The Press and the Power

The South African newspaper industry is, no doubt, not really much worse than other newspaper industries. However, since it is South African, it seems worth taking a look at. Unfortunately, what there is here is the product of a very quick Googling on the Web, which probably provides a lot less than a more detailed search, which would have taken a lot more time, could provide.

In the old days there were essentially four news companies in South Africa. Afrikaner newspapers were run by Perskor and Naspers; English newspapers were run by the Argus Group and Times Media. In the case of the English newspapers this sometimes led to competition; for instance, in Cape Town, Times Media ran the Cape Times whereas the Argus Group ran the Cape Argus. In Durban, Times Media ran the Natal Mercury while the Argus Group ran the Daily News. Johannesburg only had the Star, however, Pretoria had only the Pretoria News, and Port Elizabeth had only the Eastern Province Herald. There were a couple of independent papers too; the Daily Dispatch in East London, the Natal Witness in Pietermaritzburg.

In general, though, the Afrikaans newspapers were not competitive; they were city organs; Die Burger for Cape Town, Volksblad for Bloemfontein, Die Vaderland for Johannesburg, Die Transvaler for Pretoria. Note the fairly authoritarian tone; “The Citizen”. “People’s Journal”, “The Fatherland”. This was not because the market was saturated; Afrikaners made up a bigger slice of the white population than English-speakers. However, the Afrikaner newspapers were propaganda organs for the ideology of the ruling Afrikaner elite (and felt a little threatened by English corporate power) whereas the English newspapers were predominantly money-making ventures. Many Afrikaner leaders, such as Hendrik Verwoerd, got their ideological start on the Afrikaans papers

Things haven’t changed all that much for the Afrikaans press, except that it has become a great deal smaller and more concentrated. Virtually all the papers appear lumped into a corporation called News24, which doesn’t indicate who really owns it. The surviving papers are the dailies — Die Burger, now incorporating the Eastern and Northern Cape as well, Volksblad in the centre of the country, Beeld handling Gauteng, and Rapport, the national Sunday paper. It’s pretty likely that these are very similar papers in most respects. Judging by News24’s website, it is fairly conservative.

The English-language newspapers have changed a lot in ownership since the 1980s. English-language papers tended to be oriented towards the United or Progressive Parties (increasingly Progressive, since both media groups were owned by big English capital which grew increasingly sympathetic to the PP/PRP/PFP, which eventually became the Democratic Alliance). The only real exception was the Sunday Times, which turned sharply to the right in the early 1980s and came to support the National Party. Now, however, the Times and Argus dailies have all joined together under the Independent Group, which is owned by Tony O’Reilly, the Irish media tycoon. Thus in all South African cities where there are morning and afternoon English papers, the papers are owned by the same company. There is a lot of sharing between them; the Times and Mercury are quite similar. Meanwhile, if you have read the Saturday Star or Saturday Argus, you don’t really need the Sunday Independent which uses the same material.

So, when it comes to most city dailies, you can have any colour you like as long as it’s white. (This doesn’t include the black papers, such as The Sowetan and City Press, of course.) The point is that the newspapers are virtually all owned by vast corporations and hence likely to be bland.

There is an oddity, however, and it is multi-sided. In 1985 the Rand Daily Mail was shut down. Instead of just accepting the death graciously, the staff drifted into two new newspapers, Business Day and the Weekly Mail. The former provided quality corporate journalism along the lines of a South African Wall Street Journal, the latter provided actual news for several years, breaking most of the important news stories of the apartheid era.

Nowadays, Business Day, the Sunday Times and a majority of the Daily Dispatch are owned by a company called Avusa. Avusa is a bit shadowy; it’s web page doesn’t say what the holding company is. The company was previously called Johncom, which was Johnnic Communications, which was the media subsidiary of a mining company. It appears, although this may just be a nasty suspicious mind, that this is what remains of Times Media and that this is similarly backed by big business. Avusa has lots of black and white directors and doesn’t go into much detail as to who actually controls it. Perhaps this is paranoia; in the murky world of South African corporations, to be obscure is not necessarily to be evil. This is the only major English-language South African news group which doesn’t appear to be owned by foreigners, and perhaps South Africans should be grateful for small mercies.

But perhaps not. The Daily Dispatch editorial page is dominated by Business Day editorials. Meanwhile, the Sunday Times is heavily corporate-centred (with an enormous Business Times) and is extremely conservative. This despite having a black editor, Mondli Makhanya; the Daily Dispatch editor (Felicia Oppelt) is coloured, Business Day‘s editor, Peter Bruce, almost inevitably white. Certainly the two national papers are distinctly conservative in tone (the Dispatch is less so — but then, the Dispatch once had Steve Biko for a columnist, so it had further to fall from grace).

What happened to the “alternative press” about which so much was heard in the late 1980s? South, the Cape Town alternative paper, was too crappy to survive, and was shut down by its last editor, a man named Berger. (He is now Professor of Journalism at Rhodes University.) Die Vrye Weekblad, the alternative Afrikaans newspaper edited by fearless drunk Max du Preez, gradually lost funding and disappeared. The Weekly Mail lasted until 1990, when its editor Anton Harber drove a brilliant plan under which the paper would become a national daily along the lines of Business Day. Within a few months he had run through all the newspaper’s capital and destroyed its credibility. (Harber is now Professor of Journalism at the University of the Witwatersrand — it’s as if the universities were appointing Professors of Agriculture who can’t even keep a pot-plant alive in their windowbox.)

Unlike the other two, the Weekly Mail had a good enough name to buy, and it was bought by Guardian International. The Guardian brought in people to run it, including managing editor David Beresford who eventually appointed a neoliberal named Howard Barrell, who had previously worked as Independent correspondent in Europe, to edit the paper. The new Mail and Guardian adopted an increasingly right-wing line (supporting a planned military coup in Lesotho and the Ugandan/Rwandan invasion of the Democratic Republic of the Congo abroad, while backing the neoliberal Democratic Alliance at home). After 2000 it became increasingly concerned with smearing the ANC’s new leader, Thabo Mbeki; Barrell seems to have more or less invented a number of smears regarding AIDS. On the other hand, there were unpleasant rumours that he was running stories under fake bylines and generally manipulating the black staff to do his will, and the sheer hysteria of his attacks on the ANC and Mbeki seem to have damaged the newspaper’s support in the black community (where it had been important) while support from conservative whites picked up only slowly. In 2002 Guardian International decided to sell the paper again, as it was making a loss.

This was a very interesting event. The removal of Barrell (and later of Beresford, who was ill) was followed by a replacement — by a man named Trevor Ncube. Ncube was a Zimbabwean who had started as a journalist with the Harare Financial Gazette in 1989 at the age of 26, becoming executive editor in 1991. In 1996 he was involved in founding two anti-ZANU newspapers, the Zimbabwe Independent and the Standard, both of which he was put in charge of by 1998. This is impressive; within two years of starting out in journalism he is running a paper, five years later he founds two more and two years later he is running them — this is not your normal journalist’s record. Where did he get the money from?

Perhaps an unfair question. But soon after the opposition press in Zimbabwe is closed down, his company takes over 87,5% of a South African newspaper. Given that the Zimbabwean dollar was already a currency which could not be changed into any other currency in 2002, where did he get the money from to buy the Mail and Guardian from Guardian International? Interesting question. One turns to his company, Newtrust Company Botswana Limited. Why Botswana? One looks for its website. It doesn’t appear to have a website. It doesn’t have a presence.Is it a shell company?

Another puzzling question is what Ncube is doing with the paper. Having worked solidly in newspapers for thirteen years one would expect him to obtain it for a purpose. Yet, apart from replacing Howard Barrell with Ferrial Haferjee as editor (after a short, unhappy experiment with Barrell’s protégé Mondli Makhanya, who went to the Sunday Times instead) Ncube doesn’t seem to have done much. The paper hasn’t even been more active or more informed in its criticism of Zimbabwean affairs than before. On the other hand, the Mail and Guardian and the Sunday Times have both been strongly pro-Zuma and anti-Mbeki — but not more so than under Barrell. Granted the paper was running at a loss — but why not just fire the editor, why change the corporate structure? Especially if you don’t want to change the editorial policy?

Can one draw a conclusion from this? No, but there are intriguing grounds for speculation. For one thing, Ncube’s career might be that of a brilliant journalist (though he has done nearly no journalism since 2002), but it was almost as if his work was done after he had facilitated the taking over of the Mail and Guardian. Was it the work of a facilitator, working for someone else? If so, who actually owns that newspaper? As with the Avusa newspapers, the answer seems obscure.

Here we enter the realm of conspiracy theory. We know that in the 1990s Zimbabwe enjoyed the rise to power of an anti-Mugabe organisation which eventually became the Movement for Democratic Change and enjoyed enormous, uncritical support from the British government. Indeed, we know that the former British Prime Minister has expressed a wish to invade Zimbabwe to save it from the Mugabe government and, presumably, install the MDC instead. Let us suppose that Ncube was actually not merely a sympathiser for the MDC, but was actually running MDC newspapers using (for instance) the famous British gold. Before this is regarded as absurd paranoia, it is natural to do this kind of thing, it is standard practice for the wealthier secret services.

But not only did Mugabe prevent the MDC from winning the election, he shut down the pro-MDC press (which was a very extreme move — although the MDC was harassed and elections rigged, Mugabe never shut down their operations altogether). Is it possible that Ncube’s operations were actually a foreign operation? Might it then be possible that he shifted his operations to South Africa because a South African propaganda operation promised decidedly richer pickings, given that the massive influence which the Mail and Guardian has over the rest of the media (which generally follows its lead) made it much more valuable than a mere newspaper; it was a former of opinion, a thought-leader (to cite the name of the newspaper’s strikingly reactionary blog).

Well, it’s only speculation. Maybe Ncube had some foreign currency from somewhere (though where a Zimbabwean journalist would get it is hard to conceive). Maybe, too, after taking over the Mail and Guardian he just lost interest in running things. But it is a little uncomfortable to think that, far from being the triumphant guardian of the truth that it pretends to be, as opposed to the reactionary, corporate-centric and stodgy papers generated by Media24, Avusa and Independent — the Mail and Guardian may actually be the least truly free part of the whole South African press.


One Response to The Press and the Power

  1. Since when was the M&G ever “pro-Zuma”? Find one instance!

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