/ 30 August 2013

SABC calls for 70% happy news

Hlaudi Motsoeneng.
Hlaudi Motsoeneng. (Madelene Cronje, M&G)

The controversial executive is championing for 70% of the news stories aired by the public broadcaster to be positive.

"For me, it is actually disappointing to see what news coverage there is out there, because there are so many positive issues happening in this country," Motsoeneng told the Mail & Guardian this week.

"The media normally focus on the negative publicity. I believe, from the SABC's side, 70% should be positive [news] stories and then you can have 30% negative stories. The reason I am championing this is because if you only talk about the negative, people can't even try to think on their feet. Because what occupies their mind is all this negative stuff.

"My thinking is when you deal with positive stories, you are building a nation. You are building the future of the kids. That is what I believe all of us in the media should do."

Motsoeneng is not the only news boss who favours what critics term "sunshine journalism".

In addition to the launch earlier this month of SABC's 24-hour news channel, last week saw the launch of ANN7 (popularly known as Gupta TV) on DStv. The other development was Sekunjalo Independent Media Consortium's recent purchase of Independent News and Media South Africa.

These new brooms have vowed to clean up the act of the South African media by ridding the industry of what they see as cynical journalism through publishing and airing positive news stories.

Alternative viewing
"People in this country are sick and tired of negative press," ANN7 talk- show anchor Jimmy Manyi told the M&G this week.

"ANN7 presents major opportunities for alternative viewing."

He said the new channel is committed to reporting on good news and it encourages patriotism.

And in a recent interview with the Financial Mail, the Independent's new chairperson, Iqbal Survé, said: "We felt the media was not representing the positive aspects of South Africa. What we are reading about is not what we see in South Africa."

Jackson Mthembu, ANC national spokesperson, appears to share this sentiment in a statement released last week in which the ANC congratulates ANN7 on its launch.

"The South African story remains largely untold," Mthembu said.

Manyi, a former government spin doctor, said: "Unfortunately, the mainstream media here have adopted rigid editorial policies, which dictate what's newsworthy. A lot of work that government does isn't considered newsworthy and government press releases are often rejected because they are labelled as propaganda."

This situation may have pushed the government into a corner, but it has also opened a door for the rich and powerful Gupta family, who saw a business opportunity in the media sector, he said.

Rigid editorial policies
"It's not a government strategy but an entrepreneur [the Gupta family] who sees this big client [the government] and hopes he can appeal to the reasonableness of this frustrated client who has Cabinet briefings, government cluster briefings and departmental briefings, but none of that is covered in mainstream media," said Manyi.

"The entrepreneur thinks he can flesh out this content. He's seeing a gap in the market and he's exploiting it. If I was in this business I would do exactly the same.

"The mainstream media should thank this entrepreneur for closing this gaping hole. The government would otherwise be forced to think of its own platforms. How else do you get news out, when we all know that advertorials lack credibility?"

He warns that mainstream media, with what he sees as rigid editorial policies that favour sensationalism, may run the risk of being out in the cold. "In fact, they are already cutting themselves off because they're not publishing government news."

He adds that the only editorial policy that allows government news is the New Age newspaper's (which is also owned by the Guptas).

"Now, they [mainstream media] shouldn't cry foul when others cover government news – it's not privileged information; it's released to every media organisation. This is a free country and the media are entitled to make a democratic choice not to cover certain topics, but in doing so they run the risk of cutting themselves off from government news and depriving their readers of positive news."

At the SABC, Motsoeneng has been criticised by his staff in the past for practising censorship with programming that might offend President Jacob Zuma or the ruling party.

Sunshine journalism
But Motsoeneng has not wavered from his conviction about what should go on air. He was removed from his post in March by the previous SABC board shortly before it was dissolved. While the furore raged around his head at the time, with the SABC spokesperson announcing that Motsoeneng had been replaced in his acting role, he stayed put.

Now that things have blown over, Motsoeneng is firmly at the helm. And to enlighten others, he says, he has been sharing his views about how positive journalism can build the country.

Motsoeneng does not believe his news targets mean he favours sunshine journalism, because 30% of the news stories covered by the SABC can be negative.

As a public broadcaster, the SABC is different to other media, says Motsoeneng. "We want to concentrate more on positive stories, rather than to put everything in a negative way. Before you become a manager at the SABC, you first have to be a citizen of this country. You should love this country. When you love this country, you will do what is right for it, which is what we are doing now at the SABC.

"The message I put out very strongly at the SABC is to think about the positive when people go out and do stories. The difference is our own citizens are tired of crime and tired of people talking about negative things.

The SABC's new 24-hour satellite news channel has received mixed reviews, but Motsoeneng said he had specified that he needed more positive stories, and these news stories were now flowing in.

"I need to find a way for all people to believe in what I am saying. The majority of the country believes we should highlight good-news stories," he said.

"Some people say we should focus on more cultural issues, and we are building up our programming."

Asked whether the SABC would, for example, carry a story on Zuma's homestead Nkandla, should more money be found to have been spent on it that we don't already know about, Motsoeneng said he believed the public broadcaster should not just follow the "hullabaloo".

"It would depend on whether that story is in the public interest. I hear what you are saying about a story on Nkandla. If there is an investigation going into the matter, I don't think we should follow the hullabaloo, but rather wait until that investigation is finalised.

"We can highlight that the public protector might be investigating, but we can't come to a conclusion before the report is concluded."

Motsoeneng said he was happy with the newcomers to the media industry – such as the Gupta family and the new owner of Independent Newspapers Iqbal Survé.

"I am very excited by it all. I have engaged some of them to share views, and they too will focus on building the country," said Motsoeneng.

"I don't want to mention names of who I have met. I think some of them are on the same path as I am. Other people are realising the importance of having different opinions about how the media should [be] run."

Motsoeneng believes there is a bigger plan emerging in South Africa to change the way people focus on negative news.

"Since I have became very vocal about the media, and there was all this hullabaloo around whether I had censored, so many people, even those in print media, have been supporting me on my view," he said. "I think I have won over so many people on this issue."

The SABC's 24-hour news channel had not been rushed to air in time for the elections next year, said Motsoeneng.

"Elections come and go. This is a long-term project," said Motsoeneng, who said he had never received any favours from anyone and had worked hard to get to the top in broadcasting.

He said the print media will soon be quoting the investigations and stories the SABC broadcasts, rather than the other way around.

"This is an exciting time for us," he said. "The media really needs to change."