O'Reilly eases ANC worries on newspapers

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TONY O'REILLY'S entry into South African newspapers solves a lot of headaches for a lot of people. It also opens up the prospect of a regeneration of the South African press, after years of decline.

The Argus company into which Dr O'Reilly's Irish publishing company, Independent Newspapers, has bought has been a focus for increasing controversy as the country approaches the start, with elections in April, of non-racism and democracy. Argus has enjoyed media domination - in terms of monopoly control of newspapers and cross-ownership into linked areas - on a scale that would not be tolerated in a Western democracy. And behind Argus, as the ultimate owner, has been the Anglo American Corporation, which in itself controls from 60 to 80 per cent of the country's private sector.

The Argus grip on the media has also been under challenge because its newspapers are largely a carryover from the dying past - white-owned, white-run and white-oriented. Although the African National Congress is the clear frontrunner in the elections it cannot but be edgy about this, for it fears that in the process of rebuilding South Africa it will have to contend with newspapers which at best are cautiously friendly and at worst arrogantly hostile.

Argus executives have been worried, it is said, about the threat of ANC-directed government action to order an end to monopoly control, even though ANC leaders have maintained that they have no intention of getting involved with curbing private investment. Some of them maintain that the Bill of Rights actually precludes them from any action.

But accepting the inevitability of the coming era, Argus/Anglo American has been moving to defuse any possible threat. Last month it sold a majority shareholding in the Sowetan, which is aimed at black readers and has the biggest daily sale in the country; the buyers are a group of black businessmen. Now it has sold effective control of Argus Newspapers to Dr O'Reilly: he gains total control of the Star, the leading Johannesburg daily, and effective control of other English-language newspapers in major cities.

For the ANC, Dr O'Reilly - who is also chairman of Heinz Corporation - is clearly a highly acceptable entrant into the newspaper market, overcoming the nervousness which might otherwise attach to foreign ownership. He is a personal friend of the ANC leader, Nelson Mandela.

It does not mean that newspapers will be transformed into lackeys of the ANC - but giving the English-language press a shake-up will hopefully lead to a press that is more in tune with majority aspirations. Meanwhile, the ANC will presumably drop its plans to foster a new newspaper.