Broadcast ruling spins bewildering cocoon around public interest

When called upon to do so, newspapers will grit their teeth and publish an apology. Sometimes, and rather more joyfully, they will run a self-satisfied piece about how a complaint was dismissed. But it's rare to find anybody else paying much attention.

The rulings of its radio and ­television equivalent, the Broadcasting Complaints Commission of South Africa (BCCSA) seem to attract even less attention. It's a pity, really, since there are some real gems among its rulings.

Take, for instance, the recent case of Lorgat vs SAfm. The complaint arose out of a series of three broadcasts on the SABC's English service. These consisted of In the Spotlight interviews with, in turn, a Palestinian writer, Susan Abulhawa, South Sudanese human rights activist Simon Deng and, finally, the Sudanese ambassador to South Africa, Dr Ali Yousif Ahmed Alsharif.

The complaint, by Hassen Lorgat, was that the series did not provide sufficient balance, mainly because the interview on Sudan offered no rebuttal to the discussion on Palestine. Lorgat also complained about the SABC's decision not to allow callers to participate.

The finding, written by BCCSA chair Kobus van Rooyen and ­available in full on the commission's website, does not look closely at why the station chose this ­particular approach to balance, although it appears the suggestion for a South Sudanese speaker came from the South African Jewish Board of Deputies.

Rather, it finds a novel reason for ruling that the station did not need to meet the code's requirements for balance: it defines public interest as purely domestic. Therefore, the code's requirement of balance in programmes "in which a controversial issue of public importance is discussed" neatly falls away.

The logic is worth quoting: "Unless there are exceptional circumstances present, foreign matters would not be 'of public interest' in terms of the Broadcasting Code."

It is an astounding claim. So the global financial crisis, Barack Obama's presidency, the Zimbabwean election, conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo – these all join the Middle East as being of no public interest in South Africa. They are simply matters of idle curiosity, merely "interesting" to the public, like a distant royal baby.

Aside from ignoring the deep personal and family connections of many communities and individuals in South Africa to the Middle East, the ruling seems to assume that the country's fortunes are unaffected by international affairs.

A more sensible understanding of public interest sees it as anything that audiences have a right to know about because it affects them in some way as citizens. The days when we could pretend to be unaffected by events beyond our borders are long gone, if they ever existed.

One looks in vain for some kind of argument in defence of the BCCSA panel's interpretation. A long footnote refers to previous cases that made the distinction between matters that were of public interest and those merely interesting to the public. But the only justification for the argument itself comes in a few references to previous cases where the commission already took the view that foreign issues were of little public interest to South Africans.

It is also unclear why the fact that a story is held to be of no public interest should mean that balance is unnecessary. It is only a narrowly legalistic reading of the relevant clause that opens this possibility.

We demand balance of journalism to make sure that audiences are given an account that is as comprehensive as possible. The principle applies to any story because it respects the rights of the reader and listener – it does not depend on the story's degree of importance.  Otherwise we would be arguing that bias is fine as long as the story is far away and doesn't matter very much.

Of course, balance is always going to be imperfect. As the commission also argues: "The achievement of absolute balance in presenting a programme of public interest … is possible only in exceptional circumstances – usually in cases where the issue is neither complicated nor multifaceted."

It really is important for rulings from the BCCSA and the Press Council to get more attention. Without greater public discussion of their thinking, it is possible for them to develop approaches that are bewilderingly out of touch, as in this case.

These bodies create their own pre-cedents, making it possible to justify an argument simply by reference to earlier rulings. They develop a form of jurisprudence that affects what information is made available.

They, too, need scrutiny.

The Mail & Guardian's ombud provides an independent view of the paper's journalism. If you have any complaints you would like addressed, you can phone the paper on 0112507300 and leave a message, or contact me at [email protected]

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