Former Financial Mail editor Caroline Southey. Picture: Dudu Zitha/Sunday Times
Former Financial Mail editor Caroline Southey. Picture: Dudu Zitha/Sunday Times

The FM was where I started my career in financial journalism. And where I ended it.

It all began in 1979. I was serving a miserable apprenticeship at the Pretoria News when a friend who worked at the FM told me there had been some senior resignations — due to objections to the editorship of Stephen Mulholland — and the magazine was hiring.

I was interviewed by Tony Koenderman and offered a position writing in a junior capacity for the business section. I was thrilled.

My job was to shadow a senior reporter writing profiles of senior businesspeople. When someone not too important came along I was allowed to venture out on my own.

In less than a year I’d been offered a junior role in the politics team. Before I knew it, I was writing about trade unions — black unions had just been legalised. It was an extraordinarily exciting, and terrifying, time. I found myself confronted by the deep contradictions of being a strong trade union supporter writing for a magazine that viewed them with deep suspicion and antagonism.

I learnt some of my best journalism know-how during this period. Writing under the guidance of the political editor, Peter Wilhelm, we navigated an environment fraught with danger. He taught me some political skills — working stealthily rather than confrontationally — and what good writing as well as meticulous editing looked like. I wasn’t always an exemplary student, though I tried to sharpen my skills by spending Friday and Saturday evenings on the down-table subs’ desk at the Sunday Express.

Caroline Southey in 2003, when she was editor of the FM. Picture: Sunday Times/Dudu Zitha
Caroline Southey in 2003, when she was editor of the FM. Picture: Sunday Times/Dudu Zitha

When I left the Main Street offices in 1981, I could never have imagined that it would be 17 years before I would make my way back to the FM, this time to its premises in Biermann Avenue in Rosebank. Or that the intervening years would be spent mostly in exile working for the Financial Times in London and then, briefly, Brussels.

My return in 1997 was prompted by a call from Peter Bruce, who was then editor of the FM. "Come home. We need you." And I did.

What struck me forcefully when I entered the newsroom was how very pale and male it was. This was true of financial journalism generally. I set about trying to change the equation, even a little. The board was very supportive and gave me the resources to run a graduate trainee programme while working as the magazine’s executive editor. The programme produced four years of stunning graduates, most of whom were black, and a large percentage of whom were women. Some I would work with again much later.

When Bruce left to take up the editorship of Business Day I threw my hat in the ring. I never, for a moment, imagined I would get the job. A woman editor of the FM? Unimaginable. But it wasn’t. And I was duly appointed.

The editorship was tough. There was resentment among men who belonged to the old guard and antagonism from some in the new.

But I am proud of the four short years I was the editor. We produced some great journalism. My view was that the magazine should play a role in disrupting the huge mistrust that existed between business and the government. Suspicion was acute, and it was producing bad outcomes for the country. I saw our role as providing in-depth and well-informed analysis (based on sound reporting) that gave neither side an excuse to say they didn’t understand the protagonists.

It was also the magazine’s mission, in my view, to lay bare the idiocy of ideologically hidebound policies that rendered the state inefficient and tied the private sector in knots that made it inefficient.

At the same time, I saw our role as holding the private sector’s feet to the fire by exposing malfeasance and corruption. And by reminding business leaders that they had an obligation beyond pursuing their bonuses and widening their profit margins. We were in the process of building a new country — and that required a new social contract.

All this was made possible because the magazine had strong journalistic underpinnings: facts were checked, articles were written by specialists in their fields, there was vigorous debate as well as editing.

And the FM attracted great talent: excellent journalists worked at the magazine — from writers through to editors, subeditors, data specialists and layout artists. Many of its leading writers would move on to become exemplary editors and leaders in the industry.

In retrospect, it’s easy to see that we were covering a period in which the battle lines that were to manifest so clearly later hadn’t yet been drawn. And, looking back I realise that I was naive and my expectations were overblown. My only comfort, if it’s any comfort at all, is that I wasn’t alone.

On a final note: it’s always intrigued me that financial journalism continued, for the most part, to remain the redoubt of white men. After a period working in the financial services sector for two banks I now have a keener understanding of why women make such rare appearances.

Huge swathes of the business sector are infused with misogyny. The financial services sector is one. I’ve seen it at work and observed how it can sow doubt in the strongest, brightest minds.

And I’ve come to appreciate just how much society determines the profile of newsrooms. There’s still a lot of work to be done.

Southey, now editor of The Conversation Africa, edited the FM between 2001 and 2004