Published by GroundUp (www.groundup.org.za)
Journalist and author Terry Bell was treated “shabbily” by Independent Newspapers’ Business Report, which summarily dropped his weekly column earlier this year, the Statutory Council for the Printing, Newspaper and Packaging Industries has found.
In a ruling yesterday (August 12), Commissioner Chris Bennett found that Business Report editor Ellis Mnyandu had suspended publication of Bell’s Inside Labour column, which had been running in the newspaper every week for 17 years, “with callous disregard of the impact this would have on Mr Bell”.
The Commissioner said this action could not be seen as fair labour practice “by any standard”.
“Mr Bell claimed that he was treated shabbily. I agree,” he said.
Bell, author of several books and winner of the Nat Nakasa award for courage and integrity in journalism, is a frequent contributor to GroundUp.
He said today: “It is a sad reflection on the attitude of the Business Report editor and the owners of Independent Newspapers that they were prepared to spend many thousands of rand on legal fees and a drawn-out process when all I had initially asked for was a public apology for the manner in which I had been treated and to discuss some form of compensation. This was rejected.”
He said the hearing had been postponed at the last minute and he had been expected to attend additional hearings and provide five years of tax returns.
“I consider this to have been a form of legal thuggery and noted this when the hearings began,” he said.
Independent Newspapers applied for its legal costs to be paid by Bell but this was rejected by the Commissioner.
Bennett also found that Bell was not an employee of Business Report but an independent contractor, and so did not enjoy the protection of the Labour Relations Act. As a result the Council lacked the jurisdiction to consider the matter further, he said.
“It is ironic that a prominent advocate for workers’ rights should find himself without the protection of the laws set up to protect workers,” the Commissioner said.
Bell said: “A terribly anomaly has been shown up in my case: that contract workers, even having worked for many years for the same employer, do not enjoy the protection of the Labour Relations Act; that the CCMA (Council for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration) process does not apply. Only the more expensive and time consuming Labour Court route is open to them.”
Former Business Report editor Quentin Wray said though Bell had been on a contract “he was as much a part of the fabric of the paper as any of our reporters”.
“Apart from writing his agenda-setting and well-received column and the occasional news piece, he always added value where he could by making time to discuss stories, providing much needed context and giving us access to his impressive contacts list when needed. This was especially useful when we did not have full time labour writers. Terry participated in strategy sessions and came to our year end functions when he could.
“If I were still editor I would have fought very hard to keep him on board as I believe that the paper is poorer without his contribution,” Wray said.