When the Broadcasting Complaints Commission of South Africa ruled this week that the SABC had breached its code in reporting unsubstantiated allegations of corruption and racism against the Mail & Guardian and investigative journalist Sam Sole, our first reaction was delight.
The claims, made by Robert Gumede, a politically connected businessman, were untrue and we were given no real opportunity to respond to them. Their unquestioned, uncontextualised repetition during prime-time television and radio news looked to us like a crude attempt to please Gumede and his friends in the governing party by diverting attention from our scrutiny of his business practices.
The BCCSA was scathing about the SABC’s journalism and has ordered the corporation to broadcast a summary of the judgment during the 7pm SABC3 news bulletin, an intervention it said it regarded as more serious than a fine.
To pursue the matter in a manner consistent with our principles, through the self-regulatory mechanism of the BCCSA, we signed away our right to sue for defamation and we naturally feel vindicated by the outcome.
There is more to this result, however, than the setting straight of the record. It easy to forget amid the scandal, waste and political interference just how important the SABC is on the local current affairs scene. For the majority of South Africans, the broadcaster is the primary source of news. That reach is coupled with journalistic resources that dwarf those of the private media.
What we experienced at the hands of the corporation seems to have been a sin of commission, an active misuse of those resources. Much of the time, however, SABC news sins by omission, its large and, in some cases, highly skilled newsrooms supine in the face of neglect and political pressure. The result is the impoverishment of the national news environment by the virtual absence of its biggest player.
The ruling can be of enduring value, however, if the new leadership at radio and television news investigates the background to this debacle and uses it to re-establish a culture of ethical standards at the SABC.
To read the first half of the editorial (“It’s easier to do the right thing”) click here.