Naspers 'extremely serious' about MultiChoice issue - CEO

Johannesburg - Naspers CEO Bob van Dijk says the internet and media group is taking the revelations about MultiChoice's payments to the then Gupta-owned ANN7 "extremely seriously".

MultiChoice is owned by Naspers.

Van Dijk, who spoke to Fin24 from Amsterdam, maintains that the recently-announced probe into the matter by MultiChoice's audit and risk committees will be carried out with "diligence" and "independence".

This follows News24's #GuptaLeaks report in November, in which it was detailed how MultiChoice agreed to pay the Guptas' Infinity Media Networks a "once off" payment of R25m in 2015. MultiChoice also agreed to increase its annual payment for Infinity's ANN7 news channel from R50m to just over R140m.

Criticism has been heaped on the company for funding a channel with dwindling viewership which essentially became a propaganda machine for the Gupta and Zuma families.

Before MultiChoice signed the agreement, then communications minister Faith Muthambi had forwarded detailed suggestions about government decisions affecting the broadcasting sector to the Guptas and Duduzane Zuma, the president’s son. The documents were penned by Clarissa Mack, MultiChoice's then head of regulatory and policy affairs.

Van Dijk says critics who've accused Naspers of folding its arms following the revelations are wrong.

"The impression has been given in the press that Naspers does not take the issue seriously or punts this to MultiChoice, and that's actually a complete distortion of what we said about it and also a distortion of the way we think about it. We take this extremely seriously, at the Naspers level as well," says Van Dijk, who is also a MultiChoice board member.

Why has MultiChoice opted for an internal investigation by its own board members? Would it not be better for an outside, third-party entity to probe these matters?

Bob van Dijk:
There is an independent MultiChoice board and independent shareholders. The [MultiChoice] board has the responsibility to look into this properly and we as the Naspers board take this seriously. We will closely verify whether we are comfortable with what has been done [with the probe]. We are putting the responsibility where it belongs.

There are concerns that the MultiChoice board members involved in the probe won’t be independent enough. What is your take on that?

What I recommend doing is have a look at the people involved in the risk and audit committee, and the MultiChoice board members that are involved. They are people with an exceptional track record and credibility.  And we think they will do this with extreme diligence and with independence. 

In the end Naspers will actually review what has been done there [in the probe], and we have to get comfortable that what has been done is appropriate. We'll take that responsibility very seriously.

What is the mandate and scope of this investigation? For instance, will the audit and risk committees look at the R25m "once off" payment that MultiChoice made to the Guptas' company?

I can't say anything beyond what Don Eriksson [chairperson of the MultiChoice audit and risk committees] has said. I am not on the audit and risk committee. To investigate the payments to the channel [ANN7], I suspect that will be a key part of the investigation.

You've stated that both Naspers and MultiChoice view these issues in a very serious light. However, Naspers chairperson Koos Bekker has publicly referred to some of these matters as "crap". Do Bekker's statements not detract from your commitment to handle these matters seriously?

First of all, I can't speak on behalf of Koos. Koos speaks on behalf of himself and the board. What I can tell you is that the Naspers board takes this very seriously. If you read the different articles in the press there's definitely been things written that are not related to the facts, and if Koos refers to that… Look, I have read things in the press that are factually completely wrong. That is probably what he is referring to, but you should ask him.

The other issue that has surfaced is MultiChoice's meetings with the SABC. Are you comfortable with the way in which those negotiations played out? Imtiaz Patel [MultiChoice's then CEO] told the SABC that MultiChoice doesn't normally pay for news channels. We now know that this is not the case. Are you comfortable with the ethical conduct that Patel displayed during those negotiations? 

I've read the transcripts [from the meeting with the SABC]. I think when you are in a commercial discussion, people try to pay as little as possible. And I think that is where Imtiaz comes from. I don't know what to read into this beyond that. I think you can imply a lot, but I don’t think that transcript proves anything.

But isn't there a level of good faith when two parties negotiate like that? When you tell your negotiating partner something that is not true, can that be considered to be ethical?

I can't comment on what was said at the meeting, I was not there. I read the transcript and that is all that I know about it. I think one thing that is important to emphasise is that we were pretty clear on the position that the group had around the encryption issue. 

At some stage we even took out a full-page [newspaper] advertisement and we put out an open letter in which we put out our views. So this suggestion that anything was sort of behind the scenes... we were very clear on the views that MultiChoice had on the encryption matter.

You've been quoted as saying that Naspers employees should always do the right thing, even when nobody is looking. Do you believe that MultiChoice executives such as Imtiaz Patel and Clarissa Mack did the right thing when nobody was watching?

That is at the core of the investigation that MultiChoice has started. We have read the allegations. We as MultiChoice have to determine whether any of these allegations are true. If these allegations would [turn out to] be true, then it would definitely be a violation of our governance.

So that is the core of the matter, we have to review whether that is the case or not. But I think where we are today it is insinuations based on emails and we need to verify whether there is truth in it. 

You've seen the report detailing how Mack's policy suggestions were channelled by Faith Muthambi to the Guptas. The catchphrase in South Africa with regards to undue influence over government matters is 'state capture'. Are you concerned that MultiChoice's conduct in all of this could constitute state capture, policy capture or undue influence over government affairs? 

Let me be very clear on this: lobbying, which is making policy suggestions to officials, is something that any big company does all the time. We do it too. There is nothing bad or secret behind that. Clarissa, as far as I know at this point in time, was just doing her job. She made x suggestions, and some of them were taken on board, others were not.

So there is nothing wrong with that. And again, any big company would do that when policy is being made. I think the question that is being raised is around hey, was there an association between payments made and policy outcomes? Now that is something entirely different. If that is the case, and that is what the review needs to reveal, then that is obviously something that is not appropriate at all.

So if there [was] a legitimate effort to give input on policy, fine. [But] if [there were] payments to influence policy, that is an entirely different matter.

* News24 and Fin24 are published by Media24. Both Media24 and MultiChoice are Naspers companies.

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