Terry Bell slams Iqbal Survé's dirty tricks 'exposé'

Iqbal Surve (Picture: City Press)
Iqbal Surve (Picture: City Press)

THE proclaimed exposéabout a “dirty tricks campaign” against Independent News Media (INM) is an example of sloppy propaganda that is both grossly defamatory of several individuals and brings discredit to investigative journalism.

It focuses on the number of allegedly “negative” reports about INM and its putative owner, Dr Iqbal Survé.  But the number of such reports, who authored them and whether they are negative or not is largely irrelevant if the information contained in the reports is true.

Journalism, by its nature, investigative, sets out to establish the facts of any matter by exploring every aspect to try and expose the truth. This is a cardinal rule. There is also a secondary rule that protects individuals from vindictive exposure: is what is written in the public interest?

Against this standard, the Independent Online Business News “exposé” is a shocking travesty.  It focuses on the number of times there have been “negative” reports about the purchase of INM and about Survé.

But the purchase of the largest English language newspaper group in South Africa was controversial and Survé has promoted himself in its columns as no other media owner has. He placed himself in the limelight and now apparently objects when the principles of investigative journalism are applied to him.

Perhaps the “Journalism Intern Investigative Unit, Independent Media” lacked the experience or were instructed only to collect peripheral data. Whatever the case, they merely catalogued the number of times Survé had been mentioned in news reports as against the number of reports about other media moguls. But the others are not much in the public eye, not using their media outlets in what has been described as an “ego maniacal fashion”.  

'Journalists of a particular generation'

Be that as it may. I have been included as one of the “journalists of a particular generation”, presumably because of my age and complexion. But all of the journalists mentioned have different histories, a factor real investigative journalism would have looked into before making any sweeping - and fundamentally racist - assessments.  

According to this unit, “Dr Survé was negatively written about 266 times out of the total, using mostly conjecture and speculation”. In what I wrote I did not use speculation or conjecture. I merely wanted Dr Survé to explain how, where and when he was Nelson Mandela’s doctor since there is no evidence to support this. I also asked about his claim to be a “Fellow of the Prince of Wales’s Business and Sustainability Programme” and to have been the “mind coach” to the victorious 1996 Bafana-Bafana Afcon team.

As an investigative journalist I sent these questions to him. He claimed that the issue about Mandela would be dealt with in a forthcoming autobiography, but he noted that he was in fact, “an inaugural Fellow” of the institute based at Cambridge University. He had also “been honoured by being invited by HRH The Prince of Wales (Prince Charles) many times to Highgrove as a Fellow of the programme”.

It was a simple matter to contact both the local and Cambridge offices of the Institute for Sustainability Leadership, who insisted that Survé was not a Fellow of the institute. In fact, the CISL had sent him a written request to stop claiming this honour. The institute also confirmed that Survé was an alumnus, a former student who, like some 500 of his fellows in South Africa, is invited annually to tea with Prince Charles “if they can afford to go”. 

There are other apparent fabrications, but I raised them not as a part of any conspiracy. I worked for more than two years on investigating Survé’s background. I did so because I was concerned about the sort of man who was using - and perhaps abusing - his control over a large section of the media.  

I was a supporter of the Sekunjalo takeover, although I also wanted real transformation with the employees having a shareholding, something I mentioned to Survé two weeks before the deal went through. I also noted that it would be essential for him to provide an editorial charter and to disclose the full beneficial ownership structure of the new INM. He agreed and said both would be forthcoming “within two weeks”. I am still waiting.

Better than an apology

At the time I was still writing a weekly Inside Labour column for INM’s Business Report, as I had done for 17 years. But then Alide Dasnois, Cape Times editor and my former editor at Business Report, was controversially sacked. I attended a protest outside Newspaper House organised by Right2Know where a counter demonstration emerged, comprising a group of elderly women holding expensive, full-colour posters.  

While other journalists interviewed the protest organiser, Wesley Douglas, I interviewed the women. They were pensioners from Belhar who had been promised a lunch in town in exchange for holding up some placards, a classic “rent a crowd”. In the midst of it was one of Survé’s personal assistants.

So, in the public interest, I wrote a factual report about this on my blog. And I was sacked, having already been commissioned to complete another year of columns for Business Report.  

I did not sue anybody. I took the matter to the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration where I offered to end my complaint if I was given a public apology for the way I had been treated by INM. This was not forthcoming and the matter was not, as the INM report claims, dismissed. The finding was: “Mr Bell claimed that he was treated shabbily. I agree. It is ironic that a prominent advocate for workers’ rights should find himself without the protection of the laws set up to protect workers.” To my mind, this was better than an apology.

However, because I was held to be a contractor rather than an employee, compensation would have to be decided through the labour court. Aware that INM and its expensive legal team had dragged the matter - initially scheduled for half a day - into three weeks and had spent many thousands of rands on legal fees to oppose me, I had neither the time nor the inclination to pursue the matter any further. 

Later in the year I was witness, with many other journalists, to the abusive emotional outburst by Survé at the SA National Editors' Forum dinner at which Dasnois was awarded the Nat Nakasa award for courageous journalism. This behaviour underlined existing concerns about a man who had publicly made extravagant claims about his background.  

In the public interest

Clearly, given his position, especially within the media, it was in the public interest that these claims be checked. I had started a fact checking exercise and continued it on a part-time basis between regular journalism and completing my latest book.

The culmination was the “fact check” published on July 28 by Fin24. Here I merely asked for clarification of some of the evidence I had uncovered. But my facts - apart from an initial dispute about a recorded telephone conversation I had nearly two years ago with Rivonia trialist Ahmed Kathrada - were not challenged and there was no explanation as to why no evidence apparently exists for several of Survé’s claims to fame and accolades. Instead, the response has been fairly crude attempts at “spin” and the concoction of a conspiracy theory.

I suppose I must confess that I am proud to be a member of a particular generation. We are the generation that suffered 90-day detention and exile, who went on, together with our fellows such as Thabo and Moeletsi Mbeki, Pallo Jordan, Paul Trewhela and Thami Mhlambiso, to establish the ANC Youth in London.

Although we have gone our separate ways, we are a generation of various shades of complexion that, for the most part, remains dedicated to the transformation of our social and economic system. For this, I make no excuse.

* Terry Bell is a political, economic and labour analyst. Views expressed are his own. Follow him on twitter @telbelsa.

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