The appointment of Caxton professor of Journalism Anton Harber as editor-in-chief of 24-hour news channel ENCA, has raised questions about transformation issues at the private broadcaster, as well throughout the South African media industry, writes Michelle Gumede.

Critics have said the appointment of Harber is not a step forward for the racial and gender transformation of the media industry which they say continues to be dominated by white males.

Caxton Professor of Journalism and new editor-in-chief of ENCA Anton Harber

Caxton Professor of Journalism and new editor-in-chief of ENCA Anton Harber says he wants to amplify voices at the 24-hour news channel. He believes there are imbalances in our national discussion and all the different voices need to be brought in for a healthy robust debate. Photo: Michelle Gumede

Harber responded, saying transformation should not only be seen as the colour and gender of the industry’s management.

“We must be careful of simplistic one dimensional views of transformation,” says Harber.

Critics say there are many capable black media practitioners in South Africa but the hiring of white males to management is a sign the industry refuses to transform.

In an anonymous letter, an ENCA staff member blasted Harber’s appointment, calling it “a missed opportunity for transformation”.

ENCA condemned the letter, which included other accusations against the channel, calling it “defamatory, grossly untrue in many respects, inciteful and harmful has been penned and distributed.”

In a previous statement, the company cited Harber’s qualifications for the top job.

“Anton’s extensive experience in South African media will allow him to continue to build an independent, top class, integrity driven news service, while also mentoring and growing the future leaders of our news business. He is a seasoned journalist, experienced manager and highly respected academic and professional,” read the statement.

Harber argues that while it is important to face issues of transformation head on, transformation is about a lot more than affirmative action.

“Transformation in the media is about audience and content and role and voice,” he says. “They obviously felt there was nobody internally who was ready to take on this task,” he says.

Harber said there transformation has already started at ENCA and that his role will be to champion on transformation. He said he plans on hearing the ideas of current employees first.

“If I don’t go in with a strong agenda to continue the transformation they’ve started, then I will fail at the job.”

With a tough job ahead of him, Harber says his core role will be to work on the editorial and to drive a transformation agenda. “It’s about giving voice to South Africans”.

As one of the founders of the Wits Journalism department, Harber has been head of the department since 2002. According to Harber, the department was specifically modelled to be a graduate program that took the “teaching hospital” approach, producing both print and radio media.

Harber admits that under his leadership, the department has struggled with transformation and there was still a lot of work to be done, including the hiring of staff.

“Like many university departments we probably didn’t do enough for a few years,” he says.

But he’s particularly pleased about the opportunity that Wits Journalism has afforded to many mid-career journalists who, for historical reasons, previously didn’t have university access to come and get a degree.

Radio Academy head Franz Kruger will be taking over the Journalism Department while Harber is at ENCA for the next two years.

*This article has been updated since it was initially published. Comments from ENCA were added making it clear that the channel condemned the anonymous letter and explaining their reasons for hiring Harber.