The devil or the deep blue sea?

So you think the SABC’s got problems? While trying to figure out all the doublespeak, political wrangling, and smoke-and-mirrors going on at South Africa’s public broadcaster, spare a thought for its British counterpart.

Public trust in the BBC has fallen sharply in the aftermath of two scandals that have made headlines in the British press and plunged the broadcast industry in a crisis. First there was the embarassing incident of a documentary about the Queen’s photo session with celebrated photographer Annie Leibovitz. In a trailer for the documentary, the impression was created that the Queen stormed out of the photo session after Leibovitz suggested that she changed her outfit.
In reality, the sequence of events were the other way round, and the Queen’s supposed hissy fit occurred on the way to the session and not as a result of Leibovitz’ remarks.

The corporation apologised, but almost immediately it had another problem to deal with. It was disclosed that fake winners were announced on several of its game shows, including charity campaigns. The BBC’s commercial counterpart ITV has also been exposed for similar unfair practices on its competitions. Paul Corley, the managing director of GMTV, ITV’s breakfast television contractor, has resigned after the scandal came to light.

But it’s been the BBC whose image has been hardest hit. In an audience poll by the Guardian newspaper and ICM research it was revealed that 59 percent of viewers now trust the public broadcaster less than they did before the scandals broke. The Guardian reported that this mistrust also had a broader impact - the majority of viewers, 74 percent in total, thought that many things on television were fabricated, even if they were told that these depictions were real.

These are hard times for the BBC. But the latest problems that beset the broadcaster are part of a larger malaise, and its one that is besetting public broadcasters around the world - also in South Africa. Earlier this year it was reported (see The Observer, 3 June) that the BBC was to cut hundreds of jobs in its news division to save money after the British government only allowed it a below-inflation increase in its licence fee.

As the number of channels increase with the availability of satellite television with its much larger offering in terms of entertainment (a situation that will only intensify as the United Kingdom will switch to digital television over the coming years), public broadcasters like the BBC increasingly have to succumb to commercial pressure.

As other broadcast options proliferate and viewers’ choice expands, entertainment will increasingly exert pressure on the space previously occupied by documentaries, news and actuality. Already the public service channel (but commercially funded) Channel 4, established to provide innovative, creative and educational programmes, has been asked by the broadcasting watchdog, Ofcom, to explain how it sees its public service function in the future (see The Independent, 15 June). This comes after racism rows on Big Brother, the reality TV show which in any case is not considered by everyone the type of innovative material to be shown on Channel 4 in the first place, as well as the airing of a controversial documentary about the death of princess Diana.

Are there any lessons to be learnt from all this?

Firstly, it emphasises the importance of journalism education. In the wake of the recent scandals that hit the BBC, the corporation reportedly wants to retrain staff to make them more aware of the ethical pitfalls of their job, including, one imagines, cutting and pasting too liberally in the editing room. These are the types of skill that journalists should acquire in media ethics courses at university. In a time where new media technologies emerge at dazzling speed, and optimistic observers foresee a sea of change in journalism as everyone with an internet connection and a cellphone can now claim to be a journalist, ethics will increasingly become the criterium that sets journalists apart from dangerous dilettantes. But journalism education should go beyond skills - journalists should be taught how to interpret and contextualise events truthfully and meaningfully. Sending a grainy cellphone picture of a shooting or of flooding may earn you the lofty title of citizen journalist, but in itself does not help you explain why it happened in such a way that it comes to mean something in the lives of your audience. Technical skills on the editing screen can get you into trouble if you are unable to understand how meaning derives from context.

But the onus of responsibility is also shifting from journalists to audiences - exactly because the kinds of media are proliferating at such high speed, and the information options for audiences are becoming almost impossible to handle, audiences will increasingly need skills to make sense of the media around them. Audiences need to understand the media production process and become critical media consumers. They should realise they are not passive sponges who have to soak up everything that comes their way - they are active participants in the media process (all the more now that new media technologies make this possible in new and exciting ways) and should demand respect.

But the controversy around the BBC can also inform the heated debates about the SABC.

The South African public broadcaster is having to walk a thin line between commercial, public and community broadcasting. As its revenue is much less dependent on a licence fee than in the case of the BBC, it has to rely heavily on advertising. And because the SABC wants to reap the benefits of market competition, it is also vulnerable to its threats.

The market is not only a benign force. Especially in a country where we are reshaping our social identities, or notion of the nation and the way we imagine each other, the task of symbolic representations should not be taken lightly. Which is not to say everything should be highbrow and elitist, far from it - it means that funding should also be made available for the type of programmes that might not have immediate commercial appeal, but can have an important influence.

Furthermore, the market favours those with money - and this can exclude large sections of the public. Recent debates about the SABC has framed the corporation’s challenges one-dimensionally by making the state the only bogeyman. While the struggles to keep the South African public broadcaster free from undue political interference are important to ensure media independence, debates about the SABC’s future should take a more holistic view. Public broadcasting in the postmodern era is between the devil and the deep blue sea.

Herman Wasserman teaches Media, Communication and Cultural Studies at Newcastle University, UK and is associate professor extraordinary in the Department of Journalism, University of Stellenbosch.

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