Peter Bruce looks back
Gareth van Onselen speaks to veteran SA newsman, who says journalists aiming to excel must know their subject and know their readers. He is known as an outstanding columnist but still relishes the feeling of ‘getting a good story first’
This month Peter Bruce retired from his formal duties at the Financial Mail and Business Day, though he will continue to write his various columns. He leaves at a particularly fraught moment, for journalism and politics alike.
I spoke to Bruce about the state of the trade he has dedicated his life to and some of the challenges it faces.
Bruce’s experience is vast. He worked, briefly, for the Rand Daily Mail, and for 18 years at the the Financial Times. Back home in SA, he has run Business Report and both the Financial Mail and Business Day as editor and, later, editor-in-chief, for the bulk of his career. Bruce’s role in establishing the latter as the daily authority on the political economy was significant. He is deeply knowledgeable about journalistic best practice and the economy.
Bruce says any journalist who aspires to be excellent must "know your subject and know your readers".
His own columns, of which the standard bearer has long been The Thick End of the Wedge, are testament to this. He has an uncanny knack for tapping into the spirit of the time and talking to, sometimes talking up, its fears and anxieties.
"I feel a very intimate relationship with the people I imagine I’m writing for," he says.
Bruce regards the lack of money to hire good people as the biggest threat to journalism today
Of his various apprehensions, the state of the ANC and the insidious influence of the Gupta family on the economy and politics are perhaps ground zero. He has expounded on both at great length in 2017. As a result, he tends to dominate the Most Read list on theBusinessLive website.
There have been real-world implications. Earlier this year, a ragtag group of protesters from Black First Land First, which tends to act as a toothless guard dog for the Guptas’ public reputation, set up shop outside Bruce’s residence. He, along with Jacques Pauw and many other journalists targeted by the Gupta propaganda machine, became the news in 2017. That is something any journalist wants to avoid.
"I guess when journalists are under attack it is not unreasonable to write about the attack," says Bruce, "But I’m uncomfortable being the subject of news stories and I suspect other editors are too."
It is, however, not a fight from which Bruce shrinks. He believes, for example, that newspapers need not necessarily be neutral. He says: "There isn’t enough of an ideological spread in the media, in my view.
"Newspapers should take sides and the readers would read the newspapers that best reflect their biases."
On one level, that’s what has happened. Certainly, among English-language SA media, the likes of the Independent Group, The New Age, ANN7 and the SABC are regarded as generally pro-government. If not, then in the case of The New Age and ANN7, pro-Zuma. In turn, though not explicitly stated, Business Day, the Financial Mail and the Sunday Times appeared generally supportive of Cyril Ramaphosa, in the run-up to the ANC elective conference.
Editors, copy editors, are the heart of the newspaper and they have sadly been marginalised in SA over the years. And it shows
But, one way or the other, it is the ANC’s political universe that tends to define how the SA media positions itself. The DA, for example, could not point to any publication that primarily supports its cause or, at least, interprets politics through its lens, though some do share its general ideological framework.
On another level, then, it hasn’t happened at all. Media outlets don’t explicitly align themselves with one party or ideology. One odd by-product of this is that, in a generally conservative, extremely religious society, there is no media platform dedicated to conservative thought.
"I’d like to see a conservative publication in SA," Bruce says, "but I’m not sure I’d have the guts to edit one."
Like that comment, there is a frankness and beguiling informality to Bruce’s columns. They read as though you were having a conversation over dinner. Often, he situates an argument around a personal anecdote before rapidly expanding to those far larger forces at play. He deals in grand narratives, big-picture stuff.
That requires considerable courage, for the bigger the picture, the more you tend to rely on theory than evidence. And he draws on much international experience to situate his ideals more widely. Thus, a Peter Bruce column often does one of two things: it is either right on the money, or, occasionally, right off it.
That is the price any columnist in the making-sense-of-the-world business must pay to some degree. The point
of an opinion piece is to have an opinion. It’s why people read them.
Bruce is a maverick and a speculator, and an invaluable one at that. He forces you to think in the way any good polemicist does. On the odd occasion when he does get it wrong, he is quick to fall on his sword. He does not suffer any pretentiousness. It is a rare and endearing quality.
But the cavalier nature of his columns cuts a stark contrast to his eye for detail as an editor.
There is much about the publication of a newspaper the public does not see. And for Bruce it is with regard to those generally unseen but critical components of the machine that the various pressures on contemporary journalism are most evident.
"Editors, copy editors, are the heart of the newspaper and they have sadly been marginalised in SA over the years. And it shows.
"People refer to ‘journalists’ and ‘sub-editors’, when in fact they are all journalists. Without sub-editors, there is no newspaper."
At the heart of all this is the dire financial condition of modern journalism the world over. No-one has yet fully cracked the puzzle that is the Internet and, as print sales decline, it remains difficult to generate significant revenue from online advertising.
"Money, or the lack of it, to hire good people", is for Bruce the biggest threat to the profession today.
"I grew up on the Financial Times, where every reporter was a specialist. It’s why the FT thrives today. But it gets harder to have specialists when newsrooms are shrinking."
Newsrooms certainly are getting smaller. Bruce, before handing over the Business Day editorship to Songezo Zibi in March 2014, was forced to make several cutbacks. It is a terrible undertaking for an editor, and was by no means particular to Business Day. The whole of the Tiso Blackstar group has in recent years been forced to retrench and downsize. This applies to almost every other news group too. Times are tough.
Bruce says: "I did journalism at Rhodes, which is not something I tell a lot of people. For me, the perfect recruits have a BA with English and history as majors. That way they can think and analyse, and write."
The Internet is a challenge on this front too. Unless you are an expert, Bruce says, "you become less interesting to people who know the subject and who may know more than you do. Then you’re just ordinary."
Bruce is perfectly capable of serious introspection. In recent years, he has produced a number of detailed essays — a passionate piece on race relations and, on May 11 2017, an economic manifesto for the Financial Mail titled "How to fix SA".
Current Business Day editor Tim Cohen says: "Peter loves capitalism and dedicates much of his writing to how best to reform it."
But, for all that, he must miss being an editor. I ask Bruce what the moments are that make him feel most alive? He replies: "Getting a really good story first. It’s all that matters sometimes. It’s a rush."
He is passionate about journalism for its own sake and reads widely on the subject, revelling in good writing. In a weekly online column for the Financial Mail, he sets out key stories and opinion pieces from the world of current affairs, stitched together around a theme. The New Yorker on Donald Trump or The Guardian on Brexit. "I used to do it daily but it was just too much." That’s a pity.
But as the SA crisis grows, even that column has tended more towards local writing. Tensions between the ANC and the media have always run high. But Bruce doesn’t believe it will bubble over into an actual attempt to control the free press.
"You must remember the ANC takes newspapers very seriously. The leadership grew up reading newspapers and they take print especially seriously. I don’t think they have much stomach for control."
That is partly true. The ANC has always had designs on its own newspaper, and that, of course, is the ultimate manifestation of direct control.
Nevertheless, as the ruling party turns in on itself, and chaos and confusion reign, it has been exceedingly difficult to make sense of our political reality. Fact and fiction merge. Truth and secrecy compete. Bruce sees one solution in international best practice.
"The Germans managed it best. Every morning, in a building close to the Bundestag the media would organise a 10am press conference that anyone could go to and which all government spokesmen would attend. Some would bring their ministers if they were involved in a running story or had something to announce. You could ask questions and the beauty of it was that everyone heard the same thing at the same time so there was little room for government spin afterwards or for stories which inaccurately reflected what was said."
It’s a good idea, but possibly a bridge too far for the ANC today. Maybe down the line someone will take him up on the suggestion.
Either way, it is indicative of the optimism that runs through so much of Bruce’s contribution. When all is said and done, be it the state of the economy, politics or journalism, he is concerned primarily with solutions. And while he wears his heart on his sleeve about the state of the nation, you get the sense that what he desperately wants, more than anything, is for SA to work.
SA journalism is under great pressure, on a variety of fronts. Money, expertise and politics are all proving difficult to manage. Being fiercely loyal, he will no doubt be available to advise and mentor, but his departure comes at a time when we could really do with a few more Peter Bruces.