/ 26 August 2013

Survé claims against M&G skewed

Iqbal Survé
Iqbal Survé (Lerato Maduna, Gallo)

South Africa's newest newspaper mogul Iqbal Survé claimed that the M&G is out to get him because he wouldn't sell it some of his newly acquired newspapers. But his facts seem just a little bit off from the truth.

First it was Business Day editor Peter Bruce who was instructing his journalists to go negative because that newspaper feared competition. Then there were "rumours" that the M&G is funded and influenced by the CIA. Now, says Iqbal Survé, who as of this month controls Independent Newspapers, the M&G is attacking him because he turned down a business deal.

But while the deal was, until Monday at least, real enough, the turning-down part seems to have been a rather one-sided affair.

Both Business Day and the M&G have raised questions about the level of control Chinese investors, and the South African government by way of the Public Investment Commission (PIC), will wield over newspaper titles including the Star and the Sunday Independent through their funding of Survé's Sekunjalo and its acquisition of the Independent group. Instead of answering those questions, Survé launched a series of counter-attacks, culminating in a banner-headline revelation in Monday's edition of Business Report, the business insert for daily Independent papers around the country.

Under the headline "M&G goes to war after Survé rejects title bid," the paper [now controlled by Survé] reported that the M&G was "incensed" because Survé refused to sell it three regional newspapers, and had "vented its anger at the rejection".  

"These guys are being vindictive because I said no to them," Survé was quoted as saying in his newspaper.

That anger was expressed by way of an article published on Friday, Business Report said, in which Survé "allegedly implied in a telephone interview that the M&G was funded by the US Central Intelligence Agency."

The Media Development Investment Fund, the body that Iqbal was referring to, put out a statement categorically asserting that it has no link to the CIA. The MDIF currently holds a 10% equity share in the M&G.

"I can assure you there will be a follow-up story on the M&G and on other newspapers," Survé told amaBhungane investigator Craig McKune during the conversation, in which he consistently refused to answer questions. "You can throw what dirt you want at us, but don't forget we have every right to question your ownership and where you come from."

That was just days before the Business Report article, with the sub-head "Chairman says attack by competitors is sour grapes".

M&G management on Monday confirmed the group had approached Survé as early as February to express interest in acquiring three of the titles now owned by Sekunjalo: the Pretoria News, the Natal Mercury and the Cape Times. "We look forward to entering into serious discussions with you at the earliest opportunity," said M&G group chief executive Hoosain Karjieker and chairperson Trevor Ncube in a later letter to formalise the approach.

But such serious discussions never took place. Throughout April, May, June and July, Survé was never available to enter into actual negotiations. However, as of last Thursday he was still due to meet with corporate finance representatives of the M&G to discuss the offer. Although Survé was also not available for that meeting, at least one party was under the impression that the deal was very much still under discussion.

"I was still waiting for an opportunity to have discussions with Survé about future possibilities and prospects for co-operation,” said Karjieker on Monday. “I learnt in the media that this was no longer on the table, much to my surprise."

But according to Survé the M&G, as well as the South African National Editor's Forum, under former M&G editor Nic Dawes, launched attacks against him because he refused to sell the titles. He has also made similar allegations against Business Day, which were again vaguely referenced by Business Report on Monday morning.

"The latest revelations [on the M&G acquisition approach] will serve to underscore concerns that Survé has raised in recent months," the paper said. "He has consistently claimed that there was something sinister about the criticism and the scrutiny that competitor newspaper groups directed toward his purchase of Independent Newspapers."

In May Survé told the M&G that Business Day and its editor Peter Bruce was investigating the Sekunjalo acquisition of the Independent Group because it feared the renewed vigour he could bring to competing products. At the time Business Day journalists, like their M&G counterparts, could barely contain their mirth at the suggestion that news agendas could be so easily influenced.

"I don't direct news coverage, that is done through the news desk, and I certainly wouldn't target anybody because I wouldn't like that done to me," said Bruce on Monday, when asked whether he had it in for Survé. "Like most conspiracy theories Dr Survé's exist only in his own head."