/ 25 September 2007

Propaganda as journalism?

In the light of the brouhaha about the nominations to the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) board, I’d like to ask a question: Are some South Africans eligible to nominate and be nominated to lead public institutions while others should rather be ignored?

In the interest of a balanced public debate, it is necessary to examine some of the opinions on this issue. The inclusion of Gloria Serobe as part of the new SABC board is questioned on the basis of her association with the Presidency.

That she is a businesswoman is mentioned only as an adjective to her involvement in presidential working groups. But there are many who are involved in presidential as in various other governmental bodies. An impression is also created that Serobe’s academic qualifications and business pedigree will add no value to the SABC. The narrative is part of the construction of a hostile public psychology towards President Thabo Mbeki and the Presidency in general.

Previous and current employees of the Presidency, including outsiders who have dealings with it, are caricatured as unthinking objects lacking in objectivity. Proponents of this view redefine independence as ”disassociation with and anti-President Mbeki”. For the same reason, Bheki Khumalo’s abundant talent is appreciated only with reserve and because he is a previous presidential spokesperson.

The attempt to deny the constitutional rights of others is clear. Let us consider yet another example. A lot has been said about the fact that Serobe was nominated by Louis du Plooy, who happens to work in the Presidency. Du Plooy is portrayed as an instrument by which the president exercises undue influence at the SABC.

An extraordinary logic pervades criticism of the relationship between the ANC and its members of the parliamentary committee on communications.

Packaged in nebulous phrases such as ”the Luthuli House influence”, this criticism suggests that no party should influence its parliamentarians and that it is inherently undemocratic to do so. Yet this practice is not without historical precedent locally and abroad. No one questions the fact that DA members of the parliamentary committee — and possibly all the other parties — consulted their parties on this matter and, indeed, had their preferred nominees.

What of the lofty ideal of objectivity when the media inadvertently become purveyors of a political campaign? It may not be farfetched to suggest that, as in this case, they become political actors rather than the objective observers the media claim to be.

What is really at the heart of the public agitation against the SABC and its board? Nothing was more telling than a recent suggestion by a media academic that the SABC had veered against the mainstream. But what is the mainstream? What are its philosophical assumptions and its manifestations? More particularly, who should determine the stream of the public broadcaster?

Having done their best to use their own platforms to try and discredit the president and the Presidency, many in the commercial media have now set out to attack the SABC for seeking to be objective in its treatment of government.

Maybe we should ignore all this, because the broader public should certainly be able to see through such propaganda masquerading as journalism.

But we should ask: Can our institutions withstand this onslaught? Or should we brace ourselves to live with the risk of discredited institutions until Jesus Christ returns?

Prince Mashele works for the communications unit in the Presidency. He writes here in his personal capacity