The SABC and the Mail & Guardian locked horns before the Broadcasting Complaints Commission of South Africa (BCCSA) on Thursday.
The hearing addressed the M&G‘s complaint about a South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) news report in November last year in which businessman Robert Gumede accused investigative reporter Sam Sole of corruption and racism.
The M&G argued that the report contravened elements of the Broadcasting Complaints Commission of South Africa’s constitution, which requires free-to-air licensees to report news truthfully, accurately and fairly, to present news in the correct context and to do so in a fair manner, without intentional or negligent departure from the facts.
The SABC and the Mail & Guardian locked horns on Thursday at a hearing before the Broadcasting Complaints Commission of South Africa (BCCSA). The hearing was held to address an M&G complaint against the SABC concerning a news report last year, in which businessman Robert Gumede accused investigative reporter Sam Sole of corruption and racism.
On November 3 last year Gumede accused Sole of corruption and racism on SABC 3’s 7pm news bulletin and again on two radio news bulletins the next day. Gumede alleged that Sole had received payments from John Sterenborg, a former business partner of Gumede, to publish damaging allegations of corruption against him.
He also stated that Sole “goes out to attack black people to say that they are corrupt, they bribe people”.
Most of the two-and-a-half minute TV report on SABC3 was dedicated to Gumede’s allegations.
A response from M&G editor-in-chief Nic Dawes was paraphrased incorrectly in an eight-second voiceover, the newspaper argued before the commission.
Acting for the M&G, advocate Matthew Chaskalson argued that the SABC did not report accurately on certain facts of the matter; did not give the M&G sufficient time to respond to the allegations before running its story; did not approach Sole, the primary target of the allegations, for comment; and did not inform the M&G of the allegations of racism against Sole or provide the paper with a chance to respond to these.
Chaskalson also argued that, because Gumede had known about the alleged bribes for more than six years, the SABC could have delayed airing its story until it had received an adequate response from the M&G.
But the SABC denied any misconduct, saying it had not contravened any of the requirements of the BCCSA’s code of conduct and that only one principal issue was in question: the allegations by Gumede that Sole had been paid a bribe. “The essence of the story was an allegation of bribery — As soon as Mr Dawes denied the allegations of bribery, that to us was the end of the story,” said Fakir Hassen, the SABC’s acting general manager for broadcasting compliance. There was then no reason to approach Sole for comment, he said.
Choosing to report on this at that particular time was a matter of editorial independence, Hassen said. “We have a right to determine what is news,” he told the hearing.
In its written submission to the complaints commission, the SABC did not address Gumede’s accusations of racism on Sole’s part. At Thursday’s hearing, Hassen said: “This is the first time we have heard such a fuss over the racism allegation.” The SABC was not responsible for Gumede’s views and did not accept responsibility for what he had said, Hassen said.
The M&G lodged its complaint against the SABC with the commission on November 24, seeking an apology from the SABC, to be aired on the same news bulletins as the original story, with the same prominence.
It also sought an inquiry into the conduct of the SABC and its staff in reporting the issue.
However, it is not within the commission’s power to enforce such a sanction.
Instead, if the SABC is found to be in contravention of the commission’s code of conduct, it may be asked to publish the findings of the hearing.
Both parties will make additional submissions next week.