/ 26 April 2018

Editorial independence is sacred

Survé must accept that he is not just responsible for the fate of Independent titles; he is also a custodian of media freedom in South Africa.
Survé must accept that he is not just responsible for the fate of Independent titles; he is also a custodian of media freedom in South Africa.

In the past week, executive chair of Independent Media Dr Iqbal Survé and Adri Senekal de Wet, the editor of Business Report, have left us confused by their rambling allegations of a Stratcom-style plot against the good doctor. Their allegations stem from the scrutiny of the aborted listing of Sagarmatha, the much-trumped digital unicorn that purportedly has the answer to the commercial viability of news media. We’re happy for the doc and his merry band of innovators to go on and save the world but, when the plot of this particular episode of My Little Pony has a crossover with a bad rendition of The Bourne Identity, we are left perplexed.

And this is not even about us.

However, for the benefit of De Wet and her readers, the Mail & Guardian holds its editorial independence sacrosanct. No owner, past or present, has ever dictated the direction of the editorial team. And we continue to guard our editorial independence, because, in a world in which print circulations dwindle and advertising is funnelled to tech companies, our editorial independence is the last defence in the attack against news media.

And that’s why it is especially disturbing to see the front pages of Independent Media titles being used like Survé’s mood board.

Last Friday, several titles in the Independent stable published front-page reports, with a “Staff Writer” byline, that smeared journalists and claimed that Sekunjalo Investment Holdings and Survé were targets of an apartheid-era campaign waged by … well … the likes of us. And that wasn’t all.

On Monday, the Cape Times ran a press release from Sekunjalo as their front-page story. Sure, we’ll admit that it’s an improvement from pretending their propaganda is written by “Staff Writer”. This is what journalism at Independent Media has devolved into — running a press release by the owners of that publication as news.

And this has not happened all at once.

Remember when Cape Times editor Alide Dasnois was booted out when she dared to contradict Survé ? Or that time Indy front pages ran a story that could as well have been a press release for China?

There has been a gradual but systemic assault on journalism at Independent since Survé took over the group. There are good journalists and editors who are left quite helpless as their proprietor rides roughshod over any semblance of editorial independence. And there are good journalists and editors who have aided and abetted Survé. And although some of those editors and journalists have been able to reconstruct themselves outside of Indy, it is the staff of the Independent’s newsrooms right now that emerge worst off.

And of course it is very patronising to think that all journalists at Indy are left entirely hapless as Survé rides roughshod over their processes. We have no doubt that there are some like De Wet who support Survé and believe he is a victim of a malicious campaign. And that’s okay too. The whole point of editorial independence is for people who work in news production to be able to formulate the news themselves — to make up their own minds about what is news and how it ought to be reported. And they ought to be able to do so without a media proprietor dictating their world view to them.

It is our integrity, all our integrity, that is eroded when we cede our independence to commercial interests, politicians or media owners. How can we expect the public to believe our investigative journalism about corruption in North West one day when the next we’re shopping out our front pages to the owner to settle his scores against his competitors?

Because it’s not just about the credibility of Independent titles. It is about the credibility of the news media as an institution. And such wanton disregard for editorial independence severely damages the practice of journalism in South Africa.

Survé must accept that he is not just responsible for the fate of Independent titles; he is also a custodian of media freedom in South Africa. We are ready to admit that there is a debate to be had about the influence of media owners, be they the owners of the M&G, Sunday Times, City Press or the Cape Times, on the editorial direction of their publications. But somehow Survé must be persuaded that he is subject to the same scrutiny.

We are also ready to admit that there ought to be a good debate about where all the journalists who worked for Stratcom have gone. But what Survé and De Wet have done is muddy this debate with baseless accusations that flatter only the doctor’s hubris.

A weak Independent Media is bad for journalism in South Africa. It is bad for democracy in South Africa. It is bad for the plurality of voices in the public sphere. Survé is well entitled to seek to construct a media empire that supports his values. That is indeed his right. But just because he claims to be promoting a world view that champions black economic empowerment does not mean that he is above criticism, or scrutiny.

Surely it is possible to challenge hegemonies while ensuring that the processes and institutions that defend the integrity of the news remain untouched.