Project M - the Gupta plan to buy the Mail & Guardian

05 June 2017 - 18:57 By Kyle Cowan

Leaked emails show how the Guptas considered buying one of its leading critics‚ the Mail & Guardian newspaper‚ in a James Bond-styled mission named “Project M”.

The emails from January 28‚ 2016‚ also show that Zimbabwe’s Alpha Media — which publishes three national papers‚ News Day‚ The Standard and the Zimbabwe Independent — was also in the family’s sights.

In an email with the subject line “Some early thoughts on Project M” sent from former Oakbay chief executive Nazeem Howa to Rajesh ‘Tony’ Gupta‚ Howa speaks about the possible acquisition of the M&G and its sister titles “which are indeed brands which have great recognition factor in South Africa across all sectors of society”.

“The newspaper is champion a position {sic} that President Zuma is corrupt and should be relieved of his responsibility. They have made it their focus to find ways to support the #Zumamustfall campaign and the family and our group have become convenience (sic) pawns in their strategy to unseat the President‚” Howa writes.

He then lists key statistics surrounding circulation and advertising revenue for the newspaper which has seen a decline due to its editorial position‚ Howa charged.

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“Editorial position has certainly been a factor in this decline and one would question how quickly one can reclaim the lost government advertising spend‚ and how much of an editorial positioning change will be needed to achieve that‚” Howa writes.

He ended the email by saying an estimated price would be R20-million “which I would argue is not a good deal at all”.

At the time of the email the number of articles printed in the Mail & Guardian newspaper revealing the inner workings of the Gupta family empire numbered in the dozens with the paper among the family’s leading media critics.

A report in the paper in 2013‚ which referenced a Sunday Times expose which alleged Rajesh ‘Tony’ Gupta had tried to “bribe” a senior official at South African Airways‚ led to both papers being sued for R500-million for defamation by the family – possibly the biggest defamation suit in South African history - but it never went to trial.

Trevor Ncube‚ M&G Media deputy executive chair and publisher of the M&G‚ is also the chairman of Apha Media.

Asked to comment on Monday‚ Ncube said the M&G had not changed ownership since 2002.

“As normal with any business we get approached by entrepreneurs expressing an interest in acquiring our business‚” Ncube said when asked if he had ever received any offers from Gupta-linked businesses.

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Asked if he would have declined a purchase offer from the Gupta family‚ Ncube said: “The Mail & Guardian is a national institution of which we are mere custodians. We have a duty to protect its brand of journalism‚ particularly cutting edge investigative journalism.

“It would be reckless and irresponsible to off-load the business to anybody likely to undermine the 30-year-plus legacy of fiercely independent journalism.”

The Guptas attorney‚ Gert van der Merwe‚ said he had advised his clients not to respond to media enquiries until the veracity of the emails had been established but they were happy to support an official judicial inquiry into state capture.