The curious case of Iqbal Survé

2013-12-24 10:00

What a relief it must be for what one editor described as a “coterie of Rosebank-based white male editors” to have, at long last, some substance to their unrelenting criticism of Iqbal Survé, the chairman of Sekunjalo Group.

Within months of Survé announcing that the consortium his company led was to acquire Independent News & Media SA, the knives were out, citing a “deep concern” for journalism at the company’s daily and weekly newspapers.

To independent observers such as myself, the sudden and voluble outpouring of concern from the media fraternity about editorial independence and the level of investment in editorial resources at Independent News & Media SA after a long, undignified silence during the period when the group was owned by the Irish was curious.

Even more curious was that there existed, until now, no evidence that Survé’s intentions were anything but noble.

A self-described “African optimist”, Survé seemed a breath of fresh air vis-à-vis Independent News & Media SA’s previous owners, who’d in effect been plundering the group and reinvesting sweet nothing in its newsrooms.

When the news broke of the acquisition, Survé said: “I think we must invest in journalism. And we must invest in the media, and we must invest in having more news and growing our timbre in that sense.”

He also spoke fondly of news media as a social good and the importance of editorial independence.

These stated commitments make it doubly ironic that the death of Nelson Mandela, a staunch advocate of the plurality of opinion and freedom of expression, informed some of the thinking that drove Survé to confirming his rivals and others’ worst fears about him.

On the day after Tata died, Survé appeared to abuse his power as owner to impinge on editorial independence when he removed Alide Dasnois, with immediate effect, as editor of the Cape Times.

Survé initially said the plans to replace her were part of a restructuring of Independent News & Media SA, which had been in the works for some time. The plans, he said, were being rolled out when news of Madiba’s death broke. But out of respect for Tata, he put off proceedings until the new year.

He said that when he and the management team at Independent News & Media SA realised that the Cape Times had run a wraparound tribute to Madiba instead of dedicating the whole issue to him, including the front page, on that Friday, like the group’s other titles had done, he reinitiated and “accelerated” his plans to replace Dasnois – again, if you can believe it, out of respect for Madiba.

In the hope that saying it enough times would make it true, he repeated that in no way was Dasnois’ removal related to the stories the Cape Times has been running on allegations that the department of agriculture, forestry and fisheries had improperly awarded a tender to a Sekunjalo subsidiary.

But a lawyer’s letter sent by Sekunjalo to the paper, expressing dissatisfaction with its “extensive reporting over the past two years” on the tender and demanding a front-page apology, suggests otherwise.

Even if Independent News & Media SA had long ago planned to replace Dasnois, the letter shows that its owner, Sekunjalo, and presumably its chairman, had been dissatisfied for even longer with how she’d led the paper’s reporting on the group’s business interests.

Coincidentally, or not, the paper’s front-page story on the Friday Survé accelerated his plans was about the Public Protector’s report on this fisheries tender.

Lost on Survé throughout all of this is that the independence of an institution of public trust, like a newspaper, is a matter of fact and perception.

By removing Dasnois, and given his long-standing dissatisfaction with how the Cape Times reported on his interests, including on the day he removed its editor, Survé has at best created the chilling perception that when editors and journalists at his papers report on his business interests, they do so at the risk of their careers.

At worst, he has shown this perception to be true.

Yet no one should be under the illusion that editorial at other commercial media houses is beyond undue influence from owners, who hold the power to appoint and remove editors.

Survé’s only crime perhaps is that he has not yet learnt, unlike his peers, a trick of the powerful: speak softly and carry a big, fat stick.

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