Media moguls have long been interfering in their own newspapers. But doing this erodes the value of the media assets
Robert Maxwell, the former owner of the Daily Mirror whose body was retrieved from the Atlantic in 1991 after a mishap on his yacht, is perhaps the most notorious of the modern breed of media owners.
In 1990, The Guardian newspaper asked Maxwell — also known as Cap’n Bob — if, hypothetically, he could produce the front page of the tabloid if he had to. His response: “Not only could — I do.”
Taken aback, the journalist responded that surely Maxwell wouldn’t want to interfere in news — a practice considered verboten by media owners, given conventions around press freedom.
Maxwell replied: “I’m not shy of interfering if I have to.” He certainly wasn’t. One book on Maxwell said the Daily Mirror came “to resemble a Maxwell family album, studded with photographs of Cap’n Bob and filled with references to [his] other companies”.
Nor is Maxwell the only one. When some editors took issue with how Australian tycoon Rupert Murdoch was behaving at the News of the World, Murdoch said: “I did not come all this way not to interfere.”
But in the newspaper business, economic value comes from being seen as a truly independent voice speaking for the public interest.
So consider how that can be applied to publications in the Independent Newspapers stable, which have been marshalled to defend a business deal constructed by its owner, Dr Iqbal Survé. That deal was to list a company called Sagarmatha, which Survé had billed as “Africa’s first unicorn” — the Silicon Valley term for start-ups valued at more than Us$1bn.
As their job description warrants, various journalists asked tough questions about Sagarmatha’s real value. In the end the listing didn’t happen, foiled apparently by the refusal of the Public Investment Corp (PIC) to invest.
What happened next was alarming.
On Friday, Independent’s newspapers uniformly ran lead stories branding journalists who asked questions — including amabhungane’s Sam Sole and the Financial Mail’s Ann Crotty — part of a new “Stratcom” operation to “deliberately misrepresent” Sagarmatha.
“Exposed: Stratcom version ’18”, screamed the lead story in Johannesburg’s The Star; “Stratcom style tricks laid bare” was the lead in the Cape Argus, and The Pretoria News trumpeted: “Dirty tricks exposed”. So those newspapers compared the journalists who stress-tested this single deal to all those who secretly worked for the apartheid government as part of its covert propaganda exercise in the 1980s. That’s some narcissism.
The Independent story was bylined “staff reporter”. This led Barry Bateman, a reporter for 702’s Eyewitness News, to conclude it was “penned by the Independent executives and editors were instructed to lead with it”.
Many outside the media industry see this as tit-for-tat rivalry between media groups. It isn’t. It’s about an individual who, when his business plan is challenged, uses his platforms to fight his personal battles.
As Maxwell’s example illustrates, this isn’t a new phenomenon. But we’re not used to it in SA: you don’t see that level of blatant perversion often — not at Naspers, Daily Maverick, the Mail & Guardian or Tiso Blackstar.
This is why journalists from across the spectrum are outraged. Duncan Mcleod, who runs Techcentral, described it as “utterly reprehensible”, saying it “damages journalism”.
Niren Tolsi, an award-winning writer, called it “venal, shameless and cowardly”. He said he hoped the PIC was “taking a look at how [Survé was] running a company [in which] it had invested the retirement funds of teachers, nurses and other civil servants”.
Khadija Patel, editor of the Mail & Guardian, said she had “no words” for Survé comparing himself to Winnie Madikizela-mandela, who was a real victim of Stratcom.
Pippa Green, a former SABC director, described the Stratcom claims as “incomprehensible hogwash”.
The SA National Editors Forum (Sanef), headed by such formidable journalists as Bloomberg’s Sam Mkokeli and News24’s Adriaan Basson, described the slur as “disgusting”. It said journalists were just playing “their watchdog role in investigating private sector irregularities”.
Sanef said it stood in solidarity with those journalists at Independent who “value editorial independence but are seemingly powerless to stop these stories”. Not that journalists have too many options, given how fragile the media business is today.
But for any owner to take such liberties with the value proposition, given this fragility, is playing Russian roulette with investor funds.
A few years back, one media consultant told me how a US billionaire had asked for advice on how to buy a struggling newspaper group and keep its core value proposition intact. He replied: “For starters, you’ll need to agree that you personally can never appear in the paper, in any form.”
It’s an apposite lesson. Even when it’s your birthday.
Sanef described the slur as ‘disgusting’ . . . journalists were just playing ‘their watchdog role’