevisser’s profiles, published by David Philip