HOSKEN Consolidated Investments (HCI) is anxious to repair reputational damage caused by an ugly fight between its co-founders, which revealed an internal battle at e.tv over alleged political interference for commercial gain.

On Thursday, e.tv said it was reviewing the processes that led to the airing of an infrastructure series on the TV channel which, it said, led to blurring of the lines between the commercial interests of the station and editorial independence.

The fact that the Department of Economic Development had been buying advertisements as e.tv was creating the series on infrastructure came to light in court two weeks ago when e.tv CE Marcel Golding tried to have his suspension as an executive lifted.

The HCI board suspended him pending a disciplinary hearing over shares Mr Golding bought without disclosing their purchase.

Mr Golding alleged in an affidavit that the reason for him facing disciplinary charges at the time was to remove him as he had been protecting the only privately owned television news channel from editorial interference.

It was not, he stated, the fact that he had traded in electronic distributor Ellies shares worth R24m without board approval.

Mr Golding told Business Day on Thursday: “As I have said, under my watch there was no interference with editorial independence despite many attempts to do so. The newsroom and the news editorial staff have always been independent because they had management in place to protect them.”

During HCI’s annual general meeting two weeks ago, HCI chairman Johnny Copelyn said: “Marcel and Bronwyn (Keene-Young, former e.tv chief operating officer) negotiated and managed the contract (with the Department of Economic Development). I have not seen the contract.”

Mr Golding said that was correct.

Mr Golding’s court documents also said that HCI executive director Yunis Shaik had attempted to get e.tv to flight a news item about President Jacob Zuma opening the De Hoop Dam earlier this year, and had said it would make a good news broadcast lead.

Shareholder activist Theo Botha, who was at the HCI annual general meeting last week when Mr Golding resigned as the group’s executive chairman, said it was a good thing that e.tv and its owners were moving to repair its reputational damage, but the issue came down to corporate governance.

“I think what they are trying to do is sort out reputational damage, and that is a good thing. But it is a long process to repair.”

Mr Botha said HCI should also look at its independent directors.

“The problem is that it is the independent directors who should have been asking the questions about editorial interference in the first place. The question is, are those directors really independent?”

A statement issued on Thursday by HCI and its media holdings subsidiary, Sabido, said they had initiated a review of the infrastructure series aired on eNCA and e.tv earlier this year. This, the statement said, formed part of the channels’ reflection on 20 years of democracy. Circumstances in which this series was aired have come under intense scrutiny after the departure of Mr Golding and Ms Keene-Young.

Sabido chief operating officer Mark Rosin said: “We are reviewing the process internally and what transpired. We will amend policies and procedures in future should it be necessary. We are committed to editorial output that is truthful and transparent.”

Mr Rosin has admitted that it was apparent that there were problems that should have been foreseen and avoided. He said the lines appeared to have been blurred between an undertaking to report on infrastructure development in SA since 1994 and a commitment by the Department of Economic Development to spend advertising budget on the channel.

“The perception that the news was paid for is deeply regrettable and we wish to reassure our audiences that eNews remains an impartial and independent news outlet,” he said.

ENCA head of news Patrick Conroy said: “It became clear that the boundaries of editorial control were not clear to everyone involved and this created confusion between ourselves and the department. Despite this, at no point did our editors surrender control.”

The department was unable to respond to Business Day’s request that its minister Ebrahim Patel comment on the issue.

Source: BDLive Paul Vecchiatto