When I worked for the Gupta family...
At The New Age and ANN7, everybody lives by an unspoken rule: Don’t criticise the president, writes Jo-Mangaliso Mdhlela
Ibegin my reflections on the time I spent at The New Age/ANN7 working first as a subeditor and later as the head of training in the organisation’s media academy. Here I was responsible for mentoring and training graduate journalism interns for work as journalists, by drawing from the wisdom of Jan Masaryk, the former president of Czechoslovakia.
Born in Prague, Masaryk was a philosopher and a great scholar with a PhD. He wrote: “What is happiness? It is having the right to go out on to the main square and to shout at the top of your voice, ‘Lord, what a bad government we have!’”
Czechoslovakia was occupied by Nazi Germany for years – from 1938 to 1945. After the demise of Nazism in 1945, the country lived under the choking domination of the Soviets until 1989, after which the country separated into two – the Czech Republic and Slovakia.
Throughout his life, Masaryk shouted at the top of his voice for the demise of bad governments, including in his own country.
For just under four years until the end of June, I was employed by the Guptas. During the period I knew, without being told, what the editorial stance or position of the newspaper was (and even the very most junior reporter knew) – that no one may report negatively about President Jacob Zuma. It was an unspoken rule, and everybody in the organisation wore that on their sleeves.
What became more curious – and even disturbing – in the last year or so, is that a strange editorial decision was taken by some senior editorial executives that all “opposition” newspapers, including The Star, Citizen, Sowetan, Business Day, Beeld, City Press and others, may no longer be displayed on the newspaper rack as had been the normal practice since the inception of the newspaper some six years or so ago. Only The New Age would remain on the rack. As I understand it from my inside sources, the decision had been endorsed by the owner of the newspaper organisation, Atul Gupta.
As the head of the journalism academy programme, I became concerned that this important reference resource, useful to the young journalism interns, and even seasoned journalists, to broaden the range of their knowledge in newspaper reporting, had been wilfully taken away.
I use the word ‘wilful’ deliberately because, if there is no sound reason for removing such an important facility, then the act could truly be seen as wilful. The context is important. All major newspapers in the country have been going big and relentlessly on the alleged shady business relationship the Gupta brothers have with some highranking Cabinet ministers and some well-connected officials at state-owned entities.
My enquiry to one of the senior executives as to the reason for removing the newspaper facility was brushed off with a casual: “Well, we do not have a budget for the purchase of newspapers.” My calculated hunch is that there is more to it than meets the eye in the casual budget story explanation. If budget was the sole reason for the demise of this important newspaper facility, where is the organisation getting the budget to service some of its many “experts” used to vociferously defend the Gupta brothers, some of whom are reputed to be drawing, as a retainer, millions of rands?
I have a theory that I think is plausible. With almost all newspapers and television channels leaking for public consumption all the grime stories allegedly associated with the Guptas, it makes sense for the organisation to “ban” or “protect our journalist from this poisonous propaganda claptrap spewed out by journalists driven by white monopoly capital sentiments”.
I almost have an idea how the editorial space of the Gupta-owned news media operates. The senior executives, including editors, take their cue from Atul Gupta. For nearly a year now, he has intensified his grip on almost all matters related to the direction the newspaper and television channel take. He gets involved in the interviewing and selection of interns. He wants people he thinks he can brainwash.
A few months ago, the interns and I had planned to spend a Friday in various parts of Gauteng to conduct an investigation regarding the poor state of our roads in various parts of Gauteng.
We had drawn a plan for the execution of this investigation. We were going to go into the field to see for ourselves the extent to which the problem of potholes had grown in various parts of the province. We would talk to relevant local and provincial authorities about the problem, and what they were doing to resolve it. We were going to ask whether they had a budget allocation to attend to the problem and, if so, what progress had been made.
We were going to ask the officials whether there was a good reason for resorting to a piecemeal strategy of patching the potholes rather than comprehensively resurfacing them. The interns were happy to be involved in such a big project, but alas...
In a meeting, in which the editor of The New Age was present, Atul Gupta took me to task. He was incensed, frothing at the mouth, and often using expletives, to question my motives for wanting to pursue such a project that, in his mind, was a ploy on my part to discredit and “embarrass your own government”.
Instead, he told me, I should concern myself with tackling, with the interns, the scourge of looting orchestrated by “white monopoly capital”, and that it was “economic liberation” the black people deserved, and that the interns should be channelled in that direction.
He said, through his mother who loved South Africa dearly, his organisation had made a lot of investments to ensure that young black journalists commit to “fighting for economic liberation”, and to ensure the interns go to the ends of the earth to fight “white monopoly capital”.
I wanted to tell him to go to hell or fly a kite, but I restrained myself. Why, I wanted to ask him, what business was that of his to want to determine what stories we should pursue or not pursue? I wanted to remind him that editorial decisions were a function of editors and not of shareholders, and that by investigating the problem of potholes and the country’s broken roads, we as journalists were not undermining the government; on the contrary, we were doing what the Constitution demanded of us.
I wanted to tell him that what he had said was shameful in light of what the South African Press Code demands of us. This is what it says: “The press exists to serve society. Its freedom provides for independent scrutiny of the forces that shape society, and is essential to realising the promise of democracy. It enables citizens to make informed judgements on the issues of the day, a role whose centrality is recognised in the South African Constitution.”
The white monopoly capital narrative has been a staple food in his media empire. This is pursued with great vigour by an army of commentators and analysts whose main preoccupation is to show how the Guptas are hard done by an army of neoliberal journalists sponsored by “white monopoly capital”.
What is happiness, Masaryk asked. In part, happiness is for journalists and for society to boldly say, when things go wrong, “Lord, what a bad government we have.”
Mdhlela is an Anglo-Catholic priest, a journalist, a political commentator and former
media trade unionist