In isolation, the recent botched disciplining of Xoli Mngambi and Jane Dutton by eNCA, South Africa’s largest independent television broadcaster, could be dismissed as a comedy of HR errors.
In brief: In line with a directive issued by eNCA management, requiring its anchors to open their shows opining on social and political issues, the two extemporised on-air commentary around Nkosasana Dlamini-Zuma’s announcement of the continuation of a cigarette sales ban. In their view, this contradicted an earlier statement by President Cyril Ramaphosa.
Dutton said: “While Cyril Ramaphosa has been publicly emasculated, we the public have been duped.”
Mngambi suggested South Africa was becoming a “police state under the control of renegade ministers and the security forces”.
And according to MD Norman Ndivhuho Munzhelele: “An internal review process was effected in line with the company’s internal policies. The review entailed gaining clarity on the opinion and subsequent apology made and whether editorial diligence had been exercised. Through this process, our broadcast and editorial teams identified the need to reaffirm our editorial guidelines and policies.”
As a one-off incident, you could write this off as some sort of editorial hiccup. But it comes in a train of bad decisions by eNCA that raise questions about editorial independence and trust. In his apology, Mngambi said: “We have earned your trust and we’re not about to disappoint you now.”
The truth is, it is not only now. eNCA have continually disappointed its viewers over the recent past, with poor editorial and management decisions, and more importantly, by eliding those two categories in a way that has the potential to erode their editorial credibility.
Let us review some of their decisions. Around October 2019, eNCA hired Kanthan Pillay to be their head of news, six months after he led the Capitalist Party of South Africa to ignominious failure at the polls. It would be hard to find a more obvious denial, at least in a professedly independent news organisation, of how editorial independence works, or indeed a clumsier example of a management intruding in what should be a sacrosanct editorial space.
Samkele Maseko and Kanthan Pillay. (Twitter/News24)
By December, he was gone, but only after, as eNCA itself put it, serious allegations about his censorship of stories and management style.
Journalist Samkele Maseko, whose move to the SABC prompted Pillay to post a peevish tweet alluding to him as a rat “swimming towards a sinking ship”, said “there was a culture of fear not only among the staff but also mid-management and top management as well at eNCA”.
eNCA has form when it comes to management interference in editorial decisions.
In 2014, for example, the co-founder and executive chairperson of parent company e.tv, Marcel Golding, in court papers lodged to fight his suspension for breaching corporate governance rules (Golding resigned after being suspended for buying shares allegedly without board approval), claimed he was being victimised because he would not submit to political interference and adopt a pro-ANC agenda.
Specifically, Golding accused the South African Clothing and Textile Workers’ Union (Sactwu), the biggest shareholder in eNCA’s holding company, Hosken Consolidated Investments (now eMedia Investments), of trying to influence e.tv broadcasts, including pushing pro-Zuma government stories.
The political interference came via then-economic development minister Ebrahim Patel (the current trade and industry minister responsible for the much-lampooned list of permissible winter clothing items allowed in stores). The intermediary was executive director and board member Yunis Shaik, younger brother of Schabir.
Ebrahim Patel, minister of trade and industry, on Wednesday evening. Photo: GCIS
Media organisation GroundUp commented at the time: “There is a risk that fewer than a half-dozen managers will destroy the waning integrity – and at minimum, the ownership structure – of the country’s most popular TV news station.”
Perceptions of eNCA being pro-ANC have been advanced by both the DA and EFF, unlikely bedfellows in criticising editorial bias. The EFF were incensed by, inter alia, leaked messages from Pillay to journalist Khayelihle Khumalo about his suspension for tweeting about the EFF’s National People’s Assembly after eNCA’s decision to withdraw from covering the elective conference.
And the DA’s interim leader, John Steenhuisen, peevishly told eNCA: “You never ask Ramaphosa anything about the municipalities that his ANC councillors are mismanaging and … driving into the ground.”
It would be easy to dismiss this as the typical posturing that political parties adopt with the media (after all, the ANC have also accused eNCA of bias), if it were not for the clear evidence of editorial interference. And eNCA’s own credibility is not all that is at stake here.
Every opportunity afforded politicians and others to attack media rebounds negatively on all media, and gives a weapon to agents of misinformation invested in weakening trust in the media.
At times, accusations against management borders on the absurd. Arts and entertainment reporter Nontobeko Sibisi had footage pulled because, according to her, “for nine seconds of an about three-minute piece, I appear wearing a doek”. The resultant furore led, in Sibisi’s estimation, to her being “singled out and treated differently from other employees”, and ultimately to a disciplinary hearing which resulted in her being dismissed for infractions related to editorial ethics.
In the papers filed by Sibisi’s lawyers in the case of constructive dismissal she has lodged with the CCMA (Sibisi contends that “there was an ulterior motive relating to this matter; namely, to punish the employee for her reaction to the company’s embarrassing and discriminatory behaviour concerning #RespekTheDoek”), they alleged the chairperson of the enquiry was biased.
“He descended into the fray and took over the role of the charging officer, cross-examining the employee, badgering her, and insisting on ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ answers. He was over-bearing. His behaviour showed that he had a predisposition to find the employee guilty.”
The chairperson? Pillay.
Editorial independence is a fungible concept. At its core, it refers to the absolute right of editors to make decisions around editorial, without interference from owners, business departments or other parties who might attempt to influence coverage for commercial or ideological reasons. The first line of defence against attempts at interfering with the sanctity of editorial independence is an editor, head of news or editor-in-chief (different newsrooms will have different titles), but the last line are the journalists themselves.
At the time of the controversy around the dismissal of Maseko, and Pillay’s interference in editorial affairs (for example, Maseko “alleged that the news boss was responsible for censoring comments made by former Cabinet member Bongani Bongo about Public Enterprises Minister Pravin Gordhan”), eNCA journalists took a stand.
Journalists wore black to work as a protest, and tweeted a statement saying: “After recent disturbing events, we’ve met with eNCA management and made it clear we stand for independent journalism. We’ll protect the sanctity of our credibility. We won’t allow the integrity of our news profession to be made a mockery of.”
Anchors – and apparently inveterate apologists – Jane Dutton and Xoli Mngambi apologised to viewers, saying: “After recent disturbing events, we’ve met with eNCA management and made it clear we stand for independent journalism. We as a news channel have made headlines for all the wrong reasons because of statements made by a very senior individual in this company.”
According to the 2019 Reuters Institute’s Digital Report on South Africa (disclosure: I am a co-author on this), eNCA was the second-most trusted news source in South Africa after News24, and there is no reason to expect a change in the 2020 results. Clearly, there is still time for eNCA to turn around a potential erosion of trust with its viewers.
Commenting on the furore around the Dutton/Mngambi criticism of Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, 702’s Eusebius McKaiser said: “eNCA is behaving no differently to the worst days of the SABC and someone in Hyde Park is behaving like Hlaudi Motsoeneng.”
It is both a damning indictment and a warning.
eNCA have lost – some would say driven away – some credible journalists, like Anton Harber, Maphi Mahlangu, Jeremy Maggs and Phathiswa Magopeni, to name just four. As group executive of news and current affairs, the latter is driving a reinvention of the SABC as a credible news source, in a mirror image to the way eNCA is frittering away its trust capital.
It is a sad trajectory for a news organisation that was touted by then-director Patrick Conroy, at its launch in London in 2012, as looking to become “the Al Jazeera of Africa”.
– Chris Roper is deputy director of Code for Africa, a director of the African Network of Centers for Investigative Reporting, and most recently held the position of editor-in-chief of the Mail & Guardian. He serves on the editorial advisory committee of Newzroom Afrika.