Former president FW de Klerk.  Picture: SUNDAY TIMES
Former president FW de Klerk. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES

THIS important election year has not started well. The vicious cycle of political and economic crises swirls ever deeper and faster, racism has reared its ugly head and now our independent press, one of the key saviours of the country during apartheid, is in decline as well.

This began three years ago when Irish businessman Tony O’Reilly sold his Independent News and Media SA, whose 18 daily and weekend titles constituted the largest English-language newspaper group, to the Sekunjalo Investment Holdings consortium chaired by Iqbal Survé.

O’Reilly had already bled these once profitable newspapers dry until he went bankrupt and had to sell. Survé, a Cape Town businessman with no media experience, bought the company for R2bn.

The change caused a stir, for the English-language press had been in the forefront of exposing the cruel realities of apartheid. What would become of them now? Would these important public watchdogs remain independent, or would they become more susceptible to influence by the African National Congress government?

These concerns were heightened by the fact that the Public Investment Corporation (PIC), a government agency that controls the Government Employees Pension Fund (GEPF), holds 25% of the shares in the consortium. The China International Television Corporation, together with the China-Africa Development Fund, holds another 20% through an organisation called Intracom Holding.

Sekunjalo Independent Media holds the 55% balance. Its share of the investment was reportedly funded through a PIC/GEPF loan. I find that level of indebtedness by a newspaper company to a government agency disturbing.

Survé has given repeated assurances that the newspapers will retain their independence. But events under his chairmanship tell another story. There has been a rapid changing of editors and other senior newsroom executives; experienced reporters and copy editors have disappeared; and established columnists have ceased to be published (disclosure: this columnist is one). Circulations have fallen, but this is common to all newspapers as a result of the digital revolution. How much is due to changed content in the Independent group’s newspapers is hard to tell.

But what is evident is the change in content, and indeed the very character of these newspapers — especially in the Western Cape. It is patently obvious to any observant reader that both the Cape Times and Cape Argus have a calculated imbalance of news portraying the Democratic Alliance (DA), which governs the province and the City of Cape Town, in a negative light.

It is also obvious to any experienced observer — and I happen this week to be celebrating the 66th anniversary of my becoming a journalist — that there has been a serious decline in the quality of all the Independent group’s newspapers since Sekunjalo acquired them.

But what saddens me even more than the decline of this large section of the English-language press is that it has now been joined by, of all papers, the Mail & Guardian. The M&G, as it is commonly called, is a special paper, born in special circumstances and it played a special role in our democratic transition. To see it perform a shabby job, as it did last week, is deeply depressing. Like Caesar, I find myself saying: "Et tu Brute!"

The M&G was born out of the death throes of the crusading Rand Daily Mail, of which I was once editor. As it died at the hand of the incompetent management and uncaring proprietors of the time, a group of idealistic young journalists on its staff, led by Anton Harber, now professor of journalism at Wits, decided to keep its spirit alive.

They pooled their retrenchment pay, raised more funding from well-wishers, and launched the Weekly Mail as a tabloid to keep the spirit of crusading journalism alive in our tormented country.

The Weekly Mail became an icon in its own right and played a significant role in our transition to democracy. When it ran into financial difficulties, it was given support by Britain’s great crusading newspaper, The Guardian. Hence the change of name.

But last Friday, the M&G did a shocking thing. It published a story on its front page under the headline, "Uproar over Maimane’s ‘lessons’ with FW". Alongside appeared a huge picture of SA’s last apartheid president, FW de Klerk. The text under that startling headline read: "As tensions mount in the country, the DA leader refuses to comment on widespread claims in the party that he is taking ‘leadership lessons’ with apartheid-era president De Klerk".

A "news analysis" article inside the paper, co-authored by the editor, Verashni Pillay, quotes an unnamed "insider", who it says "confirmed to the Mail & Guardian that Maimane had visited former president De Klerk on various occasions".

"Confirm" means to establish truth or correctness. But the story is untrue, as I was able to establish in five minutes by speaking directly to Mmusi Maimane. "It is devoid of all truth," he said. "I have met with De Klerk only once in my life, and that was when I paid a brief courtesy call on him last year. I don’t even know where his house is."

Later, De Klerk issued a statement confirming he had met Maimane only on that one occasion. Yet, even after Maimane had gone on air and publicly denied the story, Pillay issued a statement saying she stood by all the facts in her story. The problem is, it contained no facts. Only allegations — and questionable ones at that. What on earth could De Klerk teach Maimane about leadership of a multiracial party?

Then there is the front-page assertion that Maimane "refused to comment on widespread claims in the party". But Maimane tells me no one at the M&G spoke to him about the matter.

The paper quoted DA spokeswoman Phumzile van Damme as saying: "We are not going to give oxygen to nameless and faceless individuals who make unsubstantiated claims behind the cloak of anonymity." That’s not Maimane refusing to comment. And even if it is argued that she said it on his behalf, isn’t it a comment?

And just how widespread are these supposed claims? The M&G’s story quotes four nameless "insiders". Do their unsubstantiated claims constitute a widespread "uproar" in the party? Or are these individuals with grievances? That happens in all parties. Dissidents plant smear stories to gain advantage over rivals. The old apartheid regime had a whole department, called Stratcom, that specialised in this. It even managed to plant a story in The Star claiming Joe Slovo planned the letter bomb murder of his own wife.

Journalists, especially editors, have to be constantly on guard against manipulation. The old journalistic adage still applies: "Check it out, or leave it out." The M&G didn’t do that. What it did was unworthy of a newspaper with such a noble pedigree.

• Sparks is a former editor of the Rand Daily Mail