When former Rand Daily Mail editor Allister Sparks drew his last breath this week at the age of 83, it drew a symbolic line under a more idealistic era in SA’s media industry. "There are easier ways to earn a living, but once you’re in it, you have to keep at it," he said, philosophically, in 2006.
For the man born on a farm on the banks of the Great Kei River, the sky had looked especially dim in his last few years when it came to the two subjects closest to his heart: the media industry, which was looking anaemic, and the political environment, which had begun to curdle in the Machiavellian clutches of Jacob Zuma.
But on both scores, prospects have brightened. There’s light at the end of the Zuma presidency, while sunshine is again peeking through in the media sector.
Yet even Zuma, whom Sparks recently described as an arrogant corrupter of the ANC’s legacy, sent his condolences to Sparks’ family, saying he had "made his mark in the fight for a free SA and proved that the pen is mightier than the sword".
This understates Sparks’ career, in which he spent 23 years at the Rand Daily Mail (RDM), including a four-year stint as editor from 1977-1981, where he oversaw this country’s equivalent of Watergate.
There, RDM journalists Mervyn Rees and Chris Day, along with the Sunday Express’s Kitt Katzin, cracked open the "Infogate" scandal. It laid bare how Prime Minister John Vorster’s government had used a R64m slush fund to put lipstick on the apartheid pig — bribing journalists, buying overseas newspapers and even establishing The Citizen as a propaganda tool.
It led to Vorster’s resignation in 1979, a victory every bit as profound as that of Watergate, which had led to US president Richard Nixon’s exit in 1976.
It wasn’t Sparks’ only victory. In 1977, his journalists had also exposed the cynical lie from justice minister Jimmy Kruger that Steve Biko had "died after going on a hunger strike".
Sparks, given to making stirring speeches at the drop of a hat, was an animating force.
Former Business Day editor Peter Bruce wrote this week that after meeting Sparks in Mthatha in the 1960s, "I decided I wanted to be a journalist".
"More than anyone, it was [Sparks] who told the daily SA story best to the rest of the world," wrote Bruce.
But Sparks often clashed with media owners. He was axed from the RDM in 1981 for being "too left-wing", at a time when the spineless business community was loath to advertise in a medium so hostile to the morally bankrupt National Party.
Sparks was never going to count media owners among his friends. Even this year, Independent Media chairman Iqbal Survé described him as one of a group of "propaganda journalists" smearing him. If anything, it remains a badge of honour to be castigated by Survé, a man who, last week, implausibly described Naspers as "the greatest threat to democracy".
Sparks has been fêted all over the world. Besides being a Nieman Fellow at Harvard in 1962, he was nominated for a Pulitzer prize in 1985, and worked as the SA correspondent of such august titles as The Washington Post.
Sparks, more than most, was not willing to allow talk of the demise of the newspaper industry to get him down. So he’d be pleased by the fact that green shoots are finally showing.
This week, the UK’s Telegraph Group reported £48.3m in profit, while the Evening Standard, tripled its profit to £3.4m for the past year. The Economist’s profit grew to £60.6m, while UK news magazine circulation is, against all odds, actually rising.
Quality, it seems, is back. This is great for SA titles like Netwerk24, Business Day and, dare I say, this magazine (where digital readership has grown 144% in a year, and even print circulation is edging upwards); it is less good for The New Age.
It’s a trajectory that Sparks, whose ethic prioritised quality over cheap gains, would have approved of.