SACP leader attacks City Press

Open letter from Blade Nzimande to Media24, January 31 2008

Dear Messrs Hein Brand, Managing Director, and Francois Groepe, Chief Executive, Publishing,

I have for the past three or four years debated whether to write this open letter to you, regarding one of your prime publications and title, ‘The City Press'. You may of course ask why are we not taking the City Press to the Press Ombuds, but this matter is so serious that it goes beyond what is in any case, at least in my experience, a relatively toothless institution.

Again you may argue that as owners and management you would not like to be drawn into matters belonging to the editorial team of the paper, since, as we are often told, all media operate on the basis of editorial ‘independence'.

The main reason I write to you is that, rightly or wrongly, I believe that the matters I want to raise here have a huge bearing on the credibility of not only the City Press, but our media as a whole, threatening to erode the many gains made in media freedom and towards strengthening our democracy. In any case, from my experience, the distance between owners and editors are not as distant as is sometimes claimed.

The main point I wish to make in this letter to you is that the editorial team of the City Press has deliberately pursued editorial stances and general news coverage on many serious matters relating to the ANC and its allies in a provocatively factionalist, divisive, and highly subjective manner. As far as I am concerned The City Press has ceased to be a newspaper, but has become a lobby group inside our structures!

In other words the City Press has, at least over the last four to five years, and increasingly and especially so in the run up to the ANC's Polokwane Conference, displayed a very clear preference on the outcomes of the major Congresses and events of our movement, including who is elected onto leadership structures.

To put it bluntly, the City Press had positioned itself, in relation to the ANC Polokwane conference, in support of the re-election of President Thabo Mbeki, and adopted an extremely hostile attitude towards Cde Jacob Zuma, including occasional vitriolic attacks on those Alliance leaders the paper had identified as supporting the latter.

I need to state it categorically that I would have had the same problem had the City Press so passionately and factionally positioned itself in support of Cde Jacob Zuma or any other leader for that matter, because this is no business of media, but internal organisational processes.

By so doing, I would argue, the City Press has blatantly violated and thrown out of the window every rule of fair and impartial journalism. It is for these reasons that we have to write an open letter to you, because the City Press editorial team, from our experiences, is totally incapable of ever realizing that they it is committing serious blunders.

I have no problem for your paper to take this stance, but my discomfort is that your editorial team cannot have their cake and eat it. Either, the City Press is an independent, impartial and the ‘Distinctly African' paper it claims to be or else it must come out, openly and unashamedly, that it is a factional player inside our organisations, so that we could relate to it as such.

It has over these years become very clear that the City Press editorial leadership team is so embedded in factionalist battles inside our structures, such that this team is now incapable of rising above these; hence this extraordinary letter we are writing directly to you.

Of particular concern to us is whether this is what the owners and management of Media 24 had in mind about this once historically respectable newspaper? Did Naspers owners at any stage decided that this title must align itself to particular positions and leadership preferences inside our movement?

I have no problem with any media house taking any editorial positions on these matters. Where it becomes questionable is when there is a concerted effort to distort and even print unverified information with the sole intention of sowing divisions and pursuing a factionalist agenda.

The lead story in your last Sunday's edition, ‘Cracks in Zuma's NEC', is a case in point. Apart from a deliberate distortion of ANC procedures and decisions in this article, the City Press decided to privilege four anonymous and faceless sources over on-the-record responses of 3 senior leaders of the ANC who, denied that there was ever an incident where the ANC President supposedly burst into anger over alleged gossips or ‘plots' against him. Is this professional and ethical journalism?

To me this story is an attempt to sow divisions and create internal suspicions amongst the elected leadership of the ANC, based on the spurious notion that this leadership was elected on the ticket of being against one individual as opposed to being pro ANC.

Pardon me for this seemingly conspiratorial interpretation, however there is no other way to read and understand this article as it is classic reflection and continuation of what the City Press has been doing in our organizations; blatantly taking sides to promote divisions and rumour mongering, ostensibly because of the City Press' editorial leadership's own positioning and disappointment about the Polokwane outcomes. Surely, no serious media house can abrogate to itself such a role in any organisation!

But a question that I have to ask of Media 24 management is, now that a different group of ANC and Alliance leaders have been elected, how is the City Press going to relate to this new reality? I know for a fact that the new ANC and alliance leadership does not want sycophantic editors as has been the case with the City Press thus far; instead it wants impartial, fair media editors, with a professional relationship based on mutual respect.

The owners and management of Media 24 have to also honestly and frankly answer these other questions: Is the current editorial leadership of the City Press capable of establishing a new, non-partisan and professional relationship with the current movement leadership given its history of party political and factionalist manoeuvring inside our structures? Is the current editorial leadership of the City Press capable of going beyond its current sycophancy and correcting whatever ‘mistakes' it has made? Frankly I have my most serious doubts on this score.

I must admit that I have sat in many leadership and grassroots meetings of our Alliance structures, where serious challenges were raised on whether we should not boycott the City Press in protest. This is not a threat but a confession, precisely because we have had enough of these factionalist editorial practices and pseudo journalism.

However, I have no doubt that the current leadership of the ANC and its allied formations, as combatants for media freedom, are prepared to meet with you to further substantiate what is in this letter and perhaps help to save this once proud and great title, ‘The City Press', from devouring itself! We fear no critical engagement and debate, nor being criticized, but this must be done within the rules of professional and not factionalising journalism.

We look forward to possible future interactions for the sake of a free and impartial journalism in our country, in the broader interests of consolidating our hard worn democracy.

This is the text of an open letter from Blade Nzimande, General Secretary of the SACP and Member of the ANC National Executive Committee, to the Managing Director and management of Media 24 regarding the City Press, January 31 2008