The call by the acting chief operations officer at the SABC, Hlaudi Motsoeneng, for 70% of news stories to be aired by the public broadcaster to be positive goes beyond controversial and raises fundamental questions as to who is running the show at the SABC as well as critical issues of editorial independence. The suggestion is deeply concerning and Media Monitoring Africa calls on the SABC interim board to act immediately and prevent any such proposed editorial interference.
Whether there is a need or desire for more positive news stories, must surely be driven by the audiences of the SABC. Before that however we need to ask the question as to what constitutes a positive or a negative story and who makes the decision? Is a story about the reintroduction of sexual offences courts, to deal with the epidemic of gender based violence and child abuse a positive or a negative story? Depending on the angle taken it could be either, or both or neither. Surely each story must be assessed within context? Given that SABC has news services across just under 20 platforms, the sheer practicality of such a decision needs to be questioned.
The core ethical principles of journalism are to tell the truth as fully as possible, act independently, minimise harm and be accountable. These principles are currently broadly reflected within the SABC existing editorial policies, and can be found in best practice cases throughout our continent. The issue of fairness is crucial here, not whether or not stories should have a positive or negative spin on them.
There can be no doubt that there is a need for greater diversity of views across our media. Pro poor, gender mainstreamed, child focused, youth focused, disability focused, pro government media should all be welcomed and encouraged. This is one of the roles for the Media Development and Diversity Agency. The role of the public broadcaster is, however, a unique one, and its mandate in news is to, "reflect and draw on South Africa’s diversity of people, languages, cultures, genders, abilities and classes, and the full spectrum of opinions, perspectives and comment" (SABC Editorial Policies News & Current Affairs, page 19). The issue of positive or negative is notably absent precisely because such concepts are simply grossly inappropriate for the public broadcaster. Clearly this is not to suggest that the broadcaster should not have programming that is positive and inspirational, and that serves to highlight the best our nation and our people have to offer, but to suggest a 70/30 split is fundamentally dangerous.
The call also raises the crucial question as to what research the acting chief executive officer is drawing upon in making his assessment that SABC has too much "negative news". We call on Mr Motsoeneng to make the research public so we can investigate what must surely be an issue of fundamental bias and fairness. Indeed if it is the case that government is overwhelmingly negatively portrayed in the SABC news it suggests a democracy threatening bias that must be addressed immediately.
Crucially, however, the issue of editorial independence is highlighted by the fact that it is the acting chief executive officer who is making these calls. There is NO mention of the role of this executive in the SABC editorial polices. Indeed the roles of heads of news are clearly stated. The concept of upward referral is included, for those occasions where a decision is passed upward in order to address especially challenging dilemmas. Whether or not this is appropriate as a mechanism is a core issue to be addressed by the editorial policy review. What is clear however is that upward referral refers only to the Group Chief Executive Officer (see page 5 of the SABC editorial policies). Accordingly any attempt to direct the news agenda, from anyone other than the editors and heads of news, must be considered direct editorial interference and must be prevented at all costs.
The SABC appears to be seeking to no longer operate on a crisis to crisis basis. Should the suggestions proposed be allowed to go forward in the manner it has been presented the SABC will once again find itself plunged into a new crisis of credibility and governance.
Thandi Smith and Lethabo Dibetso run the Media Policy & Quality Unit at Media Monitoring Africa. William Bird is director.