By Nobel P. Loser
A Boardroom Battle (BB) has nothing to do with blood, sex, rape and crime per se. Many would, more likely, regard it as the common man’s staple food that is served daily to him by the local media. The people’s opium, even, as some recalling Karl Marx’s famous statement about religion would say. But it looks like the BB now being fought, in public and private, has lots to do with power, influence and business.
Power is naturally inherent in any media organisation, whether broadcasting or publishing, and is used intelligently to further business. Arguing anything contrary simply does not hold water.The power and influence issue quite often consists of moulding public opinion as it most suits the parties involved and their undisclosed vested interests under any given situation; in other instances, the aim is to push forward specific agendas, whether socio-politically motivated or, as is so often the case, to iron out economic and business issues involving huge financial stakes. Things like these take shape behind closed doors. And what is being often served to the public can either be an incorrect presentation of unverifiable statements or outright biased arguments.
Partly if not all of the above seem to be fit with the boardroom battle currently affecting a private radio station. This is not a private affair, limited to the players involved. It extends beyond their wider economic grip and influence on Corporate Mauritius. Considering all facts, it’s a public interest issue. And people need to understand and know its wider implications.
Even before its transformation into a boardroom battle, the word was buzzing since some time in closed meetings. Let’s come to the untold story which has been unfolding over the past couple of years.
Act 1. About two years before the last general elections, during a wedding ceremony being celebrated at the Andra Maha Sabha in Port Louis, a retired honest citizen took a relative of his into an aparté conversation, and he “secretly” described, not to say vehemently questioned, a state of affairs in connection with what he termed as “the growing influence” of an economic mammoth. And he pointed an accusing finger towards the guardians of the Statute of Victoria located at the heart of the Capital.
Act 2. Then came the election campaign of April-May 2010 during which Port Louis saw itself drowning in a smearing campaign against the same mammoth. What the retired citizen whispered at the wedding was now turned into an ethnic, family-based argument of political treason. The 14-family syndrome swept into the campaign with well-researched words or slogans and innuendoes together with their call for revenge against the mammoth.
Act 3. In one of his interviews, our national journanalyst stated his professional frustration that no journalist had as yet dared to investigate the appetite of the mammoth in the media business. He nevertheless rightly pointed out that journalism had until then mostly been the business of trained and experienced media persons. Some historical facts we have gathered confirm the same. But let it be said that the media group he loyally, professionally and honestly serves has itself taken on a few not belonging to the profession. The mammoth has done no less during the not so distant past.
In both cases, the reasons for so doing are not very different. It is the same with trendsetters in the global media market across continents, from Asia to Europe to the USA and down to Africa.
Act 4. One Sunday, and not surprisingly, the public was informed, under the serious heading “Enquête” and through computer graphics, about the involvement of that mammoth in the media business. The “Enquête” story published was, to say the least, hilarious; in the sense that the investigative reporters were unable to investigate the story they were assigned on the unconvincing argument that those who were solicited for information had finally decided not to speak out.
To make things simple, the bottom line is this.
Those described as “journalistes de talent” lamentably failed in their assignment. And we are made to believe that they work to help the public go “beyond the news item”, to correctly understand the country, society and the world through the “keys” freely offered. “Keys” here do not have the same meaning as “a wireless decoder”, best known as “remote control” in Mauritian homes. “Keys” clearly mean the way the article has been researched and written to help readers understand finally the “country, society and the world”. They end up shedding no light on the issues.
In any case, any analysis of write-ups on controversial issues will prove the writers and those behind them wrong. The famous KFC story might be a good starter; but follow them up on issues relating to Energy, Monetary Policies, Cement, Flour, amongst so many. You will find out for yourself that the public, including bureaucrats, MPs and ministers, always end up with the wrong “keys”.
So, from the “Enquête” story onward, nothing serious happened, if we go according to stories filed by our most talented journalists.
Act 5. On and off, some news items having the capacity to inflict collateral moral damage and stress to the mammoth did give the public an “aperçu” or if you wish an “avant-goût” of what was in store for the unforeseeable future. The house economist and financial analyst seemed to have been assigned the job of giving some kind of attention, another word for scrutiny, to the shareholding affairs and business acquisition or sell out operations of the mammoth then publicly listed. Not a bad initiative, but regrettably this kind of analysis had never before been extended to Corporate Mauritius as a whole. We would wish and we pray it to be so. As far as the mammoth is concerned, the latter feels and stands protected in the middle of its well-designed media fort.
Act 6. All this time, operations linked to the sell out and acquisitions of shares affecting and/or benefiting parties concerned, depending on which side of the fence one sits, were enough to put the main protagonists “dans une logique de guerre”. The sell outs and acquisitions of shares operations relate to a well-established media establishment having a recognised glorious past.
Act 7. Until Thursday 30th December 2010, everyone was like engaged in a mouse and cat game, a time-consuming and nerve-racking exercise. On the eve of its 30 December 2010 board meeting, an atmosphere of trepidation took hold of some minds. But still the owners/shareholders of the private radio met and exhausted nearly all the items on the board’s agenda, until two new directors were nominated to the board under the item AOB. This 30th December meeting attracted the surreal title of “a coup d’état” in a daily whose publicity campaign rests on the words “précis, fiable” when it comes to news gathering and publishing. On its part, a weekly just informed us that “a new majority” could take hold of the private radio station.
Believe it or not! Not one single newspaper worthy of the name dared investigate more. The public is thus kept completely in the dark.
The truth is that most of those directly or indirectly involved in the boardroom war are also either owners or shareholders of mainstream media, broadcasting and publishing companies in their own rights. On their own, most of them are economic powerhouses.
No need then to tell you that the main actors were duty bound to make do with their hot, including readjustment of failed or poor strategies.
Through a Sunday weekly, on the first Sunday of 2011, the boardroom battle received extensive coverage, again not surprisingly, in a cover story reflecting largely one side of the story, co-signed by two editors.
In any event, the concept of co-signatures in any publication which matter is rare. When it happens the public should know that the defence of some bigger stakes is at hand. It was so in this case. The good thing about newspapers is that you can identify which is which.
Therefore, as on Sunday 2nd of January 2011, the yellow lines were properly drawn. The “prénoms” and “noms” of parties at war in this boardroom battle are publicly known. But we can’t expect and never expected the parties concerned to go public with the true reasons behind their respective moves, leave apart the bad blood relations among them.
As per the economic weight of some protagonists in this affair — not excluding their socio-political and financial influence capacity in society and through their respective media power houses and notwithstanding their other wide ranging lobbying networks where comrades in business are comrades in arms — any reasonable person accustomed to the intricacies that move the media and big business on the path of growth on the global stage knows that this boardroom battle has more to do with power, influence and big business than anything else. If it was only a love or hate affair, the scenario would have been different. One could argue that this war is not about promoting public good first and foremost. It seems it is about protecting and promoting private interests first and last.
Act 8. On Sunday 9th January 2011, an amazing story is published. A between-the-lines-reading shows that one party tried hard to get a glimpse into what the other party’s future war strategy was and how it foresaw the future. This was done through an intelligent barter system involving exchange not of goods or services but news. It looked like a case of bartering news and news coverage for brain espionage. Of course, all set to meet the conditions of the second part of the boardroom battle when comes the time.
When read separately and altogether — the questions put, the news released and the write-up – all confirm that this bloodless war would be fought till the end. As many of the protagonists are high profile citizens and respected professionals. And for sure, the spectators watching the game from afar are also quality people, driven by their daily dose of business adrenaline.
On one point though, this boardroom battle augurs well for the future and for all business companies having numerous shareholders. We have seen no written confirmation yet or any evidence to that effect, but it looks like the Supreme Court will be invited to interpret the legal meaning ascribed to the word AOB (Any Other Business) and also what is a permissible and receivable issue under this item at a company’s business meeting. At its meeting on 30th December, it is under item AOB that two new members were co-opted as directors.
The relinquishment of board chairmanship announced this Monday seems to be an intelligent move having one precise objective — to avoid any further bitterness and a wholesale declaration of war between parties involved. Still, the public is warned. The war is not over yet.
Now under item AOB, and with all due respect to the Court and the protagonists concerned, we will touch on the human factor as far as our friend and national “journanalyst” is concerned. After the fireball episode that erupted in Parliament towards the end of 1995, this boardroom battle is the second known stress test he is made to undergo. The first one was about political power. This one is about economic power, influence and more. He survived the first one. We bet he is going to survive the second one also. In both cases, the end story is this. They made the good decisions, he made the bad choices.
Now he knows. In politics as in business, friendship is never a lasting asset. It can turn out to be a liability. True friendship and human warmth lie down there – at the door of the have-nots and the modest.
* Published in print edition on 14 January 2011