Project M: Leaked emails reveal Gupta plans to buy the M&G

In January 2016 Nazeem Howa, then still CEO of the Gupta family’s corporate vehicle Oakbay Investments, advised the family to keep a seemly distance from the Mail & Guardian if they were to buy its parent company.

“I would recommend that it is bought with a vehicle separate from us as that would mitigate some of our risks of shedding readers,” Howa wrote to Tony Gupta, before arguing that paying R20-million for the M&G would be too much.

The e-mail forms part of the cache of more than 100 000 that have become known as the Gupta Leaks, and was first reported by SowetanLive on Monday.

It dealt with “Project M”, the apparent chosen code name for a discussion on a takeover of what Howa described as something of a thorn in the side of the administration of President Jacob Zuma.

“The newspaper (with strong support from their following and other like-minded media people) is champion a [sic] position that President Zuma is corrupt and should be relieved of his responsibility,” Howa wrote. “They have made it their focus to find ways to support the #ZumaMustFall campaign and the family and our group have become convenience pawns [sic] in their strategy to unseat the President.”

Howa suggested that “a large part” of Mail & Guardian readers “are in fact buying to read criticism of themselves, or to confirm that they are not featured in the newspaper.” He then provided a detailed analysis of declining circulation and advertising.

“The government advertising spend has declined by almost 40% against 2013, while the market tested has declined by 5%. Editorial position has certainly been a factor in this decline and one would question how quickly one can reclaim the lost government advertising spend, and how much of an editorial positioning change will be needed to achieve that,” Howa wrote.

“A risk of repositioning could well be the loss of single-copy readers who subscribe to the newspapers current anti-establishment position. Repositioning will have to bring new readers faster than the changes cause loss of readers.”

Howa appeared to be providing his employers with a first-take analysis of what he referred to as “memoranda”, or investment proposals provided by a Zimbabwean investment house for the parent company of the M&G as well as Alpha Media in Zimbabwe, both controlled by Trevor Ncube.

“We value the role that our publications play in Zimbabwe and South Africa,” Ncube said on Monday. “Press freedom and freedom of expression are at the core of what we do. This also includes robust investigative journalism in Zimbabwe and South Africa which is not tainted or poisoned by the interests of proprietors.”

Howa could not be reached for comment on Monday. The Gupta family and its corporate vehicles have uniformly declined to comment on the contents or implications of the leaked emails.

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Phillip De Wet
Guest Author

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