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Max du Preez: Newspaper credibility critical

Dr Iqbal Surve is facing a torrid time as head of the holding company that recently bought the newspapers in the Independent Group. He needs to learn very quickly or he'll seriously damage the group's newspapers, which include the Cape Times, the Cape Argus, the Star, Pretoria News, Mercury, Daily News, Post and the Sunday Independent.

The Sekunjalo Group has been entangled in several controversies in recent times regarding its shareholders and some state tenders it was involved in. Surve's reaction was to threaten and insult, especially other editors and journalists. He even alleged that the Mail & Guardian was funded by the CIA, a statement that was met with derision in the industry. His combative style, his views on the public's right to know more about the shareholders in a media company and his hyper-sensitivity to criticism have made him a regular item on the news.

If a media owner is the topic of so much news coverage, it places his newspapers in a difficult position. How does a newspaper remain neutral when reporting on its owner? If it does, the owner could well be angry; if it doesn't, the newspaper loses credibility.

Well, the only way out of this dilemma would be for the newspaper owner to run the business of publishing the paper, but make it abundantly clear to the editor, the staff and the reading public that the paper has complete editorial independence. At most, management can have strategic planning sessions with editorial staff, but not determine what the report on and how they do that.

If the readers get the impression that owners are interfering with editorial decisions or even use the newspaper as a propaganda vehicle for the holding company and/or the political party it supports, that newspaper's credibility will suffer a heavy blow.

And here's the bottom line: credibility is the lifeblood of a newspaper. You can design the most beautiful pages and publish the most exquisite pictures and well-written stories, but if readers suspect that the paper acts as the voice of a master - owner or political party - it will decline in influence, readership and revenue.

Iqbal Surve crossed the line last week when he fired the highly respected editor of the Cape Times, Alide Dasnois, on the spot. In typical Surve fashion, he denied "categorically" afterwards that he had fired her: he merely "removed her as executive editor" and offered her a job elsewhere in the group.

The overwhelming impression among Cape Times staff and media watchers was that he fired Dasnois because she published a straightforward report on the Public Protector's report on Sekunjalo Holdings and wrote in an editorial:

"Concerns that the Cape Times may become a vehicle for the expression of the corporate interests of the Sekunjalo Group, and/or the political interests of a faction in the ANC to whom the new owners are said to be close, are unfounded. In our opinion pages, we will continue to publish a range of views, and we will allow those criticised by Survé to respond to his criticisms. In our news pages, we will not advance any agenda, corporate or political. When we cover the activities of his Sekunjalo Group, or those of the other investors in the consortium which owns the Cape Times, we will do so in the same way we cover everything: by doing our best to be accurate, to be balanced and to give both sides of the story."

Surve hit back, stating she was only removed because the newspaper's circulation figures were declining. What, fire her on the spot with no warning because of sales figures that were declining over the last five years (like virtually all other newspapers)? Come on.

My impression is that Dasnois was fired as a tactic of intimidation, a warning to others: cross Iqbal Surve and you'll pay the price.

I'm proud that three newspapers in the group were brave enough to publish my column on Tuesday in which I addressed the issue head-on. I wrote:

"Media owners have a critical role to play in the credibility, vibrancy and viability of media outlets. To buy a newspaper is very different from, say, buying a soap factory. You are buying an instrument of democracy, a forger of public opinion. The profit margins aren't great, but the reward for helping to bolster freedom, dignity and progress in a growing democracy is very special. It also means the rules of engagement are different.

The new owners of the Independent Group seem to have an image problem right now. I have no insights into the company, but I have read many reports of controversies regarding its shareholders and other businesses. Its executive chairman has been very aggressive in defending the company and attacking its critics.

This need not affect the newspaper titles in the group. Editorial independence and credibility rest with the editor and staff of newspapers, not with owners.

But the impression has now been created that the new owners of the Independent Group have, in fact, allowed its own controversies and issues to interfere with at least one of its titles, the Cape Times."

All the editors, journalists and staff at the newspapers in the Independent stable will have to prepare for a drawn-out battle against editorial interference and bullying by their new owners.

Max du Preez is a South African author, columnist and documentary filmmaker. Tweet him on @MaxduPreez

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