/ 19 December 2013

Breaking news! Can someone fix it now?

The ANN7 news television channel launch ran like a blooper reel.
The ANN7 news television channel launch ran like a blooper reel.

Typically, the media does not write about the media. We're worried that everyone else will find our industry boring (which, for the most part, it is), and we're worried that we all live in glass houses (which we do).

But in 2013 the media threw all the rocks they could get their hands on – not once, not twice, but three times. It is surely no coincidence that all three instances were rooted in deep prior suspicions, and that all three featured colourful individuals. We do so love having our preconceptions confirmed – and having a face put to a story.

The not-so-Independent
The Independent Newspapers (including the Star and Pretoria News) lived up to their names, surprisingly. As legend has it, that is exactly what Nelson Mandela had in mind when, in 1994, engineered a deal for the newspaper group to be Irish-owned; a foreign-owned media group with clout seemed a better idea in the days of the transition than it would 10 years later. Though not all foreigners are equal. Mandela, it seems, had the option of anointing Rupert Murdoch (of Fox News fame) as the preferred buyer, rather than Independent's Tony O'Reilly. How different history could have been.

If the 1994 sale was about politics, the 2013 sale was about money. Specifically, the lack of it at the Independent mother ship, and the 99% drop in the company's share price between 2007 and 2013, as it looked set to be dragged down by billions in debt.

But that is not how it was framed by Iqbal Survé, the politically-connected head of the Sekunjalo group. This, said the man who was once part of the team of doctors that saw to Mandela on Robben Island, was a chance to re-nationalise the titles.

"Tell Madiba, Independent's coming home," Independent papers quoted Survé as telling Mandela's controversial traditional heir Mandla Mandela, who is also a shareholder in the group's new ownership structure.

There turned out to be a couple of problems with that take, among them the apparently large amount of money – and subsequent control – that would come from China. Then there was the way Survé dealt with such top-secret information as the identity of other empowerment players, and how a struggling operation in a struggling market would turn the kind of profits required for a leveraged purchase to succeed.

All of which may have come to a lot fewer column inches in just about every other newspaper in the country had Survé's Sekunjalo not already been implicated in a fishy R800-million government tender on marine services (still subject to investigation), had the government pension fund administrator not also been a funder of the deal, raising suspicions of a government hand in the deal – and had Survé not come out swinging quite so hard.

Questions abounded: Would the two entities closely linked to the Chinese government have undue influence over the newspapers? Why was it that some of the empowerment partners listed as part of the acquiring consortium said they had no part in it, and so many of the other partners were linked to the ANC in one way or another? The Mail & Guardian phoned Survé to ask, and got more than it bargained for. Including an allegation that the M&G was some sort of CIA front.

"I'm not saying it's owned by the CIA; I'm asking you. Are you CIA?," Survé asked when pressed, yet again, on the reach and makeup of his Chinese partners. "I'm asking you. I'm not telling you. Don't misquote me, because there's lots of rumours around that you guys are funded by the CIA. You can throw what dirt you want at us, but don't forget we have every right to question your ownership."

It turns out Survé may have mistaken the New York-based Media Development Investment Fund, which owns 10% of the M&G, for the CIA. But amid all the shouting we're still not quite clear about control of the Independent Group.

ANN7: The bloopers unfold
Given the extraordinarily low expectations from a highly sceptical public, ANN7 seemed to achieve the impossible: it turned out worse than expected.

The launch of South Africa's third 24-hour news television channel – dubbed Gupta TV – featured a shambolic broadcast of a launch party that was, on screen, even more boring than it was in real life. At least guests who attended the launch in person got to eat dinner. Or those who managed to avoid being pulled into awkward impromptu interviews did. Those watching at home had to watch those guests eating their dinner, on live TV.

The first couple of days were no kinder to the channel.

Initial media coverage focused on the instances of dead air, presenters performing impromptu gender-reassignments on cricket greats (Australian cricket captain "Michelle" Clark), weather forecasters with a poor grasp of geography (Johannesburg being called the Mother City), stunning insight into the phallic nature of car racing (the F1 Grand Pricks), and a general inability to read from teleprompters and follow scripts.

There the story would have died – with perhaps the occasional resurrection when part-owner and President Jacob Zuma-friend Atul Gupta's insistences that quality was improving were again proven sorely incorrect – were it not for Rajesh Sundaram.

Sundaram, a disgruntled former ANN7 editor, exploded onto a stage that could not have been better prepared. There were already deep suspicions about the Gutpa family's motives for launching the news station. Then there were questions about funding, considering Gupta newspaper The New Age's profitable relationships with state bodies. And, of course, there was the usual hint of xenophobia in the air with the involvement in the station's parent structure of Indian company Essel Media.

And then came Sundaram to confirm every one of everyone's worst fears.

He shouted it from the rooftops, or the digital equivalent of it, taking to Twitter (as well as every news outlet that called him) to tell of physical threats and strange burglaries, and to say ANN7 had used illegal means to bring in cheap Indian labour on the project. Over time, as his financial dispute about how much money the channel still owed him (he said lots, ANN7 said little) with his former masters continued, his accusations came to include that Zuma had just about personally fiddled with immigration paperwork and editorial policy. As a last hurrah, he promised a tell-all book.

It could have been worse. ANN7 could have fought back against complaints that its "we aren't old farts" billboards, featuring the tag line "we aren't old farts" were ageist, and thus occupied a couple of extra news cycles with negative publicity.

The initial grim fascination died down; watching a slow-motion car accident is interesting to begin with, but the novelty wears off. But with every subsequent failure to read a teleprompter, and every attempt to treat live TV as if it were prerecorded, the old clips come back out. There are some things you simply never live down.

The SABC is something of a perpetual newsmaker, and not in the sense of being the biggest news operation in the country, with the biggest reach. From state propaganda tool to public-service broadcaster to a battleground between competing factions, it is the most-watched media operation in the country in more ways than one.

The 2013 edition of the SABC show was something of a greatest hits parade, with structural problems, allegations of political interference and bizarre boardroom battles all making appearances.

The broadcaster entered the year amid allegations that it was trying to airbrush rabble-rouser Julius Malema out of the news, then aired a show featuring model Reeva Steenkamp just days after she was shot by Oscar Pistorius, but yanked hot-button issues show The Big Debate. It was roasted for worrying footage of an ailing Nelson Mandela staring vacantly into space as Jacob Zuma tried to shake his unresponsive hand, and for declining to air the documentary Project Spear, which was somewhat critical of the first democratic government's failure to try to recover large sums of money spirited overseas during apartheid.

It was, in all, a pretty typical year.

Or it would have been, were it not for Hlaudi Motsoeneng's take on how news works.

Motsoeneng has been at the centre of more than his share of controversies; his qualifications are sparing (he never completed matric) and not all SABC boards have appreciated his contribution as the SABC's (caretaker) chief operating officer; depending on how you count the reorganisations, he has been fired either once or twice.

But it was his 70/30 rule that raised eyebrows.

"I believe, from the SABC's side, 70% should be positive [news] stories and then you can have 30% negative stories," Motsoeneng told the M&G in August. "The reason I am championing this is because if you only talk about the negative, people can't even try to think on their feet."

Opposition parties thought Christmas had come early, media-related NGOs were outraged, and a general hue and cry went up. Was this a new attempt by SABC management to take over news management? Was the proximity to an election entirely a coincidence?

Those questions have still not been settled. But others, such as whether Motsoeneng was merely musing aloud, or would retract his kite once it elicited such a storm, were quickly answered when he championed it during public consultations around new editorial policies.

To date the policy does not seem to have paid off, except in one way: a whole lot more people are watching SABC bulletins much more closely – with a view to denouncing any sign of the policy being implemented.

But a few weeks ago it was announced the temporary post he was filling would soon be advertised, which may well cut into Hlaudi's reign. Tune in next year for more.