Accused of sacrificing its public accountability, editorial policy and of moving ever closer to becoming a de facto state broadcaster, the SABC looked dangerously like it was being used by Robert Gumede in his war against the Mail & Guardian. Yet the SABC is defiant, saying it doesn’t need to explain its editorial policy or news decisions to anyone. Really? By MANDY DE WAAL.
Ask the SA Broadcasting Corporation how it makes news decisions these days and you’re likely to be castigated. Despite being the public broadcaster obligated by law to follow a defined editorial code, to be accountable to the public and to comply with a code of conduct dictated by the Broadcasting Complaints Commission of South Africa, SABC News under Phil Molefe has become a law unto itself.
After billionaire businessman Robert Gumede used Auckland Park last week to launch a pre-emptive attack to discredit the Mail & Guardian, the corporation refused to answer questions about why Gumede’s allegations were not properly investigated in line with its own editorial policy or why the story made the news. Gumede sought to discredit the Mail & Guardian because the investigative weekly was running a story about irregular Gumede payments related to a Telkom tender for smart cards.
“Ag. Don’t go there. At the end of the day you are trying to dictate how another newsroom must create stories,” SABC spokesman Kaizer Kganyago told The Daily Maverick in response to being questioned why Gumede was given airtime to launch his attack. “You are a competitor of ours like the Mail & Guardian is. Now you want us to tell you how we determine (whether) something is newsworthy? You don’t tell us and you don’t ask the same question of Sunday World or Sunday Times. No. It is like Checkers going to Pick ’n Pay and saying: ‘How do you determine these prices that have been set by you?’ That is unprofessional.”
When an appeal was made to Kganyago in terms of the SABC being a public broadcaster with a requirement to be publicly accountable for news policy, he said: “No. I have heard that story before. At the end of the day we are a news company and we have to be treated in the same way as you treat all the other news people. This thing about us being a public broadcaster and that everybody must know everything is not relevant. We are also a company and we run a business.”
WATCH: Robert Gumede vs M&G
M&G reported that SABC news staff were kept in the dark about the Gumede story, which was prepared for broadcast with the help of controversial head of news Phil Molefe. In the insert, Gumede alleged M&G investigative journalist Sam Sole was paid R900 to write damaging stories about him. Playing the very tatty race card, Gumede said Sole “goes out to attack black people, saying they are corrupt, they bribe people”. Gumede claimed he was being “vilified” for his association with the ANC and unfairly accused of acquiring his wealth through nefarious means because he was black.
The lengthy interview with Gumede was filmed at his offices, while the M&G was afforded a 10-second off-camera rebuttal out of a two-and-a-half minute news insert.
“Gumede has clearly been grossly defamatory. Not only in what he said to the SABC, in the press statement he circulated and in fact in his complaint to the (Press) Ombudsman which he circulated beyond the ombudsman’s office. We are considering our options,” said M&G editor Nic Dawes.
“I think what the SABC did was extraordinary and appalling. Robert Gumede was lavishly filmed in his office making a completely unsubstantiated set of allegations. The SABC made absolutely no effort to investigate on its own account and made no attempt to contact the main target of the story, which is Sam Sole. The SABC phoned me an hour-and-a-half before broadcast and I had a very brief quote tacked on the end – and they misquoted me. It is really extraordinary.” The SABC has promised Dawes a right of reply, but to date has made no effort to make good on this promise.
Dawes said investigations by the M&G reveal that the story was personally driven by Molefe, who kept the interview secret. “He kept the story away from other staff, didn’t mention it in news conference. That suggests a suspicious agenda and that it wasn’t driven by a news value or by journalistic criteria, but rather by other criteria.”
A major funder of the ANC, ongoing investigations reveal Gumede is an extremely wealthy businessman who made his money from deals with either state or quasi-state institutions. “Gumede would like to keep his secrets secret and the party that benefits from his largesse would like to see the media brought under more control. There is a pincer movement that is happening as a result. I think that what happened at the SABC was a pretty crude demonstration of the ways these interests can be brought to bear by the public broadcaster operating more as a state broadcaster, or worse a party faction broadcaster.”
Earlier Noseweek editor Martin Welz rubbished Gumede’s claims saying the allegations were “outrageous” and “appalling” TimesLIVE reported that the R900 proffered by Gumede as a “bribe” was, in fact, a reimbursement for an air ticket paid so that Sole could investigate a story for Noseweek on editor Martin Welz’s authority. “He’s (Sole) about the most incorruptible journalist there is. He lives on a shoe-string because he’s so committed to his job. I think it’s appalling. It’s truly outrageous.” (Disclosure: Mandy de Waal collaborates occasionally with Sam Sole – ED)
One of the most credible and much-awarded investigative journalists in South Africa, Sole’s body of work includes investigations into the Goniwe murders, exposing South Africa’s Chemical and Biological Warfare programme, revealing the Scorpions’ investigation into Jacob Zuma, the 2005 Oilgate exposé, linking former police commissioner Jackie Selebi, Brett Kebble and Glen Agliotti and ongoing investigations into the arms deal. Sole is undoubtedly a thorn in the side of the corrupt in the government, given his focus on where politics, business and crime intersect. Sole recently established the Mail & Guardian Centre for Investigative Journalism with long-time investigative partner Stefaans Brümmer to strengthen investigative reporting in this country.
The M&G is clearly a source of irritation for Gumede, who is the subject of ongoing investigations by both Sole and former colleague Adriaan Basson. The businessman took the paper to the Press Ombudsman who ordered the paper to apologise to the billionaire because of a story about Gumede being investigated by the police for corruption. The ombudsman’s decision related to the context of the story and the treatment of Gumede, but didn’t dispute its facts.
“Gumede suggests that anything we now write about him is driven by my embarrassment and vindictiveness and the alleged corruption of our staff. I don’t think that’s the case. I don’t think the outcome of getting a negative ombudsman decision is that you never write anything about the subject again. What the ombudsman enjoins us to do is to operate with absolute ethical probity,” said Dawes.
In response to Dawes’ comments, the SABC said the Mail & Guardian wanted to “shoot the messenger”. “The SABC is not accusing them of anything, we just ran a story. The accuser is known to them and everybody else and now, instead of dealing with the issue, they want to divert attention away from the story and the issue by trying to blame the SABC. In all fairness, I don’t know why they are blaming us. We did what we did – which is the way we always do it. We covered the story, we gave them an opportunity to reply, they did reply and we put that in the story. I don’t know what else they want from us,” said Kganyago.
Molefe refused to speak to The Daily Maverick and took umbrage at being asked to comment on the matter. “No, we are not hiding away. That is just your perception of things. We are a different operation with a different corporate culture and that you must appreciate. I don’t know why in this country we don’t appreciate diversity and that things will be done differently because we are different organisations. Just appreciate that. It’s fundamental. Please appreciate the SABC operates this way because it is the SABC and this doesn’t mean we are hiding anything,” Molefe said deflecting comment to Kganyago. “I could speak to you and deal with your enquiry, but I say this is how we do things. We speak through our spokesperson and you must appreciate how we do things and not be prescriptive to us.”
Director of Media Monitoring Africa William Bird said the SABC’s airing of the Gumede insert and its response to media questions showed the broadcaster was not aware of its role or responsibilities. “The SABC should be a beacon of ethical behaviour and quality news decisions. Like every other broadcaster in the country, they are obligated to adhere to the BCCSA code of conduct, and one of its requirements is that they offer balanced, accurate and fair reporting. The SABC’s news values don’t belong to the broadcaster, they belong to the public. I think that the SABC’s response is quite staggering.
“The SABC is obligated to say how news decisions are made and to show that it operates within the confines of editorial policy which are clearly set. The irony of it is that the SABC’s editorial policy is actually very good. This for me is one of the dangers of the Protection of Information Bill. You just need the bill to start the chill of things. You just need to see it and then these things tend to follow suite,” said Bird.
Bird said a better response for the SABC would have been to point to the editorial policies available on the SABC’s website. “They should have made their editorial policy freely available to you. I would suggest that people who are unhappy with the SABC’s behaviour join SOS which has been forged to try to deal with the ongoing crisis at the SABC.”
A civil society coalition, SOS lobbies for the SABC to operate in the public interest.
DA shadow minister for communications Natasha Michael called the SABC’s response “appalling”. “I think for the SABC to tell reporters that they don’t have to account for how they decide on what is news is truly appalling. The public broadcaster is supposed to be completely unbiased and give a balanced opinion. The public broadcaster must not take any political position whatsoever, but unfortunately the appointment of Phil Molefe is so unbelievably suspect that the DA has called in the help of the Public Protector in this regard.” Michael said it was crucial the SABC didn’t become a mouthpiece for the ANC ruling party.
“If the SABC is going have someone making accusations against another party then the other party needs to have audi alteram partem (Latin for ‘hear the other side’). That is the SABC’s mandate. And every South African has the right to know what is going on at the SABC and to ask questions of the them. They are 100% responsible to the South African public.” DM
Read a statement put out by Robert Gumede on BizCommunity, read the SABC’s mandate for news and current affairs, read more about the SABC’s mandate, read more about SOS’ campaign to strengthen governance at the SABC.
Main photo by acameronhuff.