Review: The Powerful and the Dammed. Private Diaries in Turbulent Times, by Lionel Barber

By John Fraser

It wasn’t a bad job, but it had its challenges. Lionel Barber served as FT editor through some turbulent times, and this diary of his experiences from 2005 to 2020 provides fascinating insights into his experiences.

Given the number of encounters he chronicles, he may be criticised for name dropping, but – wow – there was no shortage of names to drop.

Presidents, Prime Ministers, Royalty and an A-list of movers and shakers from the pinnacle of the business world.

It’s not so much who he knows, has met, and has written about, but who he hasn’t. There are annoyingly few gaps.

Lionel may appear from this catalogue of encounters to be a bit full of himself, but very few journalists can boast of having a contacts book like his. It must be worth a small fortune.

I knew Lionel a bit when both of us were doing very different tasks in the Brussels press corpse (pun intended).

We weren’t chums, pursuing different goals. The FT had red (pink?) carpet access to the great and the occasionally good, while my role as a stirrer of shit for assorted British tabloids meant I was invited to few ambassadorial garden parties.

The man from the FT had private sessions with ministers and Commissioners, while I was given the task of escorting a troupe of busty Sun Page-3 beauties into the European Commission press room, with the express intention of annoying the then bogeyman of Brussels Jacques Delors.

However, Lionel was always kind to me. Approachable and helpful, he would occasionally explain some of the intricacies of the Euro-jumble to me, steer me straight, lend a hand.

And with Lionel leading the charge, the FT was rightly regarded as the newspaper of record by Eurocrats and commoners alike.

Unlike the Brussels Daily Telegraph correspondent with whom we both overlapped in Euroland – the repellent Boris Johnson – to whom I took an instant dislike, Lionel struck me as both an excellent journalist and an agreeable person.

I didn’t know him very well, but I liked what I saw. I wish I had got to know him better.

Scroll forward a few years, and Lionel is upgraded to editor of the FT with a major challenge on his hands – steering the ship through the digital revolution – taking over from another Brussels veteran, Andrew Gowers.

This diary of Lionel’s is an ideal lavatory read. Not because of its content but because of its format. Short sections, short snippets, almost all featuring someone most of us have heard of but few have got to meet or are ever likely to.

The book combines insight, humour and tons of anecdotes. Well written, it is an easy and enjoyable read.

Of course, it may be argued that there should have been space for a more thorough and detailed telling of the tales, less flitting and more focus.

I prefer the way he chose to tackle the task, however, making his editorial exploits accessible and digestible.

It speaks volumes for his grasp of strategy, commitment and hard work that he did an impressive job as editor.

An achievement which cannot be underestimated.

While other publications have stumbled and fallen, the FT has survived, because he successfully understood the need to go for quality, in-depth content and to embrace its presence online.

In navigating the transition, Lionel needed grit and a ruthless quality.

And in his journalism, surrounded by powerful corporate and political bullies who were used to getting their way, there were times when he needed to stand firm.

It seems that he almost always succeeded. Clocking up an impressive stash of air miles along the way.

It has been quite a journey and we are lucky to have these chronicles to amuse, entertain and inform us.

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SA Launched Investor Conference with a Red Flag and Red Faces

Investors beware

By John Fraser

It was a classic ‘Send in the Clowns’ scenario when the SA government hosted a series of sessions for investors this Tuesday.

Coming at the start of Cyril Ramaphosa’s two-day (actually two-half-days) Investment Conference, the afternoon panel discussion sessions, each headed by a relevant minister, were meant to inform and entice potential investors.

However it was more red flag than red carpet.

The Energy session, the first one I planned to follow, was due to kick-off at 2pm and I logged in. The discussions were all online due to COVID concerns.

I was told I was the only participant. So I tried again, and again……..

Eventually, with my blood pressure at boiling point, I received an e-mail telling me there were problems, giving me links from which I could access the discussions.

Now, had I been a mildly interested investor, I would have run a mile. As it was, the discussion was polluted by technological glitches – for instance the Energy Minister Gwede Mantashe had trouble hearing what was going on. And he mumbled as usual, making him hard to follow.

It was a mess. No sale.

But it didn’t improve much.

I next listened-in to the Infrastructure session.

The link was opened-up prematurely and for several minutes I – and anyone else who was tuned in – could follow a lengthy load of twaddle as they prepared to go live. Not realising they were already live.

Ouch!

Finally, it was the turn of Trade, Industry and Competition Minister Ebrahim Patel to chair a session on Manufacturing in Africa.

Due to the initial mess-up, this started very late.

Unlike the lady chairman of the earlier infrastructure session, he did not send everyone to sleep by laboriously reading out the CVs of participants. If you only have an hour, you should forgo some of the foreplay. He knew that. She didn’t.

Once again, this session was beset by technical difficulties. It, too, went live prematurely.

Initially, Patel could not be seen as his signal was weak.

The chairman of the IDC – arguably an important panelist – never showed. Technology is clearly not her strong-point.

If I understood him properly, Patel justified the technical carnage by saying it is always useful to give some local bunch a chance to shine. Sadly, this lot shone like a black hole.

Content wise, this was an excellent, informative, impressive session.

It is just a shame that by failing to meet the technology challenge, they reached for the stars.

And shot themselves in the foot.

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A Pinotage Podcast: Beyerskloof in a Box.

A box wine upgrade

By John Fraser

Typical. I chair a podcast where I rant about brainless lockdown restrictions on booze sales. Then Cyril rushes onto national TV to relax the restrictions.

So ignore that bit.

But do please listen in to our thoughts on an excellent wine in a Woolworths box – the Beyerskloof pinotage.

Wine writer Michael Olivier joins former café owner Duane Newman and former restaurateur Mike Schussler (both now have proper jobs) for our tasting.

Those with intelligence and refinement may listen in by clicking below:

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Do also check out:  http://www.michaelolivier.co.za

We taste a Woolworths white wine in a (leaking) box

The box? I would rather take the money.

by John Fraser

The wine was great, but the post-tasting was a disaster.

Soon after we finished recording a podcast discussion on a premium wine in a box from Woolworths, it became clear my box was not premium. It was crap. It started leaking.

Bear this in mind when you hear the doubts raised in the discussion about the whole concept.

The lovely wine was the Pierre Jourdan Tranquille Blush. The tasters were Michael Olivier, Duane Newman and Mike Schussler.

While you click below to give it a listen, I must head off to Woolworths to get my money back….

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SA treading water on Cyril’s investment drive

Minister Ebrahim Patel. Unmasked at last.

By John Fraser

It won’t be a non-event, but ‘SA Investment Conference 3’ – with a masked hero in the form of our beloved President – will see little fresh flow of dosh into Cyril’s begging bowl.

Through no fault of our government – although I still have my doubts about their bosom buddies in Beijing – the world is a very different place with the Covid-19 epidemic sweeping through global boardrooms.   More cash for a new factory in SA may not be front of mind of many CEOs at the moment.   

Despite this, the Minister for Conferences Ebrahim Patel gave a performance which was more plucky than plucked when this Covid veteran met the media in the flesh today for the first time in many, many months.  Many, many, many, many months.

Ok, there were only about three of we hacks in the room with him, with most following it from their bedrooms, bureaux or brothels – but at least he was there.  I was able to go up to him and shout for a while afterwards about his department’s communications failings.  It felt good.  And we both practiced safe Covid.

His message is that with a cumulative R664bn having been pledged at the previous two conferences, out of a total target to R1.2trillion, we have been ahead of target.  So less pressure this time, and expectations can be lowered without the whole project being derailed.

There will be some fresh pledges this time round, the President can rub elbows with some corporate fat cats.  But the main focus will be on moving previous pledges into actual projects. 

Patel said R170bn of the already-pledged investment is already “flowing through the pipeline”.   The main task this month is to ensure the investment tide does not go out again.    Not allowing all the other precious pledges to vanish down the Presidential plug-hole.

Patel says there have been no cancellations – and we must take him at his word – that the imminent AfCFTA continental clone of the EU will bring wealth and investment opportunities, and that the 2-day Investment Conference will allow SA to show the world that the door is open.  We want your investment.  A lot.

Just wash your hands, wear a mask, and give your cheques a good spray of sanitiser before you hand them over.   

Patel and Cyril will be gratefully, gleefully grinning behind their masks.   We promise.

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Mini budget unpacked

By John Fraser

Join legendary economist Mike Schussler from economists.co.za and tax specialist Duane Newman from Cova Advisory for an expert analysis of the mini-budget.

Watch us on YouTube here.

If you enjoyed this article, do subscribe to ZA Confidential.   It will cost you far less than the mini budget.  In fact, it will cost you nothing as long as you sign up before or during the Apocalypse.

Tito raids the national vaults to bail out SAA

Toto the Taxer

By John Fraser

Were anyone to ever refer to it fondly, the Medium-Term Budgetary Policy Statement (MTBPS) would be fondly known as the Mini-Budget.

If you are sitting in the executive cock(up)pit of SAA, today’s Mini-Budget represented yet another budget bonanza for the ultra-profligate.

Already in recession, the SA economy has been booted into deep depression by the C-19 pandemic. 

The economy is expected to contract by 7.8% this year, while unemployment shoots up. 

In global terms, economic despair is the one thing we are really, really good at.

Yet the budget contains another massive cash injection for parasitic parastatal SAA:  R6.5bn to pay its debts and interest – plus a further R10.5bn to implement its business rescue plan.

It is, of course, an open secret that the SAA barmy bonuses reflect a defeat for Finance Minister Tito Mboweni, who failed to stop the fools in the ANC from allowing him to just kick the national disgrace of a national airline into a remote hanger, lock the door and throw away the key.

Instead, money which could be so, so, so better spent elsewhere – cash which we don’t really have in the first place – is being tossed into the flaming jet engines of SAA, to keep thing fuelled until they next demand a bailout.

And they will.

I am not sure whether they are running any flights.  But why should an airline have to transport people or goods to deserve R17b? 

This is, after all, an Alice in Wonderland world.

If you replace “an Alice in Wonderland world” with “a shit-storm of note”.

One positive note – if you are a true believer in an Alice in Wonderland world – is a determination by Tito the Tax Tyrant to cut the state’s terminally-obese wage bill by freezing the wages of public servants.

I will believe he can succeed at that as soon as I see pigs fly.  (Or SAA planes.)

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Why a coronavirus vaccine is politically valuable to China

Inside the packaging plant at Chinese vaccine maker, Sinovac Biotech. Wu Hong/EPA

William Wang, Beijing Normal University and Holly Snape, University of Glasgow

Hundreds of people have been queueing in the city of Yiwu in eastern China in recent days to get an experimental vaccine for COVID-19. Although the vaccine is yet to complete its clinical trials, it was reportedly given to hundreds of thousands of people in the past few months, and is now being offered under an emergency use licence to the general public.

Around the world, as first waves pass and new waves close in, a coronavirus vaccine has become a focus of hope. For China, quick progress on the vaccine is a matter of both domestic and international politics.

In early October, the Chinese government announced it would join the WHO Covax initiative for global cooperation on developing, producing and distributing a vaccine.

This was not simply a public relations move in a game of one-upmanship with the US – which refused to join Covax. Instead, it forms part of the Chinese authorities’ overall approach to the vaccine, which is informed by the need to tread a path between managing international tensions and presenting the strength of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)-led system domestically.

Despite a new flare-up of COVID-19 in the eastern port city of Qingdao, China’s official line is that the country has already achieved “strategic success” in beating the virus. There is some truth to that. China’s proactive, stringent control measures have received significant praise, including from the World Health Organization (WHO).

And yet, suspicion and doubt remain over the early days of China’s response to the epidemic.

Early focus on vaccine

From a public administration perspective, Chinese authorities have been taking action toward developing a vaccine since the start of the epidemic. In January, they set up a top-level response task force which, among its at least seven internal groups, included a Research Front Team that brought together at least 12 ministries and departments. Vaccine research and development was among the team’s key assignments.

Our own ongoing research, which has been systematically collecting and analysing Chinese government and CCP policies responding to COVID-19, found that the Research Front Team was among one of the few internal groups which actively made policy documents publicly available. From the start of China’s response, the vaccine was visibly high on the agenda.

In August, China’s National Medical Products Administration issued five policy documents highlighting concrete principles and standards for vaccine development. This was another display of the speed of public administrators in pushing ahead with a vaccine by addressing the need for a balance between acting fast and ensuring scientific ethical standards.

‘Full victory’ hangs on a vaccine

From a political perspective, China’s vaccine progress has both domestic and international dimensions. The CCP’s official line is that it has made “major strategic achievements” against COVID-19 – a term used consistently across official Chinese communications. A vaccine would top off this triumph.

This clear message of success is combined with a discursive technique commonly adopted by the CCP: time-based cognitive framing, in which periods or points in time are used to develop a favourable narrative while smoothing away inconvenient details.

At a ceremony in September to commend people who had contributed to the pandemic response, CCP general secretary, Xi Jinping, set out milestones that form the contours of the official account. He said China took: “One month or so to initially contain (the virus) … around two months to keep new daily domestic cases within single digits,” and “about three months to achieve decisive gains in the battle for Wuhan and Hubei.”

China has left the emergency phase of its response and entered a “normalising prevention and control” phase. At events such as the commendation ceremony and an exhibition in October organised by the CCP Propaganda Department, this shift in phases is portrayed as evidence of the “strength” of the Chinese system. Logically, the vaccine is the next step.

Drowning out critics

Such domestic policy and political considerations are tied up with international ones. The Trump administration has promoted a sharp change in US policy toward China and rejected elements of the current global governance system, including the WHO.

Meanwhile, despite an ongoing inquiry by the WHO into the global response to the pandemic, some countries including Australia continue to call for an independent investigation into the origins of COVID-19, keeping the spotlight on China.

Faced with this challenge, the CCP seems to be trying to drown out rather than engage with difficult discussions. The vaccine is a useful theme to focus on while squeezing out room to discuss China’s initial response.

The US rejection of the WHO’s attempts at international vaccine cooperation offers the CCP a valuable source of rhetorical righteousness. It can use loud platitudes about China’s support for the current institutions of global governance and back up its claims with money and technology. By focusing on its willingness to cooperate on a vaccine, the CCP gains twofold. It can shield itself from accusations of culpability – and win praise for its global-spiritedness for being willing to step up, contribute and collaborate internationally while the US refuses to do so.

The CCP is all too aware that as the pandemic continues, it sits at the crux of potential controversy – all while international animosity towards China grows.

Instead of seeking to lock horns with views that challenge its narrative, it is trying to remain entirely aloof from them and focus squarely on projecting an image of international cooperation.

William Wang, PhD Candidate, School of Social Development and Public Policy, Beijing Normal University and Holly Snape, British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow, University of Glasgow

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Journalism makes blunders but still feeds democracy: an insider’s view

The Sunday Times, South Africa’s largest weekend newspaper, was used to spread disinformation. Gianluigi Guercia/AFP via Getty Images

Anton Harber, University of the Witwatersrand

Anton Harber, the veteran South African journalist, editor and journalism professor at the University of the Witwatersrand, has a new book out. So, For the Record: Behind the Headlines in an Era of State Capture is a deep dive into the conduct of the media as mega corruption and state capture engulfed and eventually brought down President Jacob Zuma’s administration. Politics editor Thabo Leshilo asked the author to provide the highlights.

What prompted you to write the book?

For one thing, it is a great story to tell, complete with all the ingredients of a thriller: brothels, spies, brown envelopes and honeypots, all laced with intrigue, deceit and backstabbing. My interest, though, came from a concern that our community of journalists was not dealing properly with the series of journalistic fiascos at the Sunday Times, the country’s biggest and most powerful newspaper.

I was on a panel commissioned to conduct an internal investigation at the paper in 2007, after a similar series of journalistic disasters. Our far-reaching recommendations were not implemented. And so, perhaps inevitably, the paper went off the rails again in 2011-6 with another series of stories that boosted those trying to capture state institutions for corrupt purposes. The paper had to retract and apologise for these disastrous stories.

As journalists, we hold those in power to account and demand full transparency from them. But we also wield public power, so I think it is crucial that we hold ourselves to account when we mess up. If we don’t, the politicians will step in and that would be a disaster.

Media self-criticism is not just important to improve our journalism, it is a political, professional and moral imperative. That is why I thought it important to take a deep dive into what happened at the Sunday Times.

The other reason is that this same period saw some of finest and most effective investigative journalism in this country. The #GuptaLeaks exposé in particular contributed to bringing down a president. The email leaks provided the evidence of the extraordinary and malign influence the Gupta brothers– who stand accused of having captured the South African state for their enrichment – had over the president and his family.

Taken together, I thought these parallel tales would provide insight into the highs and lows of journalism, showing its importance and value, but also its limitations and problems. I hope to enable a better public understanding of the work of journalists and the media, as I think that there is confusion over what we do and don’t do in our newsrooms.

Read more: Jürgen Schadeberg: chronicler of life across apartheid’s divides

This was not just a Sunday Times issue, but it was about the nature and state of our media, and hopefully I offer some insight into that.

As someone who was involved in the 2007 report, knew all the characters well, and who had been part of judging panels for the Taco Kuiper Award for investigative journalism, which recognised the Sunday Times for one of these stories and then withdrew that recognition, I had a rare personal perspective on events.

In a way, the book is a personal account from an insider, and I hope I bring to bear an understanding of journalism derived from 40 years of practice, including my own fair share of journalistic blunders.

Why do your findings matter?

I hope that I show how good journalism nourishes and feeds citizenship and democracy, but also that it is an imperfect profession working in imperfect structures in an imperfect society – and we need to face up to the reality of what this means.

Journalism can do some good, and it can do a lot of harm, and it usually does both. We have to try and understand how to try and do more good and less harm. This is particularly important at a time when the work we do is facing the triple onslaught of political, financial and disinformation storms.

An important element of the story is how state structures, such as the State Security Agency and Police Crime Intelligence, deliberately and malevolently interfered to distort and harm our journalism for their own purposes. The question to ask is:

what was it about the Sunday Times that made this newsroom fall for these tricks, when others didn’t?

We have a lot to fix in this country, and as journalists we can start by trying to fix our journalism and our media.

What are the implications for the media?

What I highlight is that this is not a problem affecting one newspaper. The problem runs deep in the structure and history of our media. Hopefully, those reading my book will get a better understanding of this and be better equipped for a discussion about what needs to be done to make our media and our democracy work better.

We are facing an onslaught of disinformation, enabled by social media, and we cannot counter it unless we rebuild journalism so that it is a valued and trusted part of our society.

How can media houses and journalists fix the problems you identify?

First we need to understand the problem and its causes. That is what I explore in the book. Part of this is to see that this is not a problem for media houses or journalists alone. This is a social, political and economic problem that can’t be solved by the media industry on its own. We have to work with the private sector, the public sector, the philanthropic sector, civil society and the state to ensure we have a media that meets our society’s needs.

We cannot deal with the issues of professionalism and accountability without solving the problems of the fundamental economic structure of the industry. To be a quality industry, we need to be a strong one, and to do this, we need to find a new way to restore its financial foundation.

Read more: Journalism of Drum’s heyday remains cause for celebration — 70 years later

We are in the extraordinary position where philanthropically funded journalism appears to be more sustainable than the traditional advertising-driven model. This is an inversion of what we always accepted as reality. We are caught in a bind: we need citizens to value us enough to pay for our services in some form, but we don’t have the resources to produce the journalism that would show that value. We first have to recognise that this is a national and societal problem, not just a media one, and then we can tackle it.

Anton Harber, Caxton Professor of Journalism, University of the Witwatersrand

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Podcast: Can we save SA’s restaurants and winelands?

A vital discussion on food and wine

By John Fraser

Recorded before the latest easing of the lockdown, but still of vital relevance, a top-tier panel chats about the Covid-19 impact on the food and wine sector and the SA government’s heavy-handed approach.

Joining me are lunch-out legend David Bullard, food and wine guru Michael Olivier, business strategist Duane Newman and Klerksdorp’s own James Lennox.

Listen, laugh and learn.

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