An open letter to Iqbal Survé - Helen Zille

DA leader says "Independent Newspapers" seems to have abandoned their readers to pursue a political project

Open letter to Iqbal Survé

Dear Dr Survé

I have decided to write to you because I believe your views, as yet to be conveyed, are of importance on recent developments at Independent Newspapers.

Like the Hawks, the NPA, SARS and the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) - South Africa's "independent" media houses are vulnerable to being captured, through the (ab)use of public funds, by elements in the ruling party. This matter is relevant in the case of Independent Newspapers given the stake of the Public Investment Corporation in Sekunjalo's purchase of the Independent Group and its unambiguous public positioning in support of the dominant faction of the governing party.

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.

The South African National Editors Forum (SANEF) probably recognized this when they recently concluded that there was a need to "provide guidance in relation to matters of conflict of interest".

They said: "Editors are the guardians of the highest standards of journalism in their newsrooms and must at all times ensure that journalists do not conduct themselves in a manner that could lead audiences to doubt their political independence".

Because it matters, I wanted to ask your opinion of the following questions in the context of the highest standards of journalism:

- Is it acceptable to issue an apology to the President on the basis of an inaccuracy in a published opinion piece, when senior editors were fully aware that the column in question was indeed factually correct?

- Is it acceptable to attend a political party's birthday celebrations in colours of support, as the most senior editors of a group's titles, and actively promote and advertise this action in the public space?

I am requesting your opinion on these important questions because integrity matters.

I know you have strong opinions on developments within the titles you own because, in the past, you have sent a lawyers' letter to your own newspaper, the Cape Times, for publishing the Public Protector's findings into the awarding of an R800 million tender to Sekunjalo, a consortium of which you are the Executive Chairperson.

It was also deemed fit by the same newspaper to subject one of your former senior journalists, Tony Weaver, to a disciplinary hearing for questioning the ethics of a decision to edit a major advertiser's logo out of a news photograph depicting a mall robbery.

So it is of great interest to me whether you agree in this context that, as SANEF stated recently, "there is a need to make newsrooms aware of potential conflict of interests that may arise from time to time - be they commercial or political"?

Independent Group Opinions Editor Vukani Mde, himself pictured at the ANC birthday celebrations, has already made his position clear on this question by stating he would have "no problem" with his colleagues emulating him by going to a political bash wearing party clothing, and then actively promoting this practice in this public space.

Does this approach constitute the "highest standards" when it comes to managing perceptions of political independence? Or do you concur, contrary to what you assured me when you visited me in my office several months ago, that the "Independent Group" has now forfeited its independence and become a mouthpiece for the Zuma faction of the ANC?

In wearing ANC colours, Brown and Mde demonstrated that they are unapologetically ANC. This is now the prism through which all South Africans must view the decisions taken at Independent Newspapers: the axing of Alide Dasnois, Tony Weaver, John Scott and others; and the apology to President Zuma.

The preamble to the South African Press Code, itself a robust assertion of political independence, states "As journalists, we commit ourselves to the highest standards of excellence, to maintain credibility and keep the trust of our readers. This means ... acting independently."

The preamble specifically focuses on "acting independently", which involves more than writing independently.

The Press code states further in section 3.1 that "Conflicts of interest must be avoided, as well as arrangements or practices that could lead audiences to doubt the press' independence and professionalism".

Surely the practice of dressing in a political party's colours at the after-party of their birthday celebrations and actively promoting this in the public space would lead audiences to doubt the Independent Group's "independence and professionalism"?

If the Independent Group is not willing to uphold the letter of the press code then it must be honest with the public and change the "Independent" part of its name.

I ask these questions because institutions do not suddenly collapse.

The perceptions that their leaders create slowly erode them. Newspapers are not about owners, proprietors, editors and journalists. They are about readers.

"Independent Newspapers" seems to have abandoned their readers to pursue a political project. If this is the case, then the Group must be honest with readers about this and not pretend to be anything different.

People deserve to know this upfront, which is why I seek answers to these questions.

Helen Zille

This article by Helen Zille first appeared in SA Today, the online newsletter of the leader of the Democratic Alliance.

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