In late April, just ahead of the 2014 general elections, an urgent directive was given to Sabido Productions, an award-winning documentary outfit based in Cape Town and staffed by veteran broadcast journalists. They were to create – pronto! – a tribute to the life and times of President Jacob Zuma, to run in the week of elections.
The man behind the call was e.tv chief executive Marcel Golding (54), who also headed the production unit and e.tv’s parent company, Sabido Investments. Sabido was Golding’s brainchild and reported to his wife, e.tv chief operating officer Bronwyn Keene-Young.
Hosken Consolidated Investments (HCI) is the majority shareholder of Sabido Investments.
Golding was recently ousted from key positions in the group in a battle with his one-time ally and business partner, Johnny Copelyn.
In his legal bid to retain his positions, Golding constructed a compelling narrative about himself and his wife as passionate defenders of editorial independence and the last defence against powerful political interference in the reporting of e.tv and its news channel, eNCA.
“I was unwilling to compromise on the issue of independence and integrity of editorial content and Copelyn saw my view as detrimental to HCI’s business interests,” he said in Labour Court documents, adding: “My exit is being engineered to compromise the independence of the e.tv (and eNCA) news services … I submit that I am only effectively placed to prevent this outcome by remaining on as the chief executive of Sabido and e.tv.”
Rot runs deep
But Golding does not seem as innocent as he makes out when it comes to editorial interference. The rot threatening to affect the company’s news integrity seems to run deep.
The free-to-air channel is heavily dependent on the government’s good favour in the battle over the state’s multibillion-rand set-top box programme, which could offer paid-for services and allow e.tv’s easy expansion into that space, which is currently dominated by MultiChoice.
MultiChoice has furiously lobbied against this option to protect its dominance, drawing on key Zuma allies in the SABC such as the public broadcaster’s chairperson, Ellen Tshabalala.
Correspondence in the court documents shows Golding and Keene-Young were instrumental in editorial interventions seemingly aimed at winning over the government , such as a sympathetic series early this year on infrastructure projects, at the behest of Economic Development Minister Ebrahim Patel, that coincided with the department’s commitment to spend money on advertising with the channel.
A well-timed documentary to boost the president’s image could only further help e.tv’s bid to secure the contract for set-top boxes, some believe.
Members of the production staff at Sabido Productions, a handful of experienced and mostly former e.tv journalists, were taken aback by Golding’s pressure to create the Zuma documentary, titled Comrade President: The Man from Nkandla.
This was unlike the pattern of their previous work: their modus operandi has been to produce thorough, detailed and critical explorations of African stories aimed primarily at an international market, with minimal input from management. Indeed, the group prided itself on editorial independence, in contrast to the sunshine journalism many accuse the SABC of producing.
That the documentary was meant to boost Zuma’s image during his party’s toughest election yet became increasingly clear. There was an extreme urgency to the work. Teams were dispatched around the country in a great hurry. Unprecedented access was granted to political heavyweights, old Zuma comrades and even his family. People normally reluctant to be interviewed opened their homes to journalists.
Critical comments made by the few independent voices interviewed were excluded, or kept to a minimum and padded with justifications or counterattacks from Zuma’s staunchest supporters, such as ministers Lindiwe Sisulu and Blade Nzimande.
A parting shot by veteran commentator Allister Sparks towards the end of the documentary takes aim at Zuma’s notorious indecision. “The country has drifted along rudderless and it is deteriorating seriously,” he notes. Immediately thereafter, Zuma’s chief defenders respond. Nzimande shoots back: “Most of the media in South Africa is adrift, not Zuma… they just don’t understand what’s going on.” Sisulu adds: “The media has been most unkind.”
It seems quotes were carefully chosen to show Zuma in the best possible light, even by critics such as former intelligence minister Ronnie Kasrils, who was running a campaign to vote against the ANC. Kasrils was given the most airtime in the documentary but almost exclusively for a warm rendition of Zuma’s past.
Kasrils told the Mail & Guardian that the documentary’s producer, Marion Edmunds, had interviewed him. “She said they needed a critical voice because most were fulsome praise.” Kasrils said he was surprised when he saw the final documentary, which included “rather kind” shots of Nkandla, which “avoided the full-on palatial view”.
The final documentary also omitted his more critical statements, such as those about Zuma’s obsession with the security services. “Marion said they would keep that for a later film,” said Kasrils.
Controversial events, such as Zuma’s role in the corruption trial of his former financial adviser, Shabir Shaik, his rape trial where he was acquitted, and the taxpayer-funded upgrades to his private house in Nkandla, were cast so that Zuma emerged as a victim at worst and a tragic hero at best. No mention was made of the public protector’s damning report into Nkandla.
Copelyn has maintained that Golding was dismissed because of the dubious purchase of R24-million worth of shares from potential set-top box distributor Ellies, without getting board approval.
Court documents and Keene-Young’s resignation letter revealed how politically connected operator Yunus Shaik was appointed to HCI’s board to help in the set-top box battle, and how he and others repeatedly instructed e.tv staff to cover government events in a favourable light.
E.tv has since issued a statement acknowledging the “blurred lines” between commercial and editorial interests in the infrastructure series and has promised a review.
When contacted by the M&G this week, Golding did not deny that he had commissioned the documentary. Instead, he railed against the questions asked and defended the documentary.
“Ask the producers themselves if you want a view of whether there was any influence on their documentaries,” he said.
But soon after Golding said this, staff at Sabido Productions were banned from talking to the media, the M&G understands.
The unit’s head, Chris Nicklin, referred all questions to Sabido chief operating officer Mark Rosin, who confirmed that Golding initiated the documentary “in discussion with Sabido Productions” in April. He confirmed that the documentary “was commissioned to coincide with the start of President Zuma’s second term in office”.
The production aired only in July, the M&G understands, thanks to poor planning. It was available for international distribution from August, according to the Sabido Productions’ website.
Asked whether the government had given direction about who to interview for the documentary, Rosin said “the production team was given access to the presidency on request”, but denied any editorial interference.
Rosin did not deny that staff were banned from talking about the documentary, saying only that it was standard practice for media queries to go through proper channels.
The M&G spoke to several sources familiar with events that unfolded around the documentary. All were too afraid to go on the record.
A previous version of this article did not clearly state the dates the documentary was meant to be ready. This has since been clarified.