Standing up for Tony Weaver and the Right to Know

2014-11-13 09:09

Corrupt politicians – one expects those. Politics is going to draw people who play for power. As for journalism, reporting in particular, the fundamental task is to offer the truth. If that is compromised, we’re left in the dark about what’s really going on in this country and we’re ultimately disempowered as we live life in a bubble.

It’s a week down the line since Tony Weaver, senior journalist at the Cape Times, was hauled over the coals for ‘gross disrespect and insolence’ after he challenged an editorial decision to crop a front page news pic. With a number of issues at stake, I’m surprised this hasn’t been a more prominent story in the news.

The photograph in question was of a robbery in a mall, in which a guard was killed. The Cape Times, allegedly - as written on the GroundUp article first breaking the news of Tony Weaver’s disciplinary hearing - was attempting to protect the major advertiser whose store-front featured in the pic. The advertiser in question was Pick n Pay.

There are two ways to look at this; on one hand, as long as the meaning is not changed by doing so, cropping a news pic may be acceptable. On the other, manipulating a news photograph may be considered sacrilege, an insult of the worst kind to the photographer who captures the moment, and to the reader who expects nothing but the whole truth.

Truth, credibility, integrity, and independence, are words that are bandied about. Especially in this day of online writing where everyone gets to be a journo, the words seem to hold even more importance when considering the traditional press long regarded as having authority backed by years of training and experience.

Above all, even if writers reflect differing perspectives, or engage from opposite sides of the fence, the over-arching concept of independence should apply. Journalism is supposed to be an arena where healthy debate and analysis thrive.

If a senior - and in this case veteran and well-respected - journalist is threatened with disciplinary action for expressing his opinion, for questioning an evidently problematic decision, where does this leave journalists who find themselves in truly grey areas? If there is fear of speaking out, of questioning those in power, then journalism is heading for bleak days.

To get back to Pick n Pay, the supermarket was obviously, through their advertising, seen as influential. As Barry Sergeant commented on a link, and which provides food for thought, ‘the mainstream/corporate media in South Africa (are) manipulated and effectively controlled by big corporates and banks, in ways that few journalists want to understand. The mainstream/corporate media is its own biggest censor, deflecting attention by accusing government of wanting to censor and control.’

Just to be clear, I’m not suggesting that Pick n Pay had any role in this other than to be the unfortunate supermarket whose brand was in the background of the action in the pic - although they could offer a statement and so far we haven't heard a peep from the cowardly custards. What is more sinister is that craven toadies acted to remove the branding because they imagined that Pick n Pay may take offence.

The point is that news pics can’t simply be cropped or airbrushed (once the manipulation starts, where does it stop?) to suit commercial aims. We’re reminded of the words of the South African Press Code wherein it clearly states: “The press shall not allow commercial, political, personal or other non- professional considerations to influence or slant reporting.”

If reporting, which should be straight up-and-down, is sorely biased, and pics are doctored (in this case through fear of commercial loss), then what’s the point in throwing money at lies and manipulation? One might be tempted to leave the defunct, scaredy-cat newspapers to pile up on the shop shelves.

Which brings us to another interesting development. Iqbal Survé, executive chairman of JSE-listed investment holding company Sekunjalo, resigned unexpectedly last week. I’ve seen only short reports about this, and his reasons for going: ‘It was time to hand over the baton.’

Survé has, for a long time now, been accused of being a government crony. It seemed clear, with the ousting of Cape Times editor Alide Dasnois in November 2013, that he, as executive chairman of Independent News & Media, publishers of the Star, Daily News and Cape Times newspapers, wanted to suit his own (not so hidden) agenda - his political and his financial concerns.

As Anton Harber head-lined the piece he wrote for Business Day, published last Thursday, ‘The space for critical press is shrinking by the day’. We should care that, as expressed in a comment on his piece, 'SA press freedom is like a frog slowly being boiled to death in a pot of hot water…' which is largely due to Survé and his government chums turning up the heat of blatant and unwarranted interference.

I’m curious to know where Survé’s focus will now be directed. Increasingly, as Chairman of Siemens Africa, on Siemens' nuclear build with the Russians? (And where is this in the news?) Or will he exert even more pressure on Independent Newspapers and their shrinking credibility? Either way, to what extent does he remain a government lapdog?

Tony Weaver asked for clarity on the Cape Times policy on the use of photographs. This is a question asked, the way I see it, on behalf of us all, which leads to other questions of public interest: Who ultimately runs the papers, the press? To what extent is news manipulated to appease advertisers?

It hasn’t been long since the Secrecy Bill was challenged. Press freedom and the right to know still hang in the balance.

On twitter @JoanneHichens

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