/ 19 May 2004

Independent’s Day

“The role of the media should be to protect our democracy,” says Patricia De Lille, leader of the Independent Democrats, over a crackly phone line and the din of a busy highway. She is on her way to Beaufort West as part of her campaign trail for the 2004 general election.

“They are not called the fourth estate for nothing. Their primary role should be to protect democracy with unbiased, fearless and truthful reporting. And in general, I must say, this is happening in South Africa. The South African media has tried very hard to be balanced, but—” she says, taking a little breath, preparing to launch into one of her trademark, blistering diatribes, “recently we have seen different media houses taking sides. Specifically in the case of the Ngcuka/Zuma row. One could follow the trend, with one media house taking sides with the Zuma group and the other taking sides with Ngcuka. So they really lost credibility in their reporting.”

She continues, picking up pace: “I think the media has to go and have an inspection. Go back to the drawing board and look at how they can deal with the perception that they are biased. I think, in this instance, the very important principle of off-the-record briefings has been violated. I think the media organisations must certainly do something about what has happened in the past few months, when instead of holding the government to account, the media were used themselves. Especially with the Hefer Commission.”

Over the incessant hum of the road, I say: “There has always been a lot of controversy around the SABC, how do you feel the public broadcaster has handled its role as dictated by parliament?”

“In terms of getting the public broadcaster to reach out to more people than before, in different languages and regions that have always been excluded from the television – there have been some improvements. Although at the same time, the content is not very good. There is simply not enough local content. I think the SABC can only be properly assessed once we’ve got more local content. At the moment it’s something like 80% – 20% in favour of international content. But in terms of more people having access and more languages being represented, they have done relatively well in a short space of time.”

“Do you feel the public broadcaster is becoming a mouthpiece of the ANC or is it maintaining a level of impartiality?”

“The whole debate of impartiality was really put on the table by Thami Mazwai and not even the media has taken up the debate for South Africans to discuss what is the ‘national interest’? And who decides on national interest? We cannot have a government deciding for us what is in the national interest, rather the people of South Africa must decide. So the impartiality story, I think in terms of giving increased coverage to government, came about as a complaint by the ruling party as a form of entitlement. As if they are entitled to be on the public broadcaster, and not coming onto the public broadcaster because they are newsworthy.”

“And what about the impartiality of the SABC board?” I ask

‘No, that board has been seriously compromised. I’m not sure through what process those board members got there. Board members should be without any political affiliation, but most of them speak openly and are robust about who they support and where they stand ideologically. The Msomi embarrassment is exactly the kind of arrogance I am talking about.”

Sensing blood in the water, I ask, “Will you give us your take on the SABC’s coverage of the ANC’s election manifesto launch.”

“Well,” she says, “I think they got off on a technicality there and really it has done irreparable damage to the image of the public broadcaster. Nobody would have complained if the ANC had been given 15 minutes coverage on the news for their manifesto launch. But to have it broadcast live, at major expense, with a satellite link for the entire event, from beginning to end, is just unacceptable. The SABC has tried to do coverage on the other parties’ manifestos but there is no comparison. That was absolutely immoral expenditure of the taxpayer’s money. It cost millions to broadcast the ANC’s election manifesto live. But it’s no different from the old government. The National Party did exactly the same. So the more things change the more they stay exactly the same. It is an abuse of state resources. At least [President Mbeki] could have, on that day, while he was on state television, announced the election date. Which was something that would have been of interest to the whole country. But it was specifically an ANC election manifesto launch – which is a political party event. And in this instance, the SABC made the same mistake as the ANC. The ANC can never distinguish between the state and the political party. They’ve always failed. And the SABC also failed to make that distinction. We just have to wait and see what’s going to happen closer to the election. TV is a very powerful medium and if all other parties are not going to get the same exposure, maybe not equal, but at least fair, then the SABC will lose all its integrity.”

“How do you feel about the way the SABC has handled your Independent Democrat’s election campaign?”

“I don’t have a real, direct problem with the SABC because I am not approaching the public broadcaster on the basis that I am entitled to be there. For me there are two ways of getting into the news. One is to react to the news that is printed or broadcast on a daily basis and hope that people will write your reaction. But what I really believe in is making news. That way it’s hard to ignore the Independent Democrats because we’re not only writing or saying things, but we’re actively showing and teaching people. Any public broadcaster or media house must know that, if they claim to serve the community, within that community you will have different beliefs, ideologies and points of view. Therefore they must try, as far as possible, to present those views to the public and allow the public to make up their minds for themselves.

“At the end of the day I respect the fearless independence of the media, and that’s my only wish, that the media must be fearlessly independent.”