Is SA’s media losing its independence?

Two weeks ago John Robbie, who has been steering the 702 breakfast show for nearly 15 years, announced his retirement. Last week, 30-year media stalwart Terry Volkwyn resigned. As consolidation of South Africa’s media houses continues at a rapid rate, one question remains: is this the end of the independent press?

During Robbie’s tenure the station has evolved into one of South Africa’s most respected media platforms, sparking heated debate on topical issues.

After Robbie’s announcement, 702 released the following statement:

He has won numerous awards and interviewed significant news makers on almost every major news story to affect South Africa, often setting the Gauteng and national news agenda for the day.

Redi Tlhabi, who has been with 702 in the mid-morning slot for 10 years, will take over afternoon drive from 15h00 to 18h00.

Her current show, 09h00 to 12h00 will be permanently hosted by Eusebius McKaiser who has been filling in for Redi for the past three months while she has been on maternity leave.

“When John first discussed his plans to retire, earlier this year, we were saddened by his loss to the line up but are in an exceedingly fortunate position to have the depth of talent on our station that we do,” said 702 station manager, Thabisile Mbete.

This new line up strongly reflects South Africa. It is balanced and will take the station into the future.

And then Primedia Broadcasting CEO Terry Volkwyn resigned last week amid continuing minority shareholder dissatisfaction with the planned takeover of the company by the Times Media Group (TMG).

Volkwyn said she would step down at the end of June.

Primedia group CEO Roger Jardine could not expand on reasons for Volkwyn’s decision to quit after 30 years of service.

Jardine said that Volkwyn would become the chairwoman of Primedia Broadcasting from January and would be replaced by Omar Essack, the deputy group chief executive at Kagiso Media in February.

The signs are there that something strange is afoot with South Africa’s independent media houses as a number of industry veterans are being lost in the consolidation shuffle.

Independent Newspapers
Independent Newspapers, which dominates the English-language newspaper industry in South Africa, is not a happy place. After starting a Section 189 process, in terms of a section of the Labour Relations Act three months’ – nearly four months’ – ago, 72 of a staff of about 500 journalists across the land have agreed to take retrenchment packages. Altogether 92 applied for the packages. That means that all but 20 of those who applied have got the packages. In other words, the company – headed by former fishing boss Mohammed Iqbal Surve, well known for his close ties with ruling African National Congress – has agreed to let nearly a quarter of the writing – and photography – staff go.

Everyone, all journalists below the rank of editor, at the (Johannesburg) Star, the (Kimberley) Diamond Fields Advertiser, the (Durban) Mercury, the (Durban) Daily News, the (Durban-based) Sunday Tribune, the (Cape Town) Cape Times, the (Cape Town) Cape Argus, the (Johannesburg) Sunday Independent, the (Cape Town) Weekend Argus (Saturday and Sunday editions), the (Durban) Post, (Durban’s) Isoleswe, and the Pretoria News, received a letter giving them the option to take a voluntary retrenchment package. They were told that if they wanted to remain with the company, they must re-apply for their jobs.

Details of how many applications have been made for the 400 or so jobs left, or rather being re-advertised, in the company – outside the editors who are guaranteed their posts – is not known. But it is known that those who want to continue to work at the company have been applying for as many jobs as possible.

On 30 November 2016, the 72 journalists will leave the company. That is agreed to already, although a dispute has been declared by the SA Typographical Union and the Media Workers’ Association of South Africa over when the guaranteed two months’ retrenchment pay kicks in. Another group of journalists are exploring the possibility of adding two extra dispute matters (see below) to be considered by the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration later this month – on the 25th of November, just days before the curtain falls on their Independent Newspaper careers.

There are some high profile writers who have agreed to take the package. At the Weekend Argus Fatima Schreuder, a well-respected court reporter has opted to go. Weekend Argus content editor (known in old newspaper parlance as news-editor) Di Caelers is also leaving. Cape Argus photographer Michael Walker is also moving on. In Durban veteran environmental reporter – and the winner of countless environmental reporting awards – Tony Carnie, has opted for the package. Also in the retrenchment queue at the end of the month are Warda Meyer, a political reporter for the daily Cape Argus – who has focused on the Western Cape legislature – and Jan Cronje, a general reporter at the Cape Argus. Carryn Dolley, a senior Weekend Argus reporter, has already joined the Media24 team as deputy news24 news editor under editor Adriaan Basson. Leon Muller, Picture Editor at the Weekend Argus, was at first turned down for retrenchment, but later it was accepted. Jayne Mayne, Arts editor of the Cape Times, is also darting for the door as is Billy Suter, the Arts editor at the Mercury. Lindsay Dentlinger, Cape Argus Metro reporter, has not had her contract renewed. Chelsea Geach, another award-winning reporter at the Cape Argus, left two months ago to take up a position at Media24.

Primedia
Times Media Group (TMG) has emerged as the frontrunner to buy Primedia from its shareholders for an undisclosed amount.

Business Report has been reliably informed that the group has staved off competition from potential bidders, such as Thebe Investments and media company Caxton. But the transaction is expected to face stiff resistance from Primedia’s minority shareholders, who have accused the company of putting financial interests above media diversity.

Sources who spoke to Business Report on condition of anonymity said negotiations between TMG and Primedia were at an advanced stage. “There have been discussions behind the scenes and it is now all but a question of time before Times Media takes over,” one said.

Primedia is a media and advertising group that targets premium consumers. It is jointly owned by the Mineworkers Investment Company (MIC), Brait Entities, Old Mutual and FirstRand Group.

Besides a portfolio that includes premium regional radio stations, such as 702, Cape Talk and the Eyewitness News Service, Primedia also owns cinema chain Ster-Kinekor.

Conclusion
Media Monitoring Africa director William Bird confirmed that he had heard of the pending Times Media buyout of Primedia. He said while the transaction made business sense, the lobby group was worried that it would concentrate media ownership in South Africa even further.

“Further consolidation in the media is not what the country needs,” Bird said. “It would kill the diversity that is so important to keep our democracy going.”

The concern is that these independent media groups will join the beleagured state broadcaster, the SABC, in becoming nothing more than a mouthpiece for the ruling party – undermining any attempt at the free press an evolving democracy like South Africa so desperately needs.

By Gary Oberholzer for www.702.co.za; Chris Bateman and Donwald Pressly for www.biznews.com; and www.iol.co.za

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