The advertorial statement in last week’s edition of the Mail & Guardian by its owner, Trevor Ncube, about a Sunday Times story that upset and disappointed him did not surprise me. Rather than sympathetically viewing the current adversity the M&G is facing as that of a fellow weekly newspaper, this story opportunistically exploited it.
Stripped of facile niceties and possible feeble attempts to justify, excuse or explain away what seemed like wilful misrepresentations in the story, which I too read with concern, this was a manifestation of just how unfair fellow newspapers can be, and probably calculated to discredit the M&G in a viciously competitive and dwindling print media market.
But nothing stands out more as an instance of wanton misrepresentation of the facts than the Sunday Times reporters stating that the reasons for the resignation of the editor of the M&G, Angela Quintal, “are unclear, but sources say that she was unhappy”. No wonder Ncube said in response that this was unfair journalism, when all that was required was to interview her. It is a pathetic reflection on the Sunday Times not only to take advantage opportunistically of the difficult situation at the M&G but also to fail to conduct basic research.
How the Sunday Times can benefit from both the challenges facing the M&G and a distortion of such challenges is not clear and too insidious even to contemplate.
Having written for this paper over the past 16 years I can say without a shred of doubt that this country, and the print media world in particular, would lose a truly great newspaper if its current problems lead to its demise. But Ncube has made is clear that such an outcome is unlikely.
Concerning the quality of its investigative journalism and its intellectual calibre the paper is a trail-blazer with a legendary legacy.
I recall that since I was a columnist for the M&G in 2000 I looked forward with great excitement to Friday mornings to get my hands on a lovely mix of breaking and cutting-edge news stories with often scintillating commentaries and analyses of developments in the country.
So informative, thoughtful and intellectually stimulating and weighty was the paper that I and many I know would read it bit by bit, from Friday until sometimes when the next edition was about to come out, starting with news items, then the comments and analysis section and finally a focus on some or other topical issues, on education, health and so on. It was never a paper you rushed through reading. No, because its news stories were often so rich, informative, revealing and intelligent and its comments and analyses intellectually deep and thought-provoking you took your time reading, digesting and assimilating.
I recall former editor Philip van Niekerk saying to me in 2000 that those who write for the M&G can rest assured that their work is seriously read by the country’s political, civil society and business leaders, such was the weight of the newspaper in the national consciousness. In this regard it was easy to argue that, although its weight may have shrunk a bit with the number of pages, as a result of tough economic times, the paper has remained sturdy on the whole, if not more so, since then.
What I do know for a fact is that ANC leaders, from the time of former president Thabo Mbeki, would wonder on a Friday morning just what would be the leading stories in the paper, almost with a sense of uncomfortable anticipation: “Let us see what they have to say of us today.”
No paper, I argue, has kept the ruling party on its toes as the M&G has done since 1994, producing the most vigorously probing and courageous investigative journalism in the country. Many or even most readers of newspapers would agree with this.
I am as certain that there are many leading figures of the ANC, of the more open, progressive, and truly democratic kind, such as former president and deputy president Kgalema Motlanthe, who would not like to see this paper’s demise. Unfortunately, I cannot say this of many current ANC leaders, who have often viewed the paper as an enemy rather than important, robust and courageous, keeping them on their toes and accountable to the voters and citizenry.
The M&G has become, in the public consciousness, a media institution of such undeniable importance for a vigorously accountable democracy that it dare not die.
Ebrahim Harvey is a political writer, analyst and author