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

CityPress - - Voices -

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

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