Bitter battle to control the news agenda

Faulty towers (Oupa Nkosi, M&G)

Faulty towers (Oupa Nkosi, M&G)

The battle for the soul of the SABC ahead of the ANC's elective conference in Mangaung has plunged the public broadcaster into yet another crisis over control of its editorial content.

After SABC news chief Phil Molefe was this week placed on special leave after refusing to give chief executive Lulama Mokhobo a copy of the daily news diary so she could monitor the news line-up, the Mail & Guardian has established that the SABC sought an independent legal opinion on whether she had exceeded her rights in the process.

The M&G has seen a copy of the legal opinion from Werksman Attorneys, which outlines how Mokhobo called a meeting with Molefe to discuss her concerns about the perceived bias in the news and requested a copy of his news diary.

The meeting came about after Mokhobo had claimed Molefe was giving "unprecedented coverage" to expelled ANC Youth League leader, Julius Malema, according to senior SABC sources, to which Molefe countered that he was providing a balanced coverage of the news.

The legal opinion shows that in a letter to Mokhobo dated March 27 2012, Molefe asserted that the matter of her being given a daily news diary required "further engagement", as he said it touched upon the editorial policies of the SABC, which requires editorial independence. Mokhobo interpreted this as a refusal to comply with her request for a daily diary of the news line-up, it goes on to say.

But Werksman Attorneys found that Molefe's response did not contain an outright refusal to comply with her request, yet stated that he had "misinterpreted" the policies.

In his letter to Mokhobo, Molefe wrote that the role of editor in chief is one of many responsibilities that the chief executive assumes, and should not be confused with the functions of head of radio, television or news. "The group chief executive's role is not to make day-to-day programming or newsroom decisions," Molefe wrote.

Selective reading
Werksman Attorneys found Molefe had been "selective in his reading of the editorial policies".
Mokhobo should concern herself with the operational issues regarding the relevant departments, including the news department, it stated.

Werksmans Attorneys said that it was their "preliminary view" that the misinterpretation of the editorial policies by Molefe needed to be clarified. "Once the clarification has been made and he then refuses to comply with the group chief executive officer's request—at that point a decision to discipline him may be taken," it recommended.

Contacted for comment by the M&G on the furore surrounding Molefe, Mokhobo would only say that she was not attempting to censor the youth league.

"The ANCYL is completely misinformed," Mokhobo said. "There is no intention by myself or my team to muzzle the league, or any other organisation. The news just has to be balanced."

A senior SABC staffer close to Molefe confirmed this week that Malema was one of the key reasons why he was put on special leave.

"All his [Malema's] activities were covered prominently in the SABC under [Molefe] and this did not go down well with the powers that be. He gives everyone equitable coverage."

Although Molefe had allegedly claimed Mokhobo was junior and a "political appointment", her supporters say she has been working in television since 1982 and comes to the position with a wealth of experience.

Molefe angered by Mokhobo appointment?
Senior SABC sources claim that when Mokhobo was appointed chief executive, Molefe had been "really angry" as he had been acting in the role since the unexpected ousting of former acting chief executive Robin Nicholson.

Former communications minister Roy Padayachie amended the SABC's articles of association during a hastily convened board meeting, which paved the way for Molefe to be appointed as acting chief executive, which led to him having expectations about being appointed to the top job.

"It was an unhealthy attitude on his part, and this led to him really throwing his toys out of the cot," said a senior SABC insider.

"The source of his anger was the expectation created in his mind that he would be appointed as the CEO."

Another board member said: "Phil was very disgruntled after the appointment of Mokhobo. He stayed away from work for two weeks. The new CEO actually wanted to get rid of him but it would have cost us R7-million. It was later decided that the deputy chair of the board, Thami ka Plaatjie, speak to Molefe to convince him to come back to work."

But key to the unhappiness is apparently the fact that President Jacob Zuma had to give the final nod after the SABC board has put Mokhobo forward as its candidate for chief executive, a senior SABC source alleged.

This, it was alleged, had apparently soured Molefe's relationship with the president. Molefe's detractors in the SABC claim his lack of impartiality became clear when Zuma went on a trip to South Korea last month, accompanied by a number of SABC journalists. Zuma was attending a nuclear security summit in Seoul, which was also attended by United States President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. They claimed that, on their return, the president's footage was given a "20-second soundbite" that did not provide any context to the trip.

They also complained that Malema had been given lots of airtime at rallies in Tzaneen and at Wits University, the latter where he accused Zuma of being a dictator.

"The news was being led all the time by Julius Malema, who was given an unprecedented amount of coverage," said a senior SABC insider. "There were a lot of complaints about our biased coverage, which happened on several occasions."

The SABC has been under pressure from tripartite alliance structures in the past few months for the perceived political bias in its reporting.

Unions join the SABC circus
The National Union of Mineworkers has accused the public broadcaster of favouring its affiliate partner Numsa, which is led by SABC board member Cedric Gina. Like the youth league, Numsa is pushing for leadership and radical policy changes in the ANC.

On the other hand, the mineworkers union is led by Frans Baleni, who is a close ally of ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe. The union is said to support Zuma's re-election as ANC president.

An SABC board member said the ANC's upcoming elective conference in December had also turned the corporation into a battleground for different factions in the tripartite alliance.

"This cannot be divorced from the battles in Mangaung. We are aware that people, like Blade [Nzimande] and Police Minister Nathi Mthethwa have complained that they don't get enough coverage," said the source.

The Sunday Independent reported last weekend that Jimi Matthews, the head of TV news, had been stripped of some of his powers by Molefe. Mokhobo has now placed Matthews in the acting position of news chief while Molefe is on special leave.

Mokhobo has previously worked with Matthews, who has had a distinguished career in the international media and at e.tv and the SABC.

The irony of the latest debacle at the broadcaster is that Molefe was unilaterally appointed as head of news in 2010 by SABC board chairperson Ben Ngubane, without the approval of the other board members. At the time, it emerged that Ngubane had told some board members that Molefe was the "shareholder's choice".

Although Molefe was considered by Ngubane to be "the best man for the job", there appears to be a growing concern about "a substantial drop in ratings" for the prime-time English news bulletin since Molefe returned last month from another stint of special leave.

Glynnis Underhill

Glynnis Underhill

Glynnis Underhill has been in journalism for more years than she cares to remember. She loves a good story as much now as she did when she first started. The only difference is today she hopes she is giving something back to the country.
  • Read more from Glynnis Underhill
  • Charles Molele

    Charles Molele

    Charles Molele is a senior politics reporter at the Mail & Guardian. Charles joined the paper in 2011. He has covered general news, court and politics for the past 19 years, and also worked as a senior reporter for the Saturday Star, Sunday World, ThisDay, Sunday Times and is former politics editor of the New Age. Charles's other career highlights include covering Kenya's violent general elections (2007/08), Zimbabwe’s sham general elections (2008), Mozambique's food riots (2010) and the historic re-election of US President Barack Obama (2012).
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