Independence from vested interests is key

The public cannot be blamed for throwing up its hands in dismay as yet another SABC board member resigns and yet another board-versus-management crisis unfolds—this time between ex-acting chief executive Robin Nicholson and the board over contractual issues.

Key principles remain unaccepted despite having been put on the agenda repeatedly by civil society stakeholders such as the group I co-ordinate, SOS: Support Public Broadcasting Coalition. To have a genuine public broadcaster, the principle of independence from all major vested interests, commercial or government, needs to be entrenched.

Structurally, the SABC is reliant on advertising, which makes up to 80% of its funding. It needs a new funding model that releases it from this commercial grip.
The communications minister has promised a broadcasting policy-review process and a new funding model. The minister needs to be held to account for this.

We also need to release the SABC from direct government interference. Sadly, this principle has often been violated, with devastating effect.

First we had the blacklisting saga of 2006, in which the then head of news banned commentators critical of government. Then we had direct presidential manipulation in the appointment of the 2007 SABC board, leading to a weak, illegitimate board that struggled to hold management to account, ultimately resulting in a governance and financial meltdown. Then in 2010 there were problems with the appointment of chief executive Solly Mokoetle and news head Phil Molefe.

It was alleged that SABC chairman Ben Ngubane felt compelled to appoint Molefe because he was the president’s choice. He pushed it through illegally, precipitating the resignation of several board members.

Almost every time an executive is appointed at the SABC, there is a crisis. The reason for this is that there is a legal gap in the SABC’s governing statute, the Broadcasting Act of 1999. The Act does not stipulate who appoints the three top executives (chief executive, chief operating officer and chief financial officer). The SABC’s articles of association allegedly, because it is not a public document, requires the minister’s approval of these three appointments. This lack of clarity has led to confusion and court battles.

The SOS coalition has argued since its inception that the non-executive members of the SABC board should take sole responsibility for executive appointments, without input from the minister. Not only is this is in line with the principle of independence, particularly as the chief executive acts as the SABC’s editor-in-chief, it is also good corporate governance.

There needs to be clear roles of responsibility and lines of accountability.

The minister sets the overall policy, the board sets the strategic direction and appoints the top ­executives and the executives run the SABC.

To offer some protection for the principle of independence, SOS has called for the SABC to be turned into a constitutionally protected Chapter 9 institution such as the Independent Electoral Commission or Public Protector.

The second key principle that must be respected is that of transparency—one of the best ways of ensuring its corollary, public accountability. The SABC often cites “commercial confidentiality” as the reason for its refusal to provide information to the public on board matters. But this is nonsense. The SABC is a public broadcaster and the board members are our public-interest representatives.

All board minutes should be released as a matter of course. Obviously, those minutes that genuinely deal with commercially sensitive information can be withheld. Also, board members cannot be bound by confidentiality agreements. In our view any board member who resigns must publicly give reasons for his or her resignation.

As the public, we have the right to know what the problems are. The release of board minutes would enable us, finally, to determine why the board has thus far failed to appoint a permanent chief executive or to develop a workable turnaround strategy.

SOS is putting these critical principles back on the agenda. We are strongly urging their inclusion in new legislation. We must ensure the SABC’s independence from all vested interests and we need to end the deadening culture of secrecy at the SABC once and for all.

Kate Skinner is the co-ordinator of the civil society coalition: SOS: Support Public Broadcasting

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