/ 24 July 2014

Good-news SABC is bad news

Playing it safe: Ongoing political pressure and leadership crises at the SABC prevent staff from finding the confidence to take risks and innovate. Photo: Delwyn Verasamy
Playing it safe: Ongoing political pressure and leadership crises at the SABC prevent staff from finding the confidence to take risks and innovate. Photo: Delwyn Verasamy

In 1994, the SABC was an exciting place to be, full of the promise of a new start. With new leadership, the corporation wanted to forget its past as the mouthpiece of the apartheid regime and become a public broadcaster for the new South Africa.

The project went far beyond making space for previously banned voices to be heard; in many ways, that was the simple part. There were issues of language: how to fit 11 languages into three TV channels, and what to do with ethnic radio stations whose identity and approach were founded in apartheid ideology.

There were issues of resourcing. When I took a job there, I was allocated an enormous corner office on the first floor of the Radio Park tower block, all dark wood and imported crystal glassware. But the radio newsroom lacked field recorders: the practice of including audio clips in radio news bulletins, well-established elsewhere, was foreign.

Staffing levels on African-language stations serving millions of listeners were a fraction of those serving English- and Afrikaans-speakers; news staff tended to be translators, not journalists. All they did was to take news items from headquarters and render them in their own language.

Above all, the corporation needed to get rid of the ingrained culture of doing what you were told. It needed to find its own role and voice, to become a marketplace of ideas for a loud, argumentative new democracy. It needed to be the place where South Africans could hear each other, often for the first time.

It was never going to be easy to achieve change of that magnitude but it did seem possible.

The tragedy of the SABC is that, despite undoubted successes, the underlying culture did not change. It used to be a place where it was best to play it safe, and it is that place again. Ongoing political pressure and leadership crises prevent staff from finding the confidence to take risks and innovate.

Public broadcasters in some countries are leaders of innovation in programming, journalism, technology and much else. But, to get to that point, their independence has to be secure.

The recent spate of SABC scandals illustrates the problem clearly.

Just before Hlaudi Motsoeneng was suddenly and controversially confirmed as the SABC’s chief operating officer, he called for the licensing of journalists and repeated his demand for a quota of 70% good-news stories.

Almost unnoticed in the public debate about this, he told the New Age that he was busy working on an editorial plan for submission to Communications Minister Faith Muthambi.

It is completely inappropriate for an editorial plan to be submitted to the minister at all: it should be the role of the organisation’s leadership to keep the politicians at bay, not to invite them in.

The move deepens the sense that the SABC is expected to – and, at least at this level, is happy to – fall in with a political agenda.

Licensing journalists is a terrible idea. The Constitution guarantees freedom of expression, so nobody has the right to deny others the right to exercise it.

In a radio debate, however, Motsoeneng said he could not understand the fuss: surely journalists need to be held accountable, like others?

Accountability is an important principle but it needs mechanisms that don’t infringe on constitutional fundamentals. Some of those, such as the Press Council, are in place.

And that is aside from the practical issues: the internet and social media are so fast, so huge and so ever-present that they make any attempt to control information all but impossible.

The last time there was a call to license journalists in South Africa was under apartheid. It seems an attractive option for authoritarian regimes.

What is worrying is that, this time around, the call comes from a media leader, the chief operating officer of the most powerful and important media house in the country and a key institution in a democracy.

This desire for more control is the exact opposite of what we hoped for at the SABC 20 years ago.

? The July 4 edition of the Mail & Guardian contained an advertisement that compared the treatment of pigs with the Holocaust. There was an immediate outcry and several complaints were laid with various bodies, including my office.

The editor-in-chief, Chris Roper, issued an unequivocal apology, and promised to donate the cost of the ad to the NSPCA and to tighten internal controls.

Running the ad in the first place was a bad mistake but the paper’s reaction was well handled. A quick and clear apology was the only possible course of action.

Franz Krüger was the national editor of Radio News at the SABC from 1994 until 1999

The Mail & Guardian‘s ombud provides an independent view of the paper’s journalism. If you have any complaints you would like addressed, contact him at [email protected] or phone the paper on 011 250 7300 and leave a message