Newsmaker – Iqbal Survé: Zen and the art of media ownership

2013-12-22 14:00

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Defining reaction of Independent’s new owner is of ­irritation

Dr Iqbal Survé follows the teachings of the Persian poet and ­philosopher Rumi. His Twitter timeline often quotes Rumi to decode the world.

So, I put this Rumi quote to him as we start our telephone interview: “If you are irritated by every rub, how will the mirror be polished.”

It seems Survé is irritated by ­every rub, a fact that could stand in the path of his success and ­longevity.

Media owners need nerves of steel. The print industry is in the midpoint of a revolution. Readers are in exodus to platforms including phones, online, tablets and phablets (the name given to devices that straddle the functionalities of a smartphone and tablet).

Their editors are in an odd ­employment relationship. They are encouraged to be free thinkers who often do things that can make their owners gasp for air (as I know).

And they don’t have to do as asked by owners because their ­accountability is to their audience or the pubic. Of course, editors can be fired, but their exits are usually quietly negotiated.

Survé is in the news this week for the loud exit of Alide Dasnois, the highly regarded editor of his ­flagship Cape Times.

She calls it a dismissal; he a ­repositioning. Dasnois was offered the editorship of a new labour ­bulletin the group is starting.

Survé has been in the news all year for his purchase of Independent Newspapers, one of South ­Africa’s leading media companies, from Irish baked beans magnate Tony O’Reilly.

Survé’s defining reaction is of ­irritation.

“When I see something written which is not true, I feel irritated by that distortion. We have done something important, taken ownership of a media house that is now in black hands. I always accepted that, based on my audacity, it was going to attract criticism.

“Black economic empowerment is seen as okay if you buy 25%, 50%, but the moment you buy ­control, that is not accepted.

“I don’t think there’s anyone in this country who has been at the ­receiving end of a malicious, systematic and vicious campaign since I dared to put my foot in the water to buy Independent.”

Which campaign?

“We have a hostile competitor in Times Media Group [owners of Sunday Times, Business Day, ­Financial Mail and a host of other media assets].

“Andrew Bonamour [CEO of Times Media Group] has set aside between R15 million and R20?million [to run the campaign].”

Survé says Peter Bruce, the publisher and editor in chief of all Times Media Group’s financial ­media, journalist Pearlie Joubert and Rob Rose, who edits the Business Times, are spearheading the campaign and at stake is the large government advertising budget.

The Sunday Times, says the ­media baron, gets the largest slice of the lucrative state media buying pie while his group gets less than R100?million annually.

He says the campaign is meant to shore up revenues.

It sounds crude to me, but Survé is adamant. He’s also adamant that he wants Dasnois to edit the labour paper he will publish and that her ousting was not an ­attack on editorial freedom.

“Alide was never dismissed by anybody. It’s about the repositioning of the Cape Times.”

It was she, he said, who declared in a meeting to negotiate a new job: “I will not work with you.”

I ask if he acted emotionally by removing Dasnois because he disliked her editorial decisions in covering the death of Nelson Mandela.

Survé is an ANC member and was one of Mandela’s doctors.

He denies it, but his anger is ­palpable as he says: “Any self­respecting editor in the world would have led with Madiba’s death. The only newspaper not to have done that was the Cape Times.”

Instead, the title wrapped four prepped pages around and was ­cited by Time magazine as a global leader in coverage of the loss of the icon. Survé counters that only some places got the wrap; in several areas it was inserted inside.

What those readers got was a ­report on the Public Protector’s probe into a fishy tender awarded to his Sekunjalo consortium, and then cancelled.

Many commentators say this is the real reason Dasnois was moved. She has consistently ­covered the award of the marine patrol tender to Sekunjalo over competitor Smit Amandla. The whole story gets Survé ­apoplectic.

I know because he has filled my ears several times with how Sekunjalo did no wrong and how Smit Amandla gets off without ­reporters’ scrutiny.

Sekunjalo is a sprawling enterprise. How will he ensure that his media company is not held hostage by sweetheart coverage of his other commercial interests?

“Sekunjalo has 130 investments under its own management. What’s in the newspapers has got nothing to do with me or with them. Sometimes I think we’re entitled to positive news, but it is editors who must make that decision.”

The 50-year-old yoga practitioner can’t understand why Dasnois’ move exploded. Seven other major moves and appointments were made with no upheaval.

He made Karima Brown group editor in chief; Gasant Abarder ­became editor of the Cape Times; Aneez Salie was his deputy; ­Jermaine Craig was made editor of the Cape Argus; Chris Whitfield was moved to head special projects; and Antony Robinson was made chief technology officer.

“Independent needs to be redesigned. What Independent did to this business is unbelievable?...” he says.

The Irish asset-stripped and ­invested very little in the media company; it needs major reinvestment. All while Survé needs to pay off massive loans he took to buy the company. No wonder he’s losing his zen.

“Every bit of profit will be reinvested for five years. We have to reposition our brands, people, technology and start a multiplatform training school.”

Has Dasnois’ exit had a chilling effect on his other editors? David Niddrie, a former editor and broadcaster, is consulting to Independent and drawing up an editorial charter to enshrine freedom and ­responsibility.

It will be completed in February and will secure editors’ independence, says Survé, who adds: “You name a single editor in Independent who has had a call from me. You won’t be able to. I tell them: don’t call me. You must report fearlessly.”

This week, the Right2Know campaign protested at Independent in Cape Town. With posters bearing the editor’s image under the witty title “Alide Continua”, they were countered by a third force-type group.

Called The Movement for the Transformation of the Media in South Africa and led by political opportunist Wesley Douglas, who consults to the ANC, commentators drew links to Survé. “No, absolutely not,” he says when I ask if he funds the movement.

“I met Mr Douglas for the first time after their protest. When I met him formally for a second time, I told him I took exception. Why single out Independent, [which is now black-owned]? Also go to Naspers, Times Media Group and Caxton. We had a vigorous engagement; they were quite upset.”

Why then, was his researcher, Leanne Neethling, said to be at the protest? She kept up a steady stream of tweets supporting the counterprotest.

“Ms Neethling tweeted in her personal capacity. She’s never met the movement and never met Mr Douglas in her life. To be fair, she almost had a nervous breakdown. How do you accuse someone?...” Survé says in ­exasperation.

All this year, I’ve seen Survé ­practising Sun Tzu’s Art of War as he perceives himself beleaguered by a tough industry, staff and ­public.

Perhaps he should turn to Rumi instead, who counselled leaders thus: “Be a lamp, or a lifeboat, or a ladder. Help someone’s life heal. Walk out of your house like a ­shepherd.”

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