How to bungle a billion Rands – Independent Media’s journey to the bottom

IT IS high time that the ridiculous assertion be buried that Iqbal Survé helped to liberate black media workers of Independent Media ‘TWICE’, following his acquisition of the group from its previous Irish owners, together with all the other bullshit stories that have wafted through Newspaper House over the past few years.

According to the Cape Times editor, Aneez Salie, who sings this praise song whenever he is given the opportunity to do so, Survé did more than his bit in ushering in democracy in South Africa. But more than that, he also, almost single-handedly, transformed Independent Media into a group promoting the interests of the majority of South Africa’s population.

It’s laughable…

This week, the lid was lifted on Survé’s role as an agent of media transformation – and it is what many people have suspected all along…

It’s bollocks.

That he is a man without a vision – and money – was confirmed via an announcement by the Public Investment Corporation (PIC) that a loan of more than a billion Rands has sunk to the bottom of a deep pit. The Government Employees Pension Fund believes it is unlikely it will get back the money.

To put it bluntly, Independent Media is broke. It has defaulted on the loan that should have been settled at the end of August – and the people who will pay the price will be a few hundred thousand mainly black pensioners.

Let’s be clear about this: it is not ‘white monopoly capital’ that is to blame for this debacle. Neither is it ‘Stratcom’.

It’s the owner, who knows sweet Fanny Jones about the media, who should be first to fall on his sword.

The problem with Survé is that he is probably one of the biggest know-alls in South Africa, and as the saying goes: ‘Know-alls know f*ck-all’.

Let me make an admission at this juncture. I worked for Independent Media until I reached mandatory retirement age a few months ago.

I criticized Survé and his company after I departed – and he was not impressed.

He accused me of lying, and he declared that I was not a very good journalist (as if he would know), and that he had supported me when others wanted to see me fired for, well, not being a very good journalist.

When he took this swipe at me I’d been in journalism for close to 30 years. I was the first black person to win the Argus Group’s Olleman’s trophy for being the company’s top cadet. I worked in the UK as a foreign correspondent. I was sports editor and news editor of the Cape Herald newspaper, and would probably have been editor of one of the papers in the group had I not taken up a position at Reader’s Digest.

I worked in book publishing at Reader’s Digest for more than a decade. One of my finest achievements was that I conceptualized, edited and, to a large extent, wrote a best-selling book, the Illustrated History of South Africa, the Real Story, which sold close to a quarter-million copies in South Africa and tens of thousands of copies in other countries.

These are my skills – and I could get dozens of people to verify them.

Let me take you back to that wonderful media expert, Iqbal Survé…

One of the first things he did on taking over – and this happened before I started working for the company – was to sack the then editor of the Cape Times, Alida Dasnois, for (it was said) opting to commemorate Nelson Mandela’s death by way of a wraparound.

Dasnois’s sacking was followed by a cull of ‘old guard’ employees. Eventually, Aneez Salie was appointed editor of the Cape Times – and in him, Survé could not have hoped to find a more loyal servant. Salie, in turn, could not have hoped to find a bigger admirer than Survé.

It was, well, a match made in their version of media transformation heaven.

Salie became untouchable. Complaints about him were brushed aside.

Survé made no secret of the fact that he thought Salie to be the best editor in the country. Other editors were instructed to emulate him because, well, again, according to Survé, the Cape Times set the political agenda for South Africa.

Salie’s mantra is transformation – and there’s nothing wrong with that. But the type of transformation punted by the Survé-era management team has been, by and large, built on the coverage of murders and rape in coloured and African townships, written quite often by reporters who have had little training, and who have virtually no knowledge of media law.

It’s a tragic story. And it’s a recipe for failure.

I was appalled by the low levels of training offered to mainly black reporters.

Independent Media uses, and continues to use, interns to fill holes left by a shortage of experienced staff. But these youngsters (in my time at the company) were badly paid, with monthly stipends of less than R2500 a month, being the norm. Worse, there were occasions when some interns weren’t paid for months.

One of the ironies of Independent Media under Survé is that former Cape Times editor Dasnois, having been accused of being one of journalism’s ‘old guard’, has moved over to lead an online publication called GroundUp, and is overseeing the type of stories that Independent, if it had any idea of what real transformation should be about, would be publishing.

And so, circulation at Independent continues to fall, advertising continues to drop alarmingly and fluff pieces about Survé have become the norm.

Over the past year or so, some of the group’s top editors and journalists have quit the company. Survé does not seem to realise that Independent cannot afford to lose this type of experience, whether or not the company continues working in the print environment, or whether or not it switches to electronic publishing.

But as those who remain know far too well: Doc knows best…