The SABC and the Problem of Political Control

By Jane Duncan · 12 Feb 2014

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Picture: Wikipedia
Picture: Wikipedia

And another one bites the dust. Yet another Group Chief Executive Officer (GCEO), Lulama Makhoba, has left the beleaguered South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) before her term of office expires. Speculation has been rife that her position had become untenable given the growing power of Chief Operating Officer (COO), Hlaudi Motsoeneng.

This leadership saga has grabbed the headlines, eclipsing another, less-well publicised process, the SABC’s editorial policy review. The broadcaster has invited public comments on these policies as part of this review, and the deadline for comments is looming.

The Business Day quoted Congress of the People Member of Parliament and communications spokeswoman Juli Kilian raising suspicions that the review process is a Trojan horse to tighten government control of the SABC. According to her, there was ‘absolutely nothing defective’ about the SABC’s editorial policy.

Her statement is problematic. While the policies are excellent on some issues, their stance on who is ultimately responsible for editorial control is, in fact, part of the problem.

According to the section on editorial responsibility, the onus is on individual journalists and executive producers to make sound ethical journalism judgements. If anyone is in doubt about whether to broadcast something, s/he should consult with their supervisor for guidance voluntarily: a process known as upward referral.

However, the policies also state that an editor or producer should report programmes that are controversial or likely to have extraordinary impact before they are broadcast, and they will be ‘held responsible’ if they don’t. This caveat effectively turns a voluntary arrangement into a mandatory one.

The person who is ultimately responsible for editorial decision-making is the GCEO. Given that Motsoeneng has now been made responsible for news, presumably this role has been delegated to him now.

However, the policies identify certain subjects that trigger an obligation on journalists to consult with their relevant Head of Programming as a matter of course. While this list is meant to cover exceptional situations only - such as broadcasting stories that involve payment for information – it also extends to stories on national security matters, or instances where journalists need to gather information the public normally does not have access to.

These categories are dangerously broad. South Africa suffers from excessive levels of secrecy, forcing investigative journalists to rely on secret information regularly. The country has a very broad definition of national security, which has been misused in the past to justify overly intrusive intelligence practices. These realities mean that the mandatory upward referral process may apply to a large number of stories, rather than exceptional situations only.

The editorial policies encourage management overreach. The GCEO and COO are management positions, and managers should not be making editorial decisions at all; this is a well-recognised principle of media organisations worldwide, and there is no reason why the SABC should be the exception to this rule. Managers often do not have journalistic backgrounds, and are therefore unsuited to making editorial decisions.

The SABC justifies these practices as being in line with international best practice. The fact that the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) have upward referral systems, with the SABC leaning more towards the ABC’s system, does not automatically make it appropriate for South Africa. References to these practices elsewhere also ignore the controversies in those countries about them.

Even more seriously, the GCEO and COO are political appointees. In terms of the SABC’s Articles of Association, incumbents of these two positions, as well as the Chief Financial Officer (CFO), are appointed by the Minister of Communications. This arrangement is almost certainly unlawful as it violates the requirement in the Broadcasting Act for the Board to control the SABC’s affairs.

This means that the Minister of Communications controls indirectly the editorial content of the SABC: an arrangement that is most likely unconstitutional as well, as it violates the SABC’s right to freedom of expression. It doesn’t matter if the Minister behaves properly and doesn’t misuse this power through, for instance, removing a CEO or COO for making editorial decisions that embarrass the government. The fact that this power even exists is automatically ultra vires.

The policies are based on the tired assumption that to improve efficiency and effectiveness, the SABC must centralise and create additional layers of management. A separate editor-in-chief position risks undermining existing editorial decision-making, leading to internal conflict and demoralisation, as the staff that have been put in place to make decisions are second-guessed.

These institutional arrangements kill initiative and lend themselves to political control. But there is another, more foundational question that hasn’t even entered the recent public debate yet, which is what kind of journalism should the SABC be practicing and how adequately is this reflected in the policies?

In the mid-1990’s, as part of the SABC’s news transformation process, journalists and civil society engaged in intense discussions about changing the values, cultures and practices that underpinned the SABC’s apartheid-era journalism. It was an exciting, creative time for the broadcaster.

Staffers reached consensus on subscribing to a democratic journalism model. This model encouraged journalists to develop capacities to be free, critical, independent thinkers and make the tough calls themselves.  In the process, they were weaned off the apartheid culture of being told what to do.

Democratic journalism assumes that the journalists in the field, who are in ongoing contact with the issues and the people on the ground, are in the best position to make good news judgements. Questions about what constituted ‘newsworthiness’ were interrogated, and journalists were encouraged to diversify their sources of information and story ideas.

The then-head of training, Hein Ungerer, captured this new journalistic vision succinctly:

‘For the first time here were people saying to you that “you don’t really actually have to talk to the Ministers. You don’t really have to talk to the spokespeople. You actually talk to the people who tell you the story…”. And that was very new for South Africa because we used to go to media briefings and you already had the story before you left. It was very oppressive, a very dogmatic system’.

According to a transformation document of the time, ‘editorial decision-making is consultative and delegated to various levels of editorial management including the executive producer of a programme. While editorial decision-making is acceptable, editorial domination is unacceptable’.

This document made it clear that editors were still needed to make the really tough calls, as complete democracy in a newsroom is impractical. But upward referral stopped at the editor responsible for a particular programme or unit. This original vision has been replaced by a vision that re-establishes editorial domination as a decision-making model, in spite of the fact that the policies pay lip service to editorial democracy.

The internal commission of enquiry into the blacklisting of political commentators in 2006 (the Sisulu Commission) even questioned whether the Head of News should be involved in making editorial decisions. It argued that this role should be confined to news policy and strategy. Yet as was apparent from a directive on the choice of words to describe President Zuma’s residence, Nkandla, the Head remains active on editorial matters.

Many middle class people have concluded that the SABC is a basket case, and they have looked elsewhere for news and information. However, many working class people still do not have the luxury of choice, and remain heavily reliant on the SABC. This is why no right-minded citizen should give up on the struggle for robust public broadcasting. The editorial policy review provides an important space for civil society and the SABC’s own journalists to push back and achieve the public broadcaster South Africa both needs and deserves.

Duncan is a Professor of Journalism at the University of Johannesburg.

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Rory Verified user
14 Feb

Political Interference in the SABC

There is a general malaise effecting government in SA and this is just a symptom of it. The only lasting solution is to vote them out of office.

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