Anthony Sampson, who passed away recently, was a fine journalist and an award-winning author of several books dissecting Britain, the oil industry and the arms trade. He was also the editor of Drum magazine in the 1950s.
And nearly 20 years ago, he played a crucial role in the survival of a new, fearless tabloid, The Weekly Mail (WM), the Mail & GuardianÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s forerunner.
The WM was launched in June 1985; a month later, the government announced a state of emergency to put down a growing insurgency. The fiercely anti-apartheid WM was regularly seized and reporters harassed.
That this shoestring operation stayed on the streets was due to the sacrifice of its small staff and shareholders whose donations helped pay the printing bills and fund training. Many of the shareholders were British, and they were introduced to the newspaper by Sampson.
”He was a valuable ally at a very important moment,” says Irwin Manoim, a WM founder. ”If he hadnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t opened key doors abroad for us we would have really struggled to survive.”
A major contributor was David Astor, former owner and editor of The Observer. The two ”introduced us to a range of people who gave us financial support over a long period of time”, recalls co-founder Anton Harber, now professor of journalism at Wits University. ”Some of them were quite unexpected, like [supermarket magnate] David Sainsbury and [property developer] Peter Palumbo.”
The help went beyond the financial. In 1988 the National Party government threatened to ban the WM for the three months allowed under emergency regulations. For the WM, that would have been the end of the road. Sampson and Astor mobilised Fleet Street, and editors dashed off letters to politicians in London and Pretoria. ”Consistently over a period of time, Sampson could be relied on to mobilise international support,” Harber says. When the banning came, it was for only a month.
Sampson sat on the Scott Trust, which owns The Guardian. In time the British newspaper became the largest single shareholder, a role it relinquished two years ago when its shares were sold to the current owner, Trevor Ncube.
Anthony Sampson: Born August 3 1926; died December 18 2004