Over the past week Gavin O'Reilly stepped down as chief executive of Independent News & Media (INM) bringing to an end, as one newspaper noted, "four decades of control of the Irish and South African newspaper company by the O'Reilly family." Simon Kelner, the former editor of the Independent (London) - once the flagship paper of the INM group - commented on Twitter: "It always ends and it always ends badly. The sad demise of the O'Reilly newspaper dynasty. A family of huge integrity who believed in papers."
It is likely that many South African journalists would have a somewhat different view of this matter. In 1994 Tony O'Reilly's INM was handpicked by ANC President Nelson Mandela to purchase the Argus Group newspapers. As his biographer Ivan Fallon wrote in a 2009 article:
"In 1994, as South Africa moved towards its historic election, [Tony O'Reilly] pulled off the best deal in Independent's history with the acquisition of Argus Newspapers, the biggest newspaper company in the country. Again it was a close-run thing, with [Conrad] Black and Rupert Murdoch among a number of interested parties. The balance was tipped however by his friendship with Nelson Mandela, whose blessing was required by the owners, JCI."
There are two basic charges that can be laid against the O'Reilly dynasty's subsequent management of their South African assets. The first, as noted before on this website, is that the new INM management sought to reposition the formerly independent minded Argus newspapers as pro-ANC-government ones.
In September 2000, in one of the most shameful episodes in South African newspaper history, the Independent Newspaper management gave free space in their publications to government to defend and obfuscate President Thabo Mbeki's 'denialist' views on AIDS.
In an interview with Time Magazine earlier that month Mbeki had been asked whether he was prepared to "acknowledge that there is a link between HIV and AIDS?" He replied: "This is precisely where the problem starts. No, I am saying that you cannot attribute immune deficiency solely and exclusively to a virus."