Monday, 17 September 2007

Time to make changes so SABC serves democracy better

The row over the the nomination of a new SABC Board - with claims that the list of nominees was determined at the ANC Head Office and that ANC MPs were cajoled into a rubber stamping role - raises a number of interesting points.

1. This nominations row come in the wake of complaints by ANC leadership about the role of the media, with the print media being accused of bias in its content, editorial choices and quality in news and commentary. These complaints are as yet untested, but have been getting ever louder. This is referred to in my piece entitled Discussion of media quality needed, not more regulation (7 Sept 2007). As I note in that blog entry, there are many unresolved issues about the media's role in a transforming South Africa. A major problem is the lack of a process to thrash out the issues and find a way forward. In this vacuum, calls for regulation among authoritarians in the ANC for state action to constrain the media are gaining a certain prominence.

2. We are witnessing a great deal of desperate maneuvering by different ruling party and other activist groups that are working to get their person elected President of the ANC. There are two main protagonists - the camp agitating for Jacob Zuma to ascend to the presidency and Thabo Mbeki's support group which is bent a different leader become’s the country's next president. But there are other forces and subgroups, with some of the covert alliances lodged in COSATU and the South African Communist Party. The media, or at least sections of it, has become a player in the game in that some protagonists use the media as a platform for discrediting certain opponents.

4. The mainstream media and the ruling ANC have a love-hate relationship. Most influential newspapers believe corruption is one of South Africa's biggest problems, and some like nothing better than to run a weekly expose fingering a top ANC leader involved in some unsavoury business. Of course, the basic concern about corruption is good and needed. Yet, with many media entities, corruption stories are seldom sustained and a focus on institutional issues of corruption is generally neglected. This means that there is a dearth of media campaigns to force government agencies to change practices which contradict policy, facilitate corruption or cause unnecessary hardship to citizens.

The ANC is riled by the abundance of corruption stories that target top individual, and it charges that constant images of the black male involved in corruption may reinforce racist perceptions that prevail in large parts of society. Unfortunately the ANC leadership is also in an loving embrace with the media. The ruling ANC uses the print media as a key source of information and a vehicle to reach the public. In addition, during periods of controversy and conflict within the ANC, insiders attack opponents through carefully placed “leaks" to the media. In this regard, the media is mobilised to attack individuals and to further factional agendas.

3. Compared to the role of other media, the SABC has decided to strike out on its own path. It has done so by taking conscious newsroom decisions to cover certain political stories differently and some major stories not at all. This recently culminated in a letter to the national editors’ forum, Sanef, in which the SABC accused other media of selling out on democracy and transformation for "thirty pieces of silver". Essentially, the official SABC stance is that coverage of political stories in the major news media (especially newspapers) is flawed. It claims that these entities are too busy pursuing profit to care about the damage done through sensationalism and scandal-mongering or influenced by a conservative political outlook that makes them unpatriotic and disrespectful of government leaders. The SABC is concerned about the "dignity and privacy" of government ministers and is highly annoyed that Sanef refuses to take the same view.

4. The row around the selection of the SABC board shows how multifaceted the problems in our media are. Organisations across a wide spectrum have raised a red flag over the selection process (and the way in which ANC headquarters allegedly intervened to influence the list, even against the wishes of ANC parliamentarians). Various political parties as well as the ANC's alliance partner, COSATU, have objected to the process ad well as to the final the list that pushed through. There are calls for President Thabo Mbeki to reject the names and to refer the matter back to Parliament for reconsideration. The controversy around the selection of its Board undermines the SABC's critique of mainstream media. This is not entirely fair since the debacle is less about what the broadcaster is doing and more about how powerful politicians are intervening to maintain an influence on it.
The row presents us with a good opportunity to review various aspects of the SABC with the aim of strengthening its role in democracy. Now is a good time to refine checks and balances to ensure that the broadcaster advances the values in the Constitution and serves the public in best way possible.

I suggest that a commission or an inquiry (probably instituted by the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa) be launched into the role and mandate of the SABC. An inquiry should be consultative and create space for organised interest groups as well as communities across the country to give input. Such a review process ought to probe and advise on the balance between various functions and imperatives related to the SABC's role, such as:
- providing information
- critique of public officials and institutions (holding public representatives and officials accountable)
- critique of private sector practices (including consumer issues and good governance practices)
- providing entertainment
- supporting cultural development
- uniting South Africans
- generating income.

Such an inquiry should lead to a set of findings and recommendations that are an advisory in nature. I believe the SABC will be strengthened through such a process. It can draw on such findings to substantiate certain positions. Alternately, if it chooses to, it can make clear choices to ignore certain recommendations. Of course, it would need to fully substantiate its policy position and take any possible flak that would come its way.

I believe that a public consultation process around the role of broadcaster would also be good for the broader debate about the role of the media. Issues, perspectives and broadly agreed recommendations would impact on the ongoing debate about the role of media in the transformation.

In the meantime, here are some of my views on the role of the SABC.

The SABC should play a different role to other media. For one, because the SABC is not a fully commercial animal, it can undertake functions and roles that the mainstream commercial media cannot do justice to. The public broadcaster has the latitude, for example, to do better in terms of use and promotion of language diversity, increased local content and educational programmes. It can also do a better job covering development stories, which often do not meet the standard or dominant criteria for newsworthiness (e.g. controversy, conflict or scandal). However, such a distinctive role should be the subject of open consultation and continuous review by stakeholders and by the relevant Parliamentary subcommittee.

But while we should use the public broadcaster to address gaps in media provision, it should continue to provide news and commentary that is fair-minded, reflective and encourages open debate. To be fair minded means to reflect a broad range of views and - in the case of the SABC - the views of people and organisations on the ground. Coverage of political and socio-economic issues in the South African electronic media is dominated by two categories: leading politicians, Ministers and government spokesperson on the one hand, and a handful of political commentators on the other. There is immense scope for including a wider range of voices in the news and current affairs.

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