Stand Up and Be Counted

By Johnson, R. W. | The Spectator, June 24, 2000 | Go to article overview

Stand Up and Be Counted


Johnson, R. W., The Spectator


A LITTLE while ago the world's media blinked hard when it heard that the South African press was to be the subject of an inquisition by the Human Rights Commission into `racism in the media'. The fact is that white racism is, if only for reasons of prudence, now quite invisible in South Africa. Anti-white racism, on the other hand, flowers luxuriantly throughout the media.

Many whites feel that they are to blame for what they call `reverse racism'. John Battersby, the editor of the Sunday Independent, so personifies the guilty white liberal-turned-ANC supporter that he is referred to by many opposition MPs as `John Batter Me'. When he appeared before the commission, he accused himself of racism and pleaded guilty to all manner of thoughtcrime. He begged forgiveness from the commission and promised to try to clean out his mind more thoroughly in future. In his desperate attempt to placate his interrogators he also suggested that, until all manner of social and economic matters were solved, it was too soon to expect or demand freedom of expression.

The Sunday Independent is part of what was the old Argus Group, owned by Harry Oppenheimer's Anglo-American empire. Throughout the apartheid era the Afrikaner nationalists kept up a bitter campaign against the `mining press', as they liked to call it, vilifying it as `liberalistic'. In fact, the papers were often far from liberal. Nonetheless, the English-language press did, however raggedly and with whatever sins of omission and commission, stand up against apartheid and for liberal values better than most. With the ANC on the road to power, however, Anglo-American realised that this was a good time to get out of the newspaper business.

The Argus Group was sold to Tony O'Reilly and his Independent Group. To begin with, the ANC was not entirely happy at the prospect of a white - and a foreigner at that - taking over the group, which owns two major Sunday papers and the main daily and evening papers in South Africa's major cities. Clearly, whoever owned the Argus Group would set the tone for South African newspapers as a whole. O'Reilly rushed to assure the ANC that he was bursting with sympathy for their cause, invited Mandela to holiday with him, and even talked enthusiastically for a while of setting up home in South Africa.

A board of luminaries was recruited as `international advisers', including O'Reilly himself and Anthony Sampson. Ivan Fallon, an ultra-Thatcherite journalist, was recruited as the group's new chief executive in South Africa. Several leading `struggle journalists' were hired, a promise given of the rapid promotion of black editors, and the great experiment began.

The nature of the enterprise on which Fallon had embarked may be judged from a memo he sent out to the group's editors in November 1995 summoning them to a meeting with the ANC leadership. `The object of the exercise would be for our editors and senior managers to get the clearest possible idea of what the ANC is looking for us to provide, to hear their views on our papers and our attitudes, and for them to understand as clearly as possible where we are coming from.' Fallon suggested that such (day-long) meetings be repeated at six-monthly intervals so that the papers could remain sensitive to any changing inflections in the ANC's voice.

One or two of the more independentminded editors resigned, but that simply opened the way for the appointment of more strugglistas. As the papers lurched to the Left, their white readers - the source of most of their advertising income - were affronted and dropped away. To make up the money the newspapers' price was increased, pushing away price-sensitive black readers, so circulation plummeted. Quality and morale fell and a radical process of `juniorisation' set in as young and inexperienced black journalists were promoted to fill the gaps which soon appeared. …

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