/ 12 September 2007

Bridge-building task for SABC’s new board

There is background to why Dali Mpofu, supremo at the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC), announced last week that the broadcaster was severing ties with the South African National Editors’ Forum (Sanef).

On the SABC side, the broadcaster’s leadership sees itself as a ”responsible” player in nation-building and promoting the ”national interest”. It seeks to do this not by becoming a pure government mouthpiece, but generally by playing a civil-service role.

Nothing inherently wrong with this model of journalism, as long as it’s truly impartial and focused on delivery issues, rather than giving the ruling party unfair political advantage. It’s a different interpretation of journalism in comparison with a more assertive and critical model.

In fact, the role of a media house as a public watchdog is, around the world, more often associated with privately owned newspapers than with broadcasters (especially state-owned ones).

The SABC’s civil-service model stresses information and education; the watchdog approach challenges the establishment and promotes exposure. A society needs both functions — they are complementary contributions to development and democracy.

The current polarisation in South Africa derives from the tight conflation of these roles with specific media sectors.

In addition, rather than accepting each other’s emphasis, both the SABC and the press have engaged in sniping at the other. Maybe a clash of journalisms is inevitable, but it could be via robust debate.

Ironically, all players have a common interest in developing audiences to attract the advertising that pays their costs. The entire sector shares an interest in the well-being and growth of the industry as a whole.

Then there are media-freedom issues in common — in this regard, one should not forget the SABC’s positive steps towards getting cameras allowed in courts.

In industry fundamentals then, there are sound reasons for solidarity, notwithstanding the differences in journalistic role. But in recent years, the differences have been highlighted, personalised and generalised into make-or-break issues.

Under all this are deeper issues at play.

One of these, from the Sanef side, is the particular character of the SABC. A working principle of the forum is that it respects the editorial independence of its members and does not tell them what to do.

Accordingly, while individual Sanef members have hit out at poor ethics in the tabloids, Sanef as an organisation has not taken such a position, retaining instead its role as forum for debate.

On the other hand, the SABC is not just any another media house — it is also a publicly owned resource. Many Sanef members feel that this status distinguishes the broadcaster from private players and renders it much more accountable.

In practice, there has been a distinction in Sanef between the SABC as a whole and its individual employees active in the forum. The difficulty has come about when the two are not so easily separated — such as the person of SABC news chief Snuki Zikalala and the case of blacklisting.

The institution’s wider performance is then conflated with a practice by one of its leaders.

Most Sanef members would accept (though not necessarily justify) the right of editors to exclude certain people as sources or expert commentators. But the SABC is expected to operate with extra-special impartiality, and it is deemed to deserve harsh criticism when it falls short.

The result is two standards at work, and the SABC leadership gets riled as a result. This is even though the criticisms of the corporation have been made by individuals within Sanef (and published on their own platforms), while the forum as such has generally kept mum on such issues.

In this case, SABC leadership incorrectly conflates Sanef with some of its members.

It is these complexities, in addition to the two different models of journalism, that account for the present rupture.

The pity is that in all this, important philosophical issues are not being properly debated. One of these, raised by Mpofu, concerns what he sees as an Africanist vs Western approach to media freedom.

For him, the Manto Tshabalala-Msimang case suggests that Sanef members subscribe to a ”foreign, frigid and feelingless” form of journalism. Mpofu also cites former Constitutional Court president Arthur Chaskalson as saying that the right to dignity (along with life) should be valued above all others.

A Sanef member, Sowetan editor Thabo Leshilo, has responded saying, in effect, that ”ubuntu” does not mean that individual Africans are supposed to self-censor when it comes to public-interest issues. Such a view would mean that Africans are too primitive for democracy.

Another view, however, could be drawn from the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights. In contrast to Chaskalson, it states that the right to freedom of expression, while it should be balanced against other rights, is also the foundation of these other rights.

What we have here is a rich topic for debating the ethics of journalism in regard to interpreting the hierarchies of human rights. I suspect that all media sides could find common ground on this matter in general terms, while agreeing to disagree in terms of actual application to particular cases of journalism.

In an ideal world, this kind of discussion should be happening within Sanef as a forum.

The SABC and Sanef are still talking, and if the broadcaster’s new board is wise, it will help ensure that debate comes to supersede the current division within the industry.