When Julius Malema addressed media at the launch of his Economic Freedom Fighters, he thanked journalists from the SABC for attending. He knows what it’s like to be both a darling and enemy of the ANC, he said, and understands what staff at public broadcaster are forced to put up with. The SABC is “run from Luthuli House,” he told media. “I know how we used to run them when we were there… Comrades in the SABC operate like it’s the eighties, scared they are going to be fired.”
It’s a common thought. Questions of the SABC’s objectivity came from another quarter on Thursday. President Zuma addressed the Black Business Council the previous evening and the SABC interrupted normal programming to run it live. The speech focused on the government’s successes, policies to improve the economy, and myths to dispel. It was hardly breaking news. “In fact, the president’s speech sounded much like an election speech,” said DA spokesperson Mmusi Maimane. “On the face of it, last night’s broadcast amounts to nothing more than political abuse of the national broadcaster. This is unacceptable at any time, but particularly so just months before a national election.”
Officials had a chance to respond as the public broadcaster launched its 24-hour news channel, 404 on DStv, on Thursday night. It was not convincing. Acting chief operations officer Hlaudi Motsoeneng, the drive behind the new channel, put up a spirited, yet oddly framed, defence of the organisation’s leadership, its ability to control its finances and provide quality content.
There were calls for credible, in-depth news, but the message of the night was that the SABC needs to tell a different story from the media that is misleading the country. “We trust that this channel will seize the opportunity to cover South Africa beyond stories of crime and corruption, and open another window to this beautiful country that has achieved a lot in a short space of time,” said President Zuma. “Journalists will be able to share with South Africans the successes of their country in the past 20 years, as well as the work that must still be done further in building a prosperous South Africa and a better Africa… In short, the true and full South African story is waiting to be told,” he said, adding that media shy away from positive stories.
SABC’s group CEO Lulama Mokhobo continued the plea. She said the new station should carry stories of hope and good leadership. The platform should not be used by individuals to create divisions, she added, before comparing Zuma to Nelson Mandela.
The ANC is determined to find a way of changing the country’s discourse through mass media. Its official position on the new channel is hard to argue with: “We further trust that this platform will not be yet another hourly regurgitation of stale content which can no longer be considered news, but rather a critical assessment and exposure of the best and worst in our society, anchored firmly on the hope and determination of ordinary South Africans to be part of solution, building a common nationhood.” But one wonders, especially ahead of elections, whether they would prefer more of the “best” and less of the “worst” and to what degree the party is able to influence a public good that should have the highest standards of objectivity.
Zuma was the station’s first interview. He was asked about unemployment, Zimbabwe, setbacks in the arms deal inquiry, and Mandela. The president spoke a lot but said little, which is par for Zuma rather than an indictment on the new channel or signs they might be taking it easy on the ANC.
Only those of you with DStv or some serious broadband to live stream the interview would have been able to watch. The channel will only be available on DStv before SABC plans to move it to free-to-air after the transition to digital television. According to Mail & Guardian, the DStv deal will deliver R553 million to the SABC over three years but production costs could be R250 million to R300 million a year (based on estimates on eNCA’s budget).
Will it work? The controversial Motsoeneng believes it will and urged government and viewers to just give it a chance. My colleague Stephen Grootes, however, who was probably in the media before I was conceived, thinks the channel’s annual budget of R100 million will be cradled by government speeches, which will offer the ANC the chance to tell it’s story of “real South Africans” and the progress since 1994. Without subscribing to DStv or even owning a TV, I feel unable to make a prediction. But I’d hazard a guess that you won’t hear the words Nkandlagate, compound, homestead or Zumaville. Instead, it will be ‘the president’s private residence’. DM
Photo: President Zuma at the opening of the SABC’s news channel (Greg Nicolson)
"I do not understand how holding a placard to protest against gender-based violence would be interpreted as insulting the modesty of a woman." ~ Beatrice Mateyo