The not so sad decline of the Independent

Jeremy Gordin wipes away the tears and writes on the travails of his alma mater

S.O.B. ... All are entitled to a sub-committee, even Sunday Independent columnists

 My older brother, who was a hot-shot journalist before the rinderpest, when men were men and divorces were covered in the newspapers - this was during the heyday of the Sunday Times, on Joel Mervis' watch - my big boet used to say to me: "Only nutters write letters to newspapers. Don't do it."

I will refer to my brother's words of wisdom as Rule One.

Then, when I myself was already a so-called veteran journalist, a learned friend of mine (also my boss), used to say: "Don't write about journalists or journalism. That's in-house stuff. Readers aren't interested it. This is a newspaper, china. Write news for Chrissakes!"

I will refer to my friend's wise expostulation as Rule Two.

I have always done my best to abide by both rulings, and have assumed, by the way, that Rule One applies, mutatis mutandis, to websites, blogs, etc, as well.

But the last few days have been a rude awakening for me when it comes to writing to publications and/or about journalism in general.

Consider well, dear friends, the heat and fire generated by columnist Gill Moodie's July 20 Moneyweb piece (see here).on the allegedly imminent demise of the local Independent newspaper group. Surely the reaction to it was a clear refutation of Rule One?

Or was it? One swallow doesn't make a summer - I hear you cry - and 23 reactions do not, after all, signal massive interest. But I bet you a cappuccino and three California rolls that Moodie's piece received an enormous amount of "hits", as they say in the world of the Internet.

And it was such an interesting and provocative piece that it immediately propelled me into breaking Rule One, and I became one of the 23 commentators.

So do I/we learn from this that Rule Two is also defunct? Are more people interested in newspaper stuff and journalists than one realised?

Of course a lot of disgruntled people have been waiting a long time to get off their collective chest a number of things about the Independent group and its management, and this might have been the cause for the depth and width of the reaction to Moodie's piece.

I mean, I discovered, to my amazement, that the chaps for whom I used to work (at Independent Seffrica) do not appear to be universally loved. Why this should be so, I cannot understand - because a nicer bunch of fellows you never came across.

At any rate, in unwitting tandem with Moodie's piece was another, on the same subject, by Anton "the harbinger" Harber. His business, of course, is to break Rule Two all the time; he is, after all, the professor of journalism at Wits University.

But, even though he is a professor, I do feel that some of his assertions should be challenged.

For example, by way of alleging that Sir Anthony O'Reilly, the head honcho of the worldwide Independent group, had been a trifle niggardly with the old purse, Harber wrote: "The headquarters in Sauer Street, Central [sic] Johannesburg, are so run-down they look like something from an Afghan village recently visited by an American bomber. O'Reilly has made no recent investment in infrastructure."

I must expostulate that this is simply inaccurate and inflammatory rhetoric at the expense of the brave Afghan people.

Admittedly there are two sites inside the Sauer Street headquarters that were and are, so to speak, "suspect".

The one is my former office at The Sunday Independent - now the headquarters, I believe, of master photographer TJ "Corazon de Melon" Lemon - which looked in my day as though it had been carpet-bombed by B-52s.

The second, at the back of the now-defunct Independent News Network (INN) - the cave, I believe, of International Relations Editor Peter "Fab" Fabricius and also the unofficial archive of the group - does look as though it has been hit by an Improvised Explosive Device (IED).

But, leaving those two aside, let me say that I have seen countless pictures of Afghan villages recently visited by American bombers - and it is deeply insulting to these places, and the people who live in them, to claim they are more run-down than the Indy's Sauer Street HQ.

Just who does this Harber think he is?

But this is not all he had to say. He lambasted especially The Sunday Independent, my alma mater, writing that the newspaper "is down to a staff of about two people. O'Reilly has wreaked havoc and destruction on South African journalism."

But surely a lack of quantity does not mean a lack of quality?

Let me say just this to Harber:

Every morning I rise at 4am every morning, rain or shine, summer and winter. I rise early, not because I became habituated to it while doing time on Robben Island. The only lengthy prison stint I've ever done - seven days reduced to four for good behaviour - was in the Voortrekkerhoogte DB (detention barracks).

And I wasn't sentenced for political activities but because I was entrapped by a regimental sergeant-major in the home of a SADF female employee at a time of day when I was supposed to be in the barracks. The (former?) RSM probably works or the national prosecuting authority now.

The reasons I get up early are, firstly, genetic. My forefathers and mothers were dairy farmers. Well, anyway, they had one cow which (pace JM Coetzee, I meant "who") needed to be milked.

In addition, my forefathers were observant folk and wanted to say their morning prayers (the men folk did) before or at dawn. If I am not mistaken, that's the set of prayers which includes the "Thank G-d I'm not a woman" one. Interestingly, there is nothing about thanking the divinity that one is not a cow, columnist, politician, minister of home affairs, or resident of Thokoza.

 Second, I read somewhere recently that the English writer Graham Swift, whose work I admire, rises early, makes a pot of coffee, "and gets on with it" (writing).

I aspire to that sort of conduct. Nulla dies sine linea; the aspiring author, as Andre Maurois said, should not let a day pass without writing at least a few lines.

I, however, am a chronophage and inevitably waste my own time not writing but doing the family laundry, studying Freud's case studies, or ... well, here is the thing ... trying to locate the actual meaning of the work of The Sunday Independent's  editorial page columnists, Moshoeshoe "two shoes" Monare and Maureen "books" Isaacson. (And it's okay that their work appears only once a week because unraveling the meanings lasts me at least six days.)

Do you follow my drift? Think for a moment of all those people in the UK who would not be able to make it through their days without the Times' crossword puzzle. To such people, the crossword is as much part of the fabric of their mornings as brushing their teeth, drinking tea or coffee, going to the loo, putting on their socks or tights, or throwing up.

Ah, you don't know that anecdote told by the late Norman Mailer, do you?

I think it's from his novel, Tough Guys Don't Dance (which title was a bit of a generalisation - consider JG Zuma).

This guy goes to the doctor because he's not been feeling well from the moment he wakes. The doctor asks him to describe what he does when he gets up. "Well," he says, "I wash my face, brush my teeth, shave, and then puke ..."

"You throw up every single morning?" asks the doctor incredulously.

"Certainly," says the man. "Doesn't everyone?"

Anyway, to return to what I was saying. If more journalists were to be added to The Sunday Independent, which might mean that the columns might possibly become comprehensible, what would be left for me? What would I have by way of measuring out my days and ways, as TS Eliot might have asked?

Harber should think before he writes. Indeed we should all think harder before we write or speak.

Consider for example the case of one Torquil Paterson, SC, an Eastern Cape candidate judge, who told the esteemed members of the Judicial Services Commission (JSC) that he had left the church "for a variety of reasons, chief among them being that I realised God does not exist. I am an atheist."

Paterson, whose lengthy theological studies included a stint at Oxford University, explained he had eventually come to the conclusion that "all language of God is meaningless".

This apparently perplexed the justice minister Jeff Radebe who apparently believes that it is a sine qua non that God does exist and that the work of Baruch Spinoza, Bertie Russell, etc, etc, ad infinitum, has all been misdirected.

The minister (the justice one, not the ex-) also seems to assume, judging by his response to Paterson, that the Bible was handed down by the divinity (at Sinai? Lusaka? Kliptown?) and that man - sorry people - had nothing to do with its composition.

Then Radebe apparently expounded on Hegel (the German philosopher, not the Arsenal striker) and the learned and sweet advocate Dumisa Ntsebeza, one of President Jacob Zuma's new appointees to the JSC, declared he was both an atheist and a Marxist.

It was one of the JSC's finest hours, it seems to me. And Harber should take a leaf out of the JSC's book.

I have just heard that, regarding the clearly open-and-shut matter of Judge John Hlophe, the JSC has decided to appoint a sub-committee of three fellows, two of whom have patently been on his side in the past, while the third is one of Zuma's new appointees. What genius!

That's what Harber should have done before rushing in to try to spoil my fun. He should have appointed a sub-committee to write his column.

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