The executive chairman of Independent Media South Africa, Dr Iqbal Surve, has issued a year-end letter to staff. In it he explains why he has acted against the editor of the Cape Times, Alide Dasnois. She was removed from her job late last week, prompting intense speculation as well as concern about the independence of the titles in the IMSA group.
Full text of his letter:
It has been customary for me to address all our employees of the greater Sekunjalo Group through a year-end letter from the office of the chairman.
It is my privilege and honour to write this letter as the executive chairman of Independent Media South Africa (INMSA). My annual year-end letter does not normally address specific employee operational issues, but in this instance I have elected to do so since we find ourselves in the midst of a challenging time.
The past few days have been very difficult for our company, INMSA. Last week, our beloved Madiba passed on. Many of us, including myself, who had personal relationships with Madiba, have spent this week reflecting on his noble values and commitment to a free and non-racial society.
These trying days also coincided with the start of our strategic session in Cape Town and the planned sessions in Durban and Johannesburg.
We had a productive and open discussion on the first day in Cape Town, with the top 40 managers. Out of respect for Madiba, we decided to postpone the sessions planned for Durban and Johannesburg to the new year.
On Thursday evening, on being informed about Madiba, the editorial leadership and management present in Cape Town planned that the group’s titles would dedicate the editorial to Madiba for the next morning’s publications.
All editorial teams were encouraged to immediately leave the strategic session for their newsrooms to ensure that the news focus for the following day would be on Madiba and to communicate the plan nationally to the group’s newsrooms.
There was excitement that Independent would have a uniform editorial position on the front and leading pages of all its major publications on Friday.
This would give our readers the opportunity to learn first-hand information of what had transpired during Madiba’s last few hours with family and close friends but more importantly to celebrate the magnificent legacy Madiba left for all of us.
It therefore goes without saying that on Friday, the senior executives of INMSA were shocked to discover that the only major Independent title that failed to lead editorially with Madiba’s passing was the Cape Times.
I am at liberty to disclose to you that the senior management of Independent had in any event already planned to have a meeting after the strategic session to discuss with Ms Dasnois the performance of the Cape Times and her role in the group.
The need to improve the performance of the Cape Times and to position Ms Dasnois in a role that played to her passions and strengths had been contemplated for quite some time prior to last week’s events.
At this meeting, in addition to dealing with our plans for her future role in the group, Ms Dasnois was asked by the CEO Tony Howard to explain the failure to lead the newspaper with the Madiba story and her response was that she did not have enough resources to have done so.
This excuse was not accepted by all present on the basis that all the other newspapers in Independent (except for two smaller regional publications), had the same tight deadlines and in some instances had had fewer resources, and yet they had still been able to lead editorially with the Madiba story.
Whilst many of our major titles produced wraparounds it was expected that they would have page one lead editorials on Madiba. The Cape Times did produce a wraparound, which in some places was only put into the newspaper as an insert.
There was nothing about Madiba on the front page or other leading pages.
It is my considered view, and that of the senior executive team of Independent present at the time with Ms Dasnois, that the failure of the Cape Times to lead with such a momentous event, was an affront to the dignity of Madiba and a disservice to our readers.
The Cape Times subsequently produced a fitting tribute to Madiba this week.
I wish to thank all of the members of the Cape Town newsroom for their professionalism from Sunday evening in producing an outstanding newspaper.
Until now the senior management present at the meeting with Ms Dasnois (including myself, CEO Tony Howard, Regional Manager Sandy Naude and executive Chris Whitfield) have remained silent on the details of what transpired at the meeting in relation to Ms Dasnois, out of respect for the privacy and confidentiality by which every good employee/employer relationship is governed.
Today we learnt that Ms Dasnois has decided to deal with this matter publicly via online media and to the exclusion of the normal private communication channel between employer and employee.
Regrettably Ms Dasnois has left us with no choice but to deal with the matter more publicly than we would have preferred.
I feel that I have to balance the interests of our company, INMSA, and its reputation for editorial independence and integrity versus the privacy and confidentiality normally applicable in relation to the employee-employer relationship.
Over the last few days, the media has reported claims that Ms Dasnois’ discussions with senior management constituted interference with her editorial independence.
She has further claimed that she was dismissed.
These allegations are made without a shred of evidence to substantiate these claims.
It has been suggested by Ms Dasnois and the media that her redeployment was related to an article she published on the front page of the Cape Times on 6 December 2013.
Nothing could be further from the truth. I can state categorically that neither myself nor any senior member of the executive team discussed this article on the lead page with her.
One of the reasons for requesting Ms Dasnois to move to another editorial position related to positioning her in a role that played more to her passions and strengths.
Ms Dasnois’ conduct in not leading with the Madiba editorial accelerated this request for her redeployment.
For the record, in the interests of the company, I took time on Sunday for a further meeting with Ms Dasnois to attempt to convince her to reconsider her decision not to take up the new role.
Despite this attempt, I have still had no formal communication from Ms Dasnois, other than what I have read in the media.
Since there is some time before we meet at the strategic sessions next year and you hear from me personally, I would like to provide you with my thoughts and views on the issue of editorial independence and job security since these issues are being raised as a consequence of the publicity about the company in the past few days.
I want to be clear and categorical. I want to assure all staff of my sincere commitment to the editorial independence of this group and the right of its journalist to do their work without fear or favour.
This means no journalist has to fear when writing a story if one or more of the companies in Sekunjalo Group is involved. I do not expect special favours or puff pieces to be written by any journalists. All our stories must adhere to the highest standards required.
This means they have to be balanced, fair and accurate. What they can’t be is one sided, inaccurate and prejudicial. I have always valued the principles of transparency, fairness and independence. More importantly, in our quest for fairness, we should give everyone an opportunity of the right of reply.
As executive chairman, I will uphold these values and expect all of our journalists and editors to do the same regardless of which story it is they cover.
The board of directors of INMSA has commissioned the drafting of an editorial charter as well the creation of advisory boards (nationally and regionally), which will guide the company on these issues on a daily basis as journalists go about doing their work.
I also want to debunk the myth that I will frown upon and act against journalists who ask tough questions and probe issues of malfeasance involving politicians, business people and other components of our society.
I believe that our young democracy is better served when those in power and those that have substantial resources are held to account by stories that seek the truth, that tells the whole story and that gives everyone affected a fair chance and opportunity to state their case.
On a personal note, no journalist need fear legal action from me if they write about me. In instances where I feel aggrieved about how I was portrayed, I will follow the traditional procedures which are to be followed. I will write letter of complaints and insist on my right to reply.
Finally, in response to discussions with some of our editors, I need to address the issue of performance and suitability of roles as it relates to editors and job security.
Again I would have preferred to do this at the strategic sessions which were unfortunately postponed as explained earlier.
For any business to remain viable it needs to be profitable and successful. The board of directors has to appoint the right people to the positions of management to drive this profitability and success. It is the prerogative of the board of directors to appoint senior management in any organisation.
I want to be unequivocal and unapologetic about appointing senior executives and editors, as this responsibility rests with the board.
As a businessman that serves on many international boards, I understand fully that the success of a business is multi-factorial.
All of these factors have to be considered along with editorial leadership in driving the success of a title. At a time when newspapers are facing a challenging environment, and the sustainability of the business model and security of the employees is at stake, editors cannot be impervious about profitability and the success of their titles.
Whilst profitability is a variable that would be taken into account when assessing performance of key managers and executives, it will not be the only variable.
In my capacity as chairman of board remuneration committees, I have applied decisions in accordance with all rules, agreements and legally binding contracts when performance is assessed.
I see no reason why Independent’s employees, journalist or editors should be treated differently. In fact, from the feedback I have received so far, I think many would welcome such performance appraisal both as an incentive and as a measurement tool.
I want to thank you for taking the time to read this letter since I have tried to convey my thoughts in an open and transparent manner which best serves the interests of our company, its employees, integrity and reputation.
Without your valuable contribution, Independent would not be successful and would not have survived the difficult period over the last decade in the absence of the resources to invest in its growth and future.
As custodian of this business, I will protect our reputation, our credibility and the wellbeing of all employees. This is a role I take seriously and will execute in the best interest of our company and the long-term sustainability of our business.
As we approach the new year, we think about that all important resolution.
My new year’s resolution is simply to have the opportunity to meet with each of you individually. I hope that this is possible so that I may hear first-hand your views, ideas, concerns, fears and wishes on how best to grow INMSA into the most successful multimedia company in South Africa.
I take this opportunity to wish you and your family and loved ones the very best for the festive season and year-end holidays.
I hope that you have some rest (and fun), so that in the new year we are ready to take Independent to the next level in its growth trajectory as a truly South African multimedia company.
Dr Iqbal Surve