The rise and fall of the SABC

Soon after I started working at the SABC in 2002, I was asked to chair a panel to hear the appeal of a Limpopo reporter who had been dismissed for “bringing the SABC into disrepute”. The man had killed his wife. He was appealing his dismissal because, as he said, it was his own wife and he had done it “on his own time”—he had been on leave. We rejected his appeal, and later the courts sentenced him to a lengthy jail term.

Last year journalist John Perlman faced a warning on the same charge: bringing the SABC into disrepute. His offence was to point out—truthfully—that news management had forbidden certain people from being interviewed for reasons that were, at best, idiosyncratic rather than editorial.

If Janet Malcolm hadn’t already written her book The Journalist and the Murderer, it might have been a fitting title to sum up what has changed over the past few years. That journalistic integrity can elicit the same charge as murder speaks to the contradictions plaguing the SABC.

This is a far cry from the early days of democracy, when the ANC led a drive to transform the mouthpiece of the apartheid state into a professional broadcaster serving the interests of all South Africans. Alas, the 1999 Broadcasting Act, which committed the broadcaster to the “highest standards of journalism” and “fair and unbiased coverage”, finds little reflection in today’s SABC.

In much of post-colonial Africa, points out Cameroonian writer Francis Nyamnjoh, state broad­casters parroted their pre-independence predecessors: “Journalists in the state media were little more than public relations men and women for the government or ruling party ... committed … less to truth and public service than to building a positive image, selling ideas and promoting the interests of the state or ruling elite.”

This is not a uniquely African phenomenon. In France, Nyamnjoh writes, after every general election there is a “clean-out” at the state media. In the United States, President George W Bush appoints right-wing Republican donors to the board of the Corporation of Public Broadcasting. But our Act, and the SABC’s own editorial code, offered an antidote to this kind of abuse.

So what has gone wrong, and why should it matter?

One reason it matters is to be found in the report of the Africa Commission. The report identified manifold causes of dire poverty in our continent, but singled out two within Africa’s control: lack of capacity and lack of accountability. And the media is crucial to accountability.

Key to the media serving the public, says the commission, are journalists of high professional standing with self-regulated codes of ethics. Our legislation and the SABC’s own editorial code provide a sound framework for this. Why has practice diverged from this framework in recent years? Is it because the head of news, Snuki Zikalala, is close to the ANC, or because the board is close to government?

No. Political affiliations do not necessarily determine the quality of public service. Take the South African Revenue Service, run by a former underground ANC operative. Sars Commissioner Pravin Gordhan was trained as a pharmacist, not a tax collector. But because he brought with him an ethos of public service and accountability, he turned a moribund institution into a professional operation serving the public.

But while Sars has attracted the best and the brightest, the broadcaster has driven them away. The tortuous debate over the documentary on President Thabo Mbeki has its roots not initially in censorship (which only came later) but in a lack of professionalism. That a series called Unauthorised could be commissioned at all without allowing the main subjects an interview or right of reply smacks of a lack of judgement.

Although the SABC still produces some compelling bulletins and shows, its mistakes often overshadow its triumphs. Why? Partly because they stand out like a bad case of acne, and partly because the SABC is owned by all South Africans, and the stakes are higher. So when there are deliberate examples of bias, we flinch.

Last November, for example, SAfm’s afternoon current affairs show reported allegations of sexual harassment against Vincent Maphai, chair of the University of KwaZulu-Natal council, and vice-chancellor Malegapuru Makgoba. What it didn’t say was that the accuser was being investigated by the university for improperly awarding a degree. The next day the same show ran a longer report, which also failed to mention that the accuser was being investigated. Then the anchors interviewed a representative from People Opposing Women Abuse, who said false allegations of sexual harassment were “unlikely”, and it ran a phone-in poll about whether such harassment was on the increase.

Talk about loading the dice. Why not ask whether awarding false degrees was on the increase? Was it coincidence that Maphai, a past chair of the SABC board, was the man who got Zikalala out of his position in the newsroom in 2002? Or was it just lack of verification?

In either case, the broadcaster’s credibility plummets. This in itself cannot be good for a government that has expressed its commitment to strengthening public institutions. Nor can it be good for the ANC if narrow political interests drive ­editorial decisions.

There are signs that even some ANC politicians may be ignored in favour of others. The real question about the booing of Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka in KwaZulu-Natal is why no SABC TV crew (as opposed to a freelancer) was assigned to cover a major event at which the deputy president would speak. Similarly, when Finance Minister Trevor Manuel went to Princeton University to give a public lecture last year—no small deal at an Ivy League university—the broadcaster’s expensive Washington correspondent declined to cover it.

Yet certain strands of the ANC are now powerfully represented in the corporation. Cecil Msomi, an SABC board member and chair of the news subcommittee, is also chief director of communications in the office of Premier S’bu Ndebele—the politician who denied flatly that he was pelted and booed at a meeting in KwaMashu on June 16 2005. As a result of this denial, Zikalala asked me to “take action”’ against Mandla Zembe, the Durban reporter who had reported truthfully on the incident. Who makes the judgement now about whether the premier’s statements are newsworthy, or whether he tells the truth? And what effect will this conflation of interests have on coverage of the ANC leadership contest in KwaZulu-Natal?

Likewise, the acting TV political editor, Sophie Mokoena, accepted a generous gift of shares from Tokyo Sexwale and proceeded happily to file a story on his presidential candidacy, without mentioning that she had benefited from his munificence.

The Broadcasting Act stipulates that SABC news must be free of commercial interests. Perhaps it is time to take a more stringent view of commercial interests at the level of the board and senior management.

Legal head Mafika Sihlali happens to share a number of company directorships with CEO Dali Mpofu. There are strict rules against SABC journalists holding outside business interests—and rightly so. Should senior management and board members have stakes in technology companies, as some do, when they are tasked with choosing new technology, especially when the fiscus is paying more than half the bill?

No other news organisation can serve the interests of our large and diverse nation as well as the SABC. But it cannot do so if it is hobbled by narrow commercial or political interests. It cannot pursue editorial excellence in the absence of free and robust debate in a professional newsroom, or in an atmosphere in which retributive steps are taken against those who are contrarian. It cannot do this when its credibility is frequently in doubt.

When the ANC meets at Polokwane, it would do well to consider if it wants a credible, reliable public broadcaster—and if so, how to ensure that the reality of the SABC matches the bold vision spelt out in the law.

Pippa Green headed SABC radio news from 2002 to 2005 and most recently was a visiting professor of journalism at Princeton University

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