Tell-all book: How Zuma directed ANN7's editorial policy
'The push in our favour should be subtle'
A new book claims former president Jacob Zuma held lengthy meetings with the Guptas and ANN7 managers to brief them on its editorial policy, who they should hire and how they should make him look good – but that it shouldn’t be too obvious.
This is one of many startling statements Indian journalist Rajesh Sundaram makes in his explosive book, published by Jacana and to be released this month, about how he was hired to lead the team that would launch the 24-hour news channel.
He writes that Zuma had a direct hand in appointing presenters on Gupta news channel ANN7, including insisting that former government spokesman Mzwanele “Jimmy” Manyi was hired.
Manyi laughed off the claims in a WhatsApp message to Times Select. “Where do people dream up such?” he asked, without making any further comment.
But according to the author, Zuma’s hand was so influential in Manyi’s hire that senior staffers at the channel were told that “President Zuma will have it no other way” than that Manyi – who now owns the station – was on air.
“President Zuma was happy to sit for hours getting briefed and giving input on minute aspects of the venture. The time he spent helping out with the ‘commercial’ aspects was most intriguing,” Sundaram wrote.
But then he says Nazeem Howa told him: “Don’t you know? ... He has a big say in this venture. His son Duduzane holds 30% in the company. His involvement is very critical for the first year of our operations. If we are able to get government advertisements, we will be able to break even in the first year.”
A text message sent to Howa was not immediately responded to on Tuesday night. Questions were also sent to a lawyer representing the Gupta family.
Sundarum, who has worked as a journalist for 23 years, writes in Indentured: Behind the Scenes at Gupta TV that Manyi was terrible as a presenter, but that they had no choice but to hire him. He recalls a conversation with former Oakbay Investments CEO Nazeem Howa in the weeks before the station launched.
“Jimmy failed miserably when he did his test interrogation with Atul on the Waterkloof issue. Nazeem, the top editorial team, me and Atul himself knew he was stiff on camera and reluctant to ask tough questions.“But despite these shortcomings, he was hired. ‘We have to hire him; President Zuma will have it no other way. But we do not have to put him on air until he is perfect. We will have someone train him,’ Nazeem said after looking at the CD of the pilot he shot with Atul,” Sundarum writes.
Zuma also apparently directly recommended “a radio show presenter who was the daughter of an African National Congress (ANC) leader”, although the woman declined to take up a post after several rounds of meetings.
“Many recommended by President Zuma asked for a salary that was well out of the ANN7 salary band. ‘Just because they have been recommended to us by President Zuma, they think they can ask for exorbitant salaries. Some of them are not even worthy of being trainees here,’ Nazeem told me after interviewing one such candidate,” Sundarum writes.
But this is not the only influence Zuma had on the station. In fact, according to Sundarum, he was directly involved in shaping editorial policy.
He writes that a meeting between himself, Atul, Zuma and a number of other executives took place in July 2013, a month before the station went to air. The meeting took place on a Sunday at an unspecified presidential residence. The vehicle they were using was instantly recognised by security and ushered in.
There, Sundarum was told that Zuma would give them – the very men responsible for the TV station and its content – an overview of the station’s editorial policy.
“He feels good if we give him the feeling that he is moulding the news station,” Sundarum quotes Atul as telling him before the meeting started. “It is always good to have the head of state on your side. He will give us some suggestions. We do not have to follow all his suggestions, but we will make polite noises and we will follow the suggestions that are acceptable to us.”
Ajay Gupta, who was also at the meeting, reinforced this point.
Sundarum quotes Ajay as saying: “Rajesh, today I will ask President Zuma to give us a broad overview on editorial policy and also some suggestions on who we should hire as presenters. We will hear what he has to say, but we will only do what we think suits our vision.”He states that “as long as it was just a formality and we were not bound by what he was saying”, he was happy “to play the game they were playing with the president”.
But Sundaram writes that Zuma’s influence ran deep.
After a presentation video was shown – which Zuma approved of – the former president spoke.
“I have a few suggestions. We must not convert this into a publicity channel for the ANC and me. If we do that, we will have no credibility. You must present the views of the opposition and my rivals in the ANC as well. The push in our favour should be subtle. You are a seasoned journalist. We need a channel that presents the positives that the government is doing,” Sundarum quotes Zuma as saying.
But he says he didn’t feel confident, despite Atul’s “constant reminders” that the station would only do what suited its vision.
“President Zuma’s directives on editorial policy puzzled me,” he writes.After Zuma spoke of an event in Mpumalanga he was attending the following week, Sundarum quotes Ajay as saying: “Sir, we will have a reporter and camera operator attached to you at all times. You will have to ensure that they are accommodated in the plane that you travel on. We will do a live telecast of all your engagements. We have outside broadcast vans.”
Zuma responded: “Yes, that can be easily arranged. But your coverage will be shallow if you come with me. Our teams must move in two days ahead of me and do background reports that tell viewers how our policies are helping the people, so that they get the full picture and not the distorted one they get now. Is that possible?”
Ajay shot back: “Sir, we will make it possible.”