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SABC’s report raises only more questions

The South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) released its annual report and financial results earlier this month.

The annual report, however, raises more questions than it answers. For instance it doesn’t substantively deal with any of the big funding questions such as the appropriateness (or not) of the SABC’s funding model (which is heavily advertising reliant); or further the details of its R40,6-million budget item on “fruitless and wasteful” expenditure; or the reasons it didn’t screen the programming it bought for R76-million within its licence period, leading to R76-million having to be written off.

The “Save our SABC” coalition, representing Cosatu, the Treatment Action Campaign, a host of NGOs including the Freedom of Expression Institute, the Media Monitoring Project and the Media Institute of Southern Africa, met recently to discuss the coalition’s programme of action until the end of 2008. At the meeting coalition members reconfirmed South Africa’s need for a substantive broadcasting legislative review process leading to the promulgation of a new SABC Act.

One of the most critical areas in need of review, is the issue of funding, but also importantly linked to this is the way in which the SABC accounts for the spending. The SABC needs to report on its expenditure specifically in relation to its delivery of quality public programming.

Frankly, it is not useful to be told about “total citizenship empowerment” or the SABC’s new “green revolution” in human resource policies if there is no direct discussion about how this translates into the SABC fulfilling its mandate.

A few of the burning questions that were not satisfactorily answered include: what progress, over time, against specific targets, has been made with regard to the SABC fulfilling its language and local content requirements? (Buried deep in the report mention is made of the struggles the SABC has had to meet its language targets.) And if employee costs have significantly increased (more than 38%) we need to know how many new employees have been employed and in what divisions? (We want more people in the programme divisions.)

Further, there are a number of other major questions. For instance, direct government funding (excluding funding for digital migration) is calculated as an insignificant 2% of the SABC’s revenue. However, what is interesting is that government departments do fund the broadcaster outside this allocation, for example, by buying advertising and sponsoring programmes. This needs to be reflected as part of government allocations.

What is the direct 2% allocation used for? More importantly what are our licence fees used for? Is this money allocated to specific public broadcasting projects or does it simply go into the central pot?

There is no mention of the ANC’s 60% promised government funding. The critical question here is how could this money be spent most usefully? If the SABC is simply going to do more of the same commercialised broadcasting then such an allocation should seriously be reconsidered.

Another question that cannot be answered is the amount of money transferred from the public commercial channels to cross-subsidise the public channels. When the Broadcasting White Paper was released in 1998 it looked at ways to ensure the SABC was more self-reliant. It thus motivated for the separating of the SABC’s television and radio stations into public and public commercial channels with the commercial channels cross-subsidising the public channels. But it seems the vision hasn’t worked in practice.

One of the two public channels, SABC1, actually commands higher advertising rates than the commercial channel SABC3. There is no indication of any cross-subsidisation happening. This calls into question the whole model.

A final major question is the SABC’s launch of its corporate social investment (CSI) foundation. The question is what is the purpose of this new body? Why is the SABC getting involved in CSI anyway? The annual report claims that the SABC has launched the foundation to “unleash” the broadcaster’s “potential” to “play a meaningful role in the economic and social development — of South Africa”. But surely that is the central role of the broadcaster, not a social add-on to its otherwise private sector role.

The central missing element in the report is the issue of the SABC’s public mandate: how is the broadcaster actually fulfilling its obligations to its public on our screens and over the airwaves?

Kate Skinner is coordinator of the “Save our SABC” coalition

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