Herbst: Media manipulators – Will ‘failed’ election coverage cost Motsoeneng, Williams?

By Ed Herbst*

It is the Gupta-owned TV news channel ANN7 (DStv 405), not the SABC’s SABC News that is showing the most pro-ANC bias in its news reporting ahead of Wednesday’s municipal elections, media analytics firm BrandsEye has found, while coverage of the EFF party on ANN7 “barely exists”. – Thinus Ferreira 2/8/2016

Williams did not answer his phone on Wednesday.

Editors berate Gupta TV news channel ANN7 over sacked journalists Business Day 3/8/2016

The disclosure by Thinus Ferreira, a specialist television industry reporter, that the ANN7 Gupta-owned television news channel headed by Moegsien Williams had given virtually no news coverage to the EFF – the new kingmakers in South African politics – in the lead-in to the municipal election did not surprise me.

I have only watched the ANN7 television news channel once and that was when Public Protector Thuli Madonsela delivered her Nkandla findings, “Secure in Comfort” on 19 March 2014 and I compared the television coverage of the press conference by the SABC, eNCA and ANN7.

Moegsien Williams, the editor-in-chief of the New Age newspaper and ANN7 was part of a panel which discussed the Madonsela report. There were sporadic live crossings to a reporter at Nkandla who, with an increasing air of resignation and weariness, kept responding to the same question with the same answer: The people who lived near Nkandla were not troubled by what had occurred there. Williams condescendingly noted that the matter would not significantly impact on our politics or on the ANC’s hegemony.

Five months later, Parliament resounded to the EFF cries of “Pay back the money!” and our politics have never been the same since that watershed moment.

Williams worked in the SABC’s Sea Point newsroom with me in the early 1980s and it was with pride and pleasure that I interviewed him for SABC television news in August 1995 as the first editor of the Cape Times in its then 120-year history who was not white.

Different insights

In the ensuing 21 years, Williams seems to have come to different insights and I glean this from one of the most fascinating books on post-apartheid South African life and politics I have read, Douglas Foster’s After Mandela – The Struggle for Freedom in Post-Apartheid South African (Liveright, 2012).

While researching the book, Foster work-shadowed Williams, Snuki Zikalala and Jimi Matthews and he devotes two chapters, “The Chroniclers” and “On the Air” to South African media.

At the time, Moegsien Williams was editor of The Star and Foster says of him: Like most of his colleagues, Williams was unashamedly pro-ANC and an ardent Pro-Mbeki partisan. He considered AIDS and Zimbabwe “blind spots” of the president’s in an otherwise admirable record. Jacob Zuma, on the other hand, he thought of as a throwback and an embarrassment.

Unsurprisingly, ever since starting to work for the Guptas, Williams seems to have had a Damascene conversion about Number One and no longer regards him as a “throwback and embarrassment”. In fact, using the old apartheid-era threat of a media tribunal, he called for a more positive approach to the ANC of Jacob Zuma and condemned other newspapers for acting like an “unelected opposition”. It’s called “looking after Number One” – in every sense of the word.

To someone like me who started reporting in the 1960s when John Vorster was Prime Minister, this uncomfortably echoed the call by National Party politicians at the time for a more “patriotic” approach to news reporting with the same threat of draconian counter-measures should that call not be heeded. Stephen Grootes has penned a cogent response to this call by Moegsien Williams.

Significant moments

On the watch of Moegsien Williams there have been other significant moments:

  • In November last year, Cosatu named ANN7 as the worst employer in the country.

  • On the eve of the municipal election, ANN7 adopted the Hlaudi Motsoeneng approach and dismissed five more news staff which, with the eight dismissed in June, brings the recent total to 13. As a great advocate of transparency and accountability, Moegsien Williams did not respond to telephone calls from Business Day reporters seeking clarity. The sin of the dismissed employees was to jeer the middle-aged Oros (see from 1 minute 19 seconds on this YouTube clip) who has benefited significantly from the Gupta largesse and who seems to think that we desperately need to observe at close range the finer details of his mastication technique.

  • Foster on the SABC media manipulators

    Foster concluded his chapter on the SABC in 2005 with these prescient words:

    It wasn’t clear now whether there would be a broadcast service worth saving by the time the all-out, scorched-earth battle between the ANC’s top leaders ?nally ground to its ?nish. The coring out of the SABC’s journalism talent was only the ?rst step in a long march in a sustained ANC assault on the capacity of South African media to participate in building a liberated, and also free, non-racial, non-sexist, egalitarian country.  

    He struggles to hide his manifest contempt for Zikalala.

    “The news chief’s first hire had been Miranda Strydom, a former government spokesman known for her avid affection toward Mbeki.”

    Foster goes on to say that the second person Zikalala hired was Dumisani Nkwamba, who had previously been a member of President Thabo Mbeki’s media team.

    “The SABC’s newest correspondent had advised me not to rely on the South African media accounts in coming to a judgment about Mbeki; he had criticized reporters for their habit, at press briefngs, of asking tough questions. He had told me he thought the leader was ‘too brilliant’ to be subjected to such treatment. Whenever the president was finished talking, Nkwamba had assured me, he ‘felt more than satisfied.’ He was an acolyte, not a chronicler, and he was the news chief’s latest hire.

    Media manipulators

    Zikalala, the second of our media manipulators to be discussed here had his career as an ANC propagandist aptly summed up by two people: The first was Judge Neels Claassen who in his North Gauteng High Court judgment in January 2011 said:

    “Dr Zikalala’s blacklisting of commentators perceived to be critical of the government of the day was clearly designed to silence their voices by not allowing them on air.

    “His purpose was obviously to manipulate SABC’s news and current affairs programmes by excluding these critical voices …. To suggest that his blacklisting might not have had an effect is quite incorrect … the truth could only have been established had both sides of the story been aired.”

    SABC COO Hlaudi Motsoeneng

    The second was Alexander Parker who devotes a chapter to Zikalala in his book, “50 People who stuffed up South Africa” (Burnet Media 2012)

    “But for the colour of his skin, he would have done well under Vorster or Botha.”

    In 2005 when Douglas Foster was researching his book and visiting the Auckland Park headquarters of the SABC, Jimi Matthews was on the way out having been ousted by Zikalala – he returned in 2011.

    Foster’s conversation with Matthews was brief but revealing:

    “The television chief was no card-carrying member of the ANC, but he had been a stalwart supporter of the governing party. His conversation was peppered with references to our party.

    Jimi Matthews excelled as a media manipulator on behalf of the ANC and did what he could not to broadcast stories which favoured the Democratic Alliance. Having for years snouted R2m a year as an embedded ANC imbongi he then followed the example of Gasant Abarder and absconded without having the grace and decency to follow normal resignation protocol.

    Sustained ANC assault

    Foster’s comment about the suborning of the SABC as “only the ?rst step in a long march in a sustained ANC assault on the capacity of South African media to participate in building a liberated, and also free, non-racial, non-sexist, egalitarian country” was echoed in a later letter by Western Cape Premier Helen Zille to Dr Iqbal Survé after the Cape Times published an article which was a combination of blatant lie and plagiarism.

    In her letter, Zille writes:

    Conducted in parallel with the extremely dangerous phenomenon of “state capture”, the process of consolidating our democracy is endangered by “media capture” and the incremental obliteration of critical voices.

    I would argue with her use of the phrase “incremental obliteration”.

    Firstly, at a stroke and with the help of almost a billion rand in civil servant pension money, the ANC has gained effective control of the majority of the English newspapers.

    Purging ethical reporters

    And when it comes to individual voices, ANC-aligned media manipulators have a long and dishonourable record of purging ethical reporters.

    As Max du Preez says in the chapter, ‘The Poor Man’s Stalin’ in his 2010 book ‘Pale Native – Memories of a Renegade Reporter’:

    My good old comrade Snuki Zikalala didn’t stay away from the SABC for long before he was reinstated as head of news under pressure from President Thabo Mbeki’s hatchet man, Essop Pahad. And no, Snuki didn’t pay back the million rand he got in a golden handshake. Where Zikalala saw himself as a political commissar previously, he now viewed the public broadcaster as his private playground.

    He and his sidekick, Cape news chief Jeffrey Twala, terrorised the remaining journalists who believed in balanced and independent journalism and unashamedly served the interests of the ANC, more specifically the Mbeki faction of the ANC .

    The deliberate expulsion of principled news people by ANC acolytes happened at the SABC under Zikalala and Jeffrey Twala, it continued to happen under Hlaudi Motsoeneng and Jimi Matthews and it’s happening at ANN7 under Moegsien Williams. It continues to happen at Independent Newspapers where staff have been told to reapply for their jobs with no guarantee of being re-employed and where more than three dozen long-service journalists, subeditors, editors and columnists have left the company’s employ in less than three years – that’s one a month.

    There was another interesting parallel in what Foster experienced under Mbeki in 2005 and what we are experiencing now under Zuma.

    “A shame”

    Behind his back, critics in the newsroom referred to him as “Comrade Snuki” and accused him of ruling through intimidation. They felt he made SABC a mouthpiece for the ANC government, and accused him of blacklisting commentators who disagreed with the party. Zikalala wasn’t even particularly loved in circles around President Mbeki, I soon discovered. “Appalling” was the response from one of the President’s top aides when I asked him to evaluate SABC news. “I find what’s going on there is a shame.”

    Fast forward a decade and ANC spokesman Jackson Mthembu in his condemnation of President Jacob Zuma’s answer to President Thabo Mbeki’s Snuki Zikalala he says: “You need to ensure that we have people who know how to run an institution as big as the SABC. You can’t bring any Tom, Dick or Harry to run the SABC.”

    In 1992, two years before the ANC gained political control of the country, Cyril Ramaphosa said of the SABC:

    “If the SABC is to play a constructive role ahead of our country’s first experience with democracy, informing the electorate rather than attempting to persuade them to vote for a particular political party, it is necessary to replace those who currently control the SABC with others who are committed to democracy and to an electorate empowered by accurate and impartial information.”

    Was he lying through his teeth or was he just naïve?

    There can be little doubt that the setback the ANC has received in the local government election is, in significant measure, due to a growing public abhorrence of the damage that the Zuma faction of profiteers has done and is doing to the country. How this will impact on two of his media acolytes, Hlaudi Motsoeneng and Moegsien Williams remains to be seen.

    • Ed Herbst is a pensioner and former reporter who writes in his own capacity.

    * For more in-depth business news, visit biznews.com or simply sign up for the daily newsletter.

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