/ 24 March 2020

Gamechangers: The morphing landscape of South Africa’s media

Iqbal Survé (Delwyn Verasamy)
Shady deals: The PIC wants to recover the R1.06-million it lent to Independent’s Iqbal Survé, but he is heading up a loss-making group of 20 print and digital news outlets. (Delwyn Verasamy)

In their book Paper Tiger, Alide Dasnois and Chris Whitfield tell an amusing story about Sir Anthony O’Reilly, the Irish billionaire whose Independent group had taken over the large and venerable Argus group of South African newspapers in 1993. It was 2006, and Whitfield was the editor of the Cape Argus. He was attending the banquet that followed the group’s annual meeting of its international advisory board (IAB), which took place at the Castle in Cape Town. O’Reilly, of course, was there.

Whitfield was having a cigarette some distance away from the celebration when he heard “an animated discussion” taking place nearby.

The interlocutors were “the ageing yet still imposing” O’Reilly, who was “vigorously poking his finger at that day’s edition of the Cape Times”, and Tony Howard, chief executive of the South African wing of what was now the Independent group. “Howard turned and noticed Whitfield. The chief executive’s hand rose and pointed towards him.” O’Reilly stalked off and Howard approached Whitfield, asking him why a story about the IAB had featured a picture of the Canadian prime minister, who was on the IAB, and not media group’s owner, O’Reilly.

“Whitfield was bemused,” write the authors (as co-authors, they refer to themselves, or each other, in the third person). “For a start, he was the editor of the Cape Argus at the time, not the Cape Times …”

Laughable though that incident was as a sign of O’Reilly’s egotism and willingness to intervene in even trivial editorial matters, there was more. Days later, Howard phoned Whitfield “late at night” to tell him “the old man” was unhappy about a picture of him, taken from the Argus’s picture library, that had been used with its report on the IAB event.

The problem, it turned out, was that “O’Reilly had been on a diet and the picture in question showed him carrying some weight. Whitfield was told to have the photographers go through the picture library and remove all those in which Sir Anthony might appear overweight.”

Presumably O’Reilly’s office then supplied the Argus and Cape Times with officially approved images in which his new slenderness was apparent. At least O’Reilly got the right newspaper that time.

The staff at Independent would later learn that such issues were minor compared to what O’Reilly’s people would do when they restructured his South African publications. And if they thought O’Reilly’s ego was overwhelming, they would find he was a puppy dog compared to Iqbal Survé, who, with Chinese state money and funds from the Public Investment Corporation (PIC), bought the Independent group in 2013.

The story of the “downfall” of the Independent group is the somewhat depressing but nonetheless riveting tale told by Dasnois and Whitfield, both of whom fell foul of Survé’s narcissism and megalomania. His promises of no editorial intervention (conventional on the part of media owners) were false.

Dasnois, famously, was dismissed as editor of the Cape Times soon after the death of Nelson Mandela, allegedly because she used a wraparound of the paper to commemorate Mandela, while running, on the actual front page, the story of how the then public protector, Thuli Madonsela, had found glaring irregularities in a fisheries deal between the department of agriculture, forestry and fisheries and Sekunjalo Marine Services Consortium, a company linked, as its name indicated, to Survé’s main company, Sekunjalo Investments. (In fact, four of the six bidders were linked to Sekunjalo.) Sekunjalo Marine Services Consortium, under threat of court action, later withdrew, but Madonsela found the awarding of the R800-million tender to be “irrational, subjective and biased”, and the relevant minister, Tina Joemat-Pettersson, guilty of “maladministration, unethical conduct and wasteful expenditure”.

That was obviously a big story for a Cape newspaper, and it was quite proper to run it on the front page. Making Mandela a wraparound was an elegant solution to the problem of how to cover his death too. Survé tried to make out that Dasnois had disrespected Mandela, but it seems he was really upset about there being any coverage of the dodgy fisheries deal at all. His lawyers, in an extraordinary move, sent a stern letter to the paper, claiming that “the report by the public protector clears Sekunjalo of all wrongdoing”, and threatening to take Survé’s own employees to the press ombudsman!

Survé would go further than purging Dasnois (she later won her case at the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration), proceeding to gut his media companies of anyone not sufficiently pliable and, indeed, sycophantic towards him. What’s left, today, is a severely compromised media group, one that has lost readers and revenue to the degree that it is unable to repay its loan from the PIC (R1.06-billion written off), which is now suing Survé over that and later shady deals it did with his other companies.

WE HAVE A GAMECHANGER: A DECADE OF DAILY MAVERICK by Francesca Beighton, Tudor Caradoc-Davies and Tiara Walters (Maverick 451)

The fact that, recently, the Independent papers carried a story claiming that a “leak” from the Mpati commission looking into malfeasance at the PIC cleared its former head and the Sekunjalo-linked companies of any wrongdoing is, to the eye of any perceptive reader, a sign that precisely the opposite is likely to happen. The Independent publications have become such propaganda-mongers for Survé’s personal interests (as well as, now, the “state capture faction” associated with former president Jacob Zuma), that one can only presume it’s all disinformation.

Set against that tale of media decline, it is interesting to read one of ascent — that is, the ascent of the Daily Maverick from a scrappy little website, founded 10 years ago, to one of the leading voices in the new South African media. How they did it is the story told in We Have a Gamechanger, written by Francesca Beighton, Tudor Caradoc-Davies and Tiara Walters, though their names do not appear on the book’s cover or title page.

The Daily Maverick, the site, emerged from the collapse of editor Branko Brkic’s magazines, Maverick and Empire, which put business leaders on their front pages but filled their insides with long-form journalism presented with eye-catching design. Their rationale, which carried over into the website, was that of an “insurgency” — a rebellion against what Brkic saw as the stale old ways of the established South African media.

Brkic was something of a refugee from the former Yugoslavia, which in 1993 was imploding into ethnic warfare, destroying his independent publishing company in the process. He was 29 when he arrived in South Africa with only R2 500 to his name, a mere 7kg of luggage, and almost no English. That he founded the “Maverick empire”, survived the end of the magazines, and built the Daily Maverick into an excellent website with a burgeoning readership is testament to his determination, hard work and flair for journalism — and that of the team he has gathered around him.

The Daily Maverick has a sort of fraternally competitive relationship with the Mail & Guardian, as shown by the staffers who have moved between the publications, from the early days when Philip de Wet (later an associate editor at the M&G) co-founded the site with Brkic, through the back-and-forth moves of writers such as Rebecca Davis, up to the Daily Maverick giving a home to cartoonists Zapiro and the Madam & Eve team when they left the M&G, and including the Daily Maverick’s deal with amaBhungane Centre for Investigative Journalism, originally part of the M&G, and its poaching of the M&G’s investigative team, Jessica Bezuidenhout and Pauli van Wyk, to form the core of its Scorpio unit, which has done such sterling work on the financial manoeuvres of the Economic Freedom Fighters’ leadership.

It looks like the M&G’s loss has been the Daily Maverick’s gain — and in terms of readers, too. The decline in the M&G readership and paper sales is mirrored rather neatly by the increase in the Daily Maverick’s readership and standing. It has certainly taken to heart the kind of comment-inflected reporting that the M&G pioneered and dubbed “news analysis”; it is now the Daily Maverick’s greatest strength, spiced with the “insurgent” air and satirical touch that frequently distinguished the M&G’s style.

The story told in We Have a Gamechanger is, in terms of the future of the South African media, instructive and heartening, as well as being frequently entertaining (all those late nights, all that flying by the seat of their pants); it will doubtless be a useful textbook for students of the changing media in this country. It is lavishly produced in full colour throughout, with many illustrations (such as Zapiro’s matchless cartoons, though few of them reproduced here actually appeared in the Daily Maverick), reprints of key pieces and a plethora of marginal links, timelines and the like.

Still, the reader can’t help feeling there’s just too much of it — 300 pages in small type. One needs a magnifying glass to read the links (and Davis’s quoted out-of-office auto-reply when she was in court covering the Oscar Pistorius trial). There’s too much detail, too much political background; do we need, even in the context of his passing, a full summary of Mandela’s political history going back to the 1940s? There are also infelicities that speak of a rushed edit: staff members are “ingratiated” instead of “integrated”, for instance, and there’s a muddled metaphor about EFF leader Julius Malema, nails and a coffin. But then Malema usually generates confusion.

Do we truly have a gamechanger? Has the Daily Maverick found new ways to fund journalism? As Christiane Amanpour used to say on CNN, only time will tell.