In February 1982, the Steyn Commission of Inquiry into press freedom warned of the danger of corporate control of newspapers damaging diversity and fettering the information industry. Judge Steyn predicted that amalgamation within the media industry would herald the arrival of a Leviathan situation.
Steyn’s fears of amalgamation have, of course, long since been realised with the Argus press monopoly back in the late 1980s and the subsequent O’Reilly takeover in the mid-1990s. Yet despite those developments, critical and diverse reporting and opinion generally prevailed until O’Reilly sold out and an active ally of the ANC, Dr Iqbal Surve of Sekunjalo, acquired control of the bulk of the English-language press.
Sekunjalo’s press monopoly is different from those which preceded it because they were privately funded. R800 million of the R2 billion Sekunjalo paid to buy what was called Independent Newspapers was sourced from the Government Employees Pension Fund (GEPF) by means of an interest-free loan. Some R300 million was sourced from the government-owned Public Investment Corporation. Thus a situation has arisen that is hardly different from the funding of the Citizen newspaper in the 1970s.
The Vorster government permitted the diversion of some R64 million to establish the Citizen. At the time the English-language press hyperventilated in its condemnation of the abuse of taxpayers’ money. That led to what was called the Information scandal and the resignation of the minister of Information Connie Mulder. Yet today, we have an English-language press in South Africa that was purchased with state funds and is servile and sycophantic in its obeisance to the ruling party as the Citizen once was.
Despite attempts by the apartheid government to proscribe press freedom, diverse political opinion and reporting – excepting were then banned organisations and persons were concerned – featured in the English-language press. The Press Council, although circumscribed by almost 100 strictures, was independent. But since April 22 the Sekunjalo-controlled English press no longer belongs to the Press Council. Surve has withdrawn from it and formed his own in-house ‘press council.’ And since Surve’s shake-up of editors and journalists during the latter months of 2016, all the titles in his stable are now staffed by those loyal to his agenda.
Thus, an ironic situation has arisen: whereas one English-language newspaper, the Citizen, was initiated with state funding in the 1970s, today the bulk of the English-language press owes it existence to state loans. Despite government pressure on the English-language press in the 1970s and 1980s, the independence of the Press Council was maintained. Today the bulk of the English-language press is no longer regulated by the Press Council but is subject to an in-house forum which adheres to an agenda that is not neutral.
Consequently, it may be argued that the bulk of the English-language press was more diverse and independent under draconian Nat rule than it is now as a result of the Sekunjalo takeover. As such, the conversation about state capture needs to consider the plight of the bulk of the Fourth Estate as Helen Zille has already remarked. Those papers controlled by Sekunjalo have become virtual ANC newsletters at the expense of real and diverse news. Judge Steyn’s fears have now been fully realised: the bulk of the English-language press has become Pavlovian in its political direction and is hardly more diverse than Pravda and Izvestia were during the Soviet era.
By Alec Hogg – Published in BizNews, 2 May 2017.