SABC launches 24-hour news channel on DStv
The satellite channel launched on Thursday evening, with President Jacob Zuma in attendance for its kick-off.
"I am not quite sure where it comes from that the channel could be used as a propaganda tool," said acting group executive of news Jimi Matthews, a veteran broadcaster and former anti-apartheid activist.
"I am not sure how it would be any different to the operation I oversee at present. It is not like a 24-hour channel is a beast on its own. It still resides in the newsroom, with all the same management team, and all checks and balances. How it would somehow become a tool for some political entity confounds me a bit."
Matthews was criticised by the Democratic Alliance's national spokesperson Mmusi Maimane for interrupting normal programming and giving live coverage to a speech by Zuma at a dinner on Wednesday night. "I will request a meeting with head of news, Jimi Matthews, over this special live broadcast granted to President Zuma," he said in a statement.
However, Matthews is adamant there is no ulterior motive in launching the 24-hour satellite channel. With the advent of its 24-hour news channel, the public broadcaster was expanding as it should, he said, and nothing had been rushed.
"The reality is that if the SABC is not playing in the 24-hour news space, it is left behind," he explained.
"Very few people are still satisfied waiting for bulletins in the evening. Previously, it was appointment viewing, where you rushed home to watch the 8pm news. While we see continuous growth in radio news offerings, digitial sites are exploding in growth. There is a decline in the television news service. If you are going to produce television news, you have to play in the 24-hour space."
Matthews said the SABC's 24-hour satellite channel was never intended as part of the broadcaster's turnaround strategy.
"What the hour-long bulletin is, is primarily a pilot for what do in 24 hours. We wanted to start getting people accustomed to a longer format. It was an opportunity to get our news anchors to start interviewing on set."
While SABC's hour-long news bulletin on SABC 3 has been criticising for poor ratings, Matthews claimed this was not "entirely true".
"We maintained our ratings that we had for our half-hour show, and did not lose any viewers while expanding," he said.
The notion that SABC's 24-hour satellite channel was an exercise to catch the run-up to the general election was far from the truth, said Matthews.
"You will recall that six months back, we had prepared to launch, but we shut down the project. The desire and need to do a 24-hour news channel has always been there," he said. "But now we have a new deal with DStv and we had the necessary finance to do the show."
Last week, the Mail & Guardian exposed the details of the new contract the SABC has signed with MultiChoice, which reveals that MultiChoice Africa will pay the SABC a fee of R553-million over five years.
Leading the project is acting chief operations officer Hlaudi Motsoeneng, who told the M&G this week that the deal he had struck was a huge improvement on the last contract it signed with MultiChoice for its 24-hour satellite channel.
"Last time the contract gave us R80-million over three and a half years," he said. "I negotiated the new contract and it is good news for the SABC."
Motsoeneng said he had told the broadcaster's lawyers to remove a clause in the contract, which had also upset Matthews when he viewed it.
The M&G revealed how the clause stated that SABC will be entitled to make available, after consultation with MultiChoice Africa, broadcasts of programmes that report on "special and significant events of national importance occuring in South Africa [such as the death of a president, state funerals, natural disasters and acts of war] to SABC-accredited television broadcasters specifically authorised by the SABC to receive such programme broadcasts [accredited broadcasters] in the territory".
"That clause is gone. I asked the lawyers to take it out," said Motsoeneng. "You see, we have an ongoing working relationship with MultiChoice and it was no problem."
Motsoeneng is a controversial boss at the SABC, having been criticised by staff and broadcasters for having no matric, and for alleged censorship and withdrawing programming he believed might offend Zuma.
However, the executive has always maintained he is merely trying to achieve a balance in the news. Whether the SABC will be able to pull off the balance of news in the run-up to the elections remains to be seen.
While some broadcasters have claimed eNCA requires R250-million to R300-million a year for its 24-hour news channel, Matthews described this as a "mythical figure".
"Believe me, if someone gave me R250-million to do what we are doing, we would be flying," he said. "No really, we would be partying in the park."
Matthews said this kind of talk was just another attempt to cast a shadow over the SABC deal.
"What we want to do is tell the story of this country, across the board. Not just an urban focus, which media houses actively focus on. We are hoping not to be ambulance chasers and drive a sensational story," said the broadcaster. "So what we really have is the one differentiator, which is that we will broadcast in all languages and go to all the corners of this country."
A former executive at the SABC, who asked not to be named, recalled how Matthews had a stand-up row with him about showing the horrifying footage of the killing of Free State protester Andries Tatane on the news.
"I told him he could not flight the footage," said the former SABC executive. "That Tatane story would not have seen light of day if he had not won the argument."
Matthews admitted that political pressure did come with the turf and he just tried to stick to policy guidelines. And now he is ready to launch the 24-hour satellite news channel, even though he knows it might not be perfect.
"We could have spent the next three months doing dry runs and practising in the studio, or go to air when ready, as we are now," he said. "Now we will be ready for digital terrestrial television (DTT), when it comes. Going live gives me an opportunity, as we are not going to be launching with all the bell and whistles."