NEWS & ANALYSIS

The truth about the Cape Times and the DA

Chris Whitfield responds to Marius Fransman's suggestion that, in the past, editors of that paper were at the "beck and call" of Helen Zille

Marius Fransman's cynicism ("Why Helen Zille is targeting the Cape Times" - Politicsweb, April 4) demands a response.

In it he seeks to perpetuate the recent inference that previous editors of the newspaper were generally racist and in thrall to the Democratic Alliance. Fransman says the editors were at the "beck and call" of Premier Zille. 

This, of course, implies subservience to a politician and a breach of journalistic independence.

As a former editor of the newspaper (from 2001 to 2006) and then editor-in-chief of Independent Newspapers Cape (from 2009 to 2013), my experiences suggest the opposite.

Much of the current propaganda effort is aimed at discrediting Alide Dasnois, axed as editor in December 2013. The depth of its cynicism is evident in the fact that Dasnois was ideologically about a thousand miles apart from Zille and the DA: broadly speaking, her political positioning would have been to the left of the DA and most of the ANC. She did, however, have much in common with the labour movement within the ANC and its leftist allies. 

She reported to me during her editorship and there were occasions where I felt that an animus towards the DA's policies was showing in news choices and pointed this out to her. 

I know that Zille regarded Dasnois as anything but a friend of the party. On one occasion the Premier phoned me to complain about the tone of the newspaper which, she suggested, read like a 1980s student newspaper. She was critical of Dasnois's editorship and the general editing of the newspaper.

During the same time she also interacted directly with Dasnois on several occasions and was often critical of the Cape Times. 

Whatever Zille and others might have thought about Dasnois's editorship, I believe she genuinely cared more for the plight of the poor than just about any other editor I have ever worked with. She was instinctively wary of power and generally anti-establishment.

During my own editorship of the Cape Times we launched an investigation into DA Mayor Gerald Morkel's relationship with Jurgen Harksen, the German "entrepreneur" with a shady reputation. That award-winning investigation led to Morkel being deposed and considerable negative publicity about the DA regime of the time.

Then DA leader Tony Leon did not like it at all and told me that he would tell the audience at every public meeting he addressed that it should not buy the Cape Times. If he did so it had no impact on the newspaper's growth at the time.

On one occasion during those years Leon was invited to address the Independent Newspapers editors' conference and arrived with a dossier of stories that had not been covered by the Cape Times and which he held up as proof that it was biased against the party.

Several of his party colleagues were also outspokenly critical of the Cape Times and it was generally dismissed by them as being an ANC-aligned newspaper.

Of course, there were many within ANC ranks who criticised us for being pro-DA, but we were encouraged by the fact that both parties felt we were hostile and hoped it indicated some balance. The DA's cries of bias against the Cape Times were probably louder than those of the ANC but, to be fair, the latter's media strategy in the province was generally so feeble as to be non-existent.

The editor who succeeded me and preceded Dasnois was Tyrone August, a person with a proud record in the labour movement prior to 1994 and one who only the most mischievous of propagandists would describe as being politically-aligned when he was an editor.

Zille and I had many discussions over the years in which she aired her frustrations about the newspapers under my control and complained about reporters or reporting. Although they sometimes got heated, I generally enjoyed these exchanges - of all the politicians I interacted with she understood the inner workings of a newspaper best. I did think the strident tone of her interactions with journalists was sometimes self-defeating, but on occasion had to acknowledge that she was right. 

Fransman, by sharp contrast, was implicated in the Cape Argus's "brown envelope" scandal, in which ANC office bearers allegedly handed over cash to journalists for favourable coverage. The role played by politicians in this scandal has never been satisfactorily investigated, either by their own party or the police.

Perhaps the most telling thing about this whole saga is that it is Fransman who now steps forward to defend the Cape Times.