Chris Roper: Dr Survé is making our democracy sick
Evil is at its most insidious when it’s being ridiculous. Think of the the pathetic Nazis of America and their Walmart-bought tiki torches. Hugely funny, until they kick you in the teeth. And think of Iqbal Survé, that apparent love-child of a strutting peacock and a cheap piñata. In a pre-Trump era, one would have been tempted to think of him as the butt of a joke, or at most the punchline. In today’s climate of aggressive disinformation and violent social media, not so much.
Dr Iqbal Survé has already done massive damage to the status of a free press in South Africa. Nobody takes his (and I use the word “his” advisedly) newspapers seriously. From his constant interference in what little remains of Independent Media’s editorial independence, to his creation of a fake investigative unit staffed by junior reporters who will now struggle ever to get a job with a reputable media company, he has contributed to the erosion of trust in our media. And as his business continues to crumble around him, he will do much more damage as he tries to deflect attention. One of the weapons in State Capture’s arsenal was Media Capture, and there’s not a lot of difference in the way Survé and the Guptas have answered questions about their businesses. We can expect more disinformation campaigns from Survé, more attempts to divide opinion based on race, more attempts to erect straw targets to dilute attention, and more crude “opinion pieces” run on the front pages of the Independent publications formerly known as newspapers. The consequences of this will be the shameless hijacking of legitimate issues, like the lack of diversity in media, how the white boys’ business club gets far less scrutiny than black business, and how some DA decisions in the Western Cape are anti-poor and pro-rich. Donald Trump’s ploy has been to make many Americans believe that the real news of CNN and the New York Times is fake. Survé’s genius (oh god, he’s going to put this bit on his CV, isn’t he?) is that he’s taken real news publications and made them fake. For South Africa, Survé’s way is far more damaging than Trump’s is for America. What Survé attempts to do is create a false narrative where all criticism of his business practices is presented as a race war between media houses, rather than what it is: investigative media identifying corruption in his businesses, and asking legitimate questions about the use of public money to fund a government propaganda machine. The most recent example of this is Survé’s self-described, and apparently self-penned, “opinion piece” that he ran on the front pages of his newspapers. The legitimate issue he’s hijacked here is the breakdown of editorial rigour at the Sunday Times, and the way journalists were misled and manipulated, to varying degrees, in their coverage of the Cato Manor “death squad”, the SARS “rogue unit” and the Zimbabwean renditions. It’s interesting because it lays bare two things: the crudeness of the methodology Survé uses to create disinformation, and the way he structures his misinformation campaigns. I’ll leave the exhaustive analysis of his column to the journalism and media ethics students who I’m sure will be tasked with this as a first-year project. Let’s just take a look at the first two sentences, which I quote here in full: “Tiso Blackstar’s Business Day could by all accounts be considered irrelevant due to its small daily circulation of approximately 20,000 nationally. It is therefore easy to dismiss Business Day’s rantings and media manipulation as insignificant especially when compared to the reach of Business Report (BR) in the Independent Media stable, which has more than 1.5 million daily readers.” This is both an example of bad journalism, and of bad lying. The first trick Survé pulls is that of false equivalence. So he compares a single title, Business Day, to an insert that is placed (according to the IOL website) in four of the Independent Group’s daily titles and three of its weekend titles. The second trick is to quote Business Day’s circulation, but compare that to Business Report’s readership. Circulation is number of copies sold, but readership includes multiple readers per copy — hardly a fair comparison. His third trick is to elide the fact that he is just adding up the readers of the newspapers that Business Report is inserted in, and claiming them all for Business Report. There are many other cheap tricks we could focus on. For example, why is an opinion piece about the state of the media illustrated with a picture of Survé photobombing the prime minister of India, and the presidents of Brazil, Russia, South Africa, and China? The answer: because all his opinion pieces are about the same thing, the attempt to market himself as important, and then to persuade us that the interrogation of his business practices are jealousy, rather than legitimate. And rather than laughing at this familiar trope of tinpot dictators everywhere, one might be tempted to sympathise with Survé’s anguished plea to be addressed as “Doctor Survé”, if that plea wasn’t preceded by a litany of his own accomplishments. (“I would venture”, he tells us, “that there are very few Chairmen or CEOs of large corporations on the JSE that have similar qualifications.”) And whenever there is a Survé “opinion piece”, there’s always a follow-up piece by Survé’s attack poodle, the executive editor of Business Report. Adri Senekal de Wet’s columns are always a blathering mess, riddled with non sequiturs, typos and spurious logic, and always injecting a folksy mythology about how she met “The Doc” when he was just a simple millionaire with a mission to free blonde Afrikaans women from the shackles of apartheid. Yes, it’s all a laugh a minute. Until it isn’t. Survé’s propaganda wing, even if it is dangling from the plucked turkey that is Independent Media, does some very real damage to trust in the media in South Africa. And without the investigative work of all our media houses, the corrupt business people, politicians and, in some cases, media owners of South Africa would very seldom be called to account. Iqbal Survé seems entirely happy to sacrifice the integrity of our media on the altar of his own ego, and to endanger the future of our democracy with crude propaganda and divisive misinformation. DM