The SABC says its decision to prevent journalists from participating in a debate on Metro FM was made in the interest of the public.
On Wednesday, the South African Broadcasting Corporation's (SABC) acting chief operating officer Hlaudi Motsoeneng said that as the public broadcaster, the SABC had to ensure that when an issue was discussed, the people involved should have an opportunity to respond.
"The issue was a discussion about the ANC. Our view is simple – you need the ANC to be part of that discussion. We are not banning anyone, as people are saying. We are being fair … and we stick to that decision,” he said.
Motsoeneng was speaking at a press conference held at the SABC's headquarters in Auckland Park.
According to SABC editorial policy guidelines, when an event of national importance is of a party political nature, SABC staff must ensure that objectives of fair and unbiased coverage, impartiality and balance are adhered to.
On Tuesday, three journalists, Sam Mkokeli, political editor from Business Day, the Sunday Times's political editor S'thembiso Msomi and Financial Times bureau editor Andrew England, were scheduled to take part in Sakina Kamwendo's Metro FM talk show to discuss how the media would cover the ANC's elective conference in Manguang. The show was cancelled at the last minute, and the SABC said this was due to the ANC not being invited to take part.
Motsoeneng said the discussion should have involved ANC spokesperson Jackson Mthembu because it would not only have dealt with media reporting on the conference, but also focused on the people involved in, and events leading to, the Mangaung conference.
"Jackson was supposed to be invited. He was not invited," he said.
Asked whether from now on the public could expect that whenever there was a discussion on Mangaung, the ANC must be represented to ensure the balance and fairness he spoke of, Motsoeneg said: "The answer is yes, they must be part [of it]."
"We mean business here at the SABC. This is leadership at it’s best that we can ever find. We are taking decisions in the interest of the public and we are also guided by our own editorial policy," he said.
‘Fishy’, ‘nonsense’ and ‘bizarre’
But media experts were left perplexed by the broadcaster’s reasoning.
Herman Wasserman, journalism professor at Rhodes University, said that the broadcaster’s explanation sounded “fishy”.
"It’s important for political coverage to have balance but one assumes that refers to fair coverage of different parties, not between political parties and journalists,” he said.
"I struggle to see how representation from the ANC or any political party is important in a discussion about media coverage,” he added.
Wasserman said that if the journalists were there to make accusations and allegations against the party, it should have the opportunity to respond but in this instance they appeared to have been there for pure political analysis.
Former City Press editor Mathatha Tsedu said that the idea that journalists could not speak about issues that affect a political organisation, without a representative of that organisation being present, was “nonsense”
"It is not a political debate between political parties, saying things from a political perspective,” he said. "These are media professionals talking about what media [reports] are likely to be like going forward. What would an ANC representative add to that discussion?” he asked.
Tsedu said that had an ANC representative been involved, the discussion would have shifted to how the ANC views media coverage, which is not the same thing as asking journalists to do a self-critique.
Franz Kruger, director of the Wits Radio Academy, said the reasoning provided by the broadcaster was a “misunderstanding of what fairness is”.
"Fairness is something that is achieved over time. It doesn’t mean every single show should be completely balanced,” he said "One expects there to be different voices at different times,” he said, as one could not practically expect every voice to be heard on an issue every time it was addressed.
The Democratic Alliance’s spokesperson on communication, Marian Shinn – who earlier called for the board of the SABC to remove Motsoeneng from his news oversight role – dismissed the SABC's reasoning as “bizarre”.
"They’re making it up as they go along. If they want to introduce that kind of guideline or policy, it must be resisted,” she said.
'A dangerous precedent'
Shinn said such a policy would have far reaching implications if it was implemented across the board. She questioned how it would impact, for example, the popular Sunday media show hosted by Ashraf Garda on SAfm.
During the show, Garda hosts newspaper editors who discuss news events of public interest. If the same logic were applied, it would mean that a political party representative would have to be there to balance the show each week, Shinn said.
“Does every current affairs programme now have to have representatives of political parties there? They’re setting a dangerous precendent,” she said.
Efforts to contact ANC spokesperson Jackson Mthembu were unsuccessful.