South Africa

TROUBLED BROADCASTER

SABC board member instructed Phathiswa Magopeni to interview Ramaphosa’s wife

August 05 2019. Axed SABC news head Phathiswa Magopeni in Auckland Park, Johannesburg on 5 August 2019. (Photo: Gallo Images / Veli Nhlapo)

Axed news boss sticks to her guns ahead of board inquiry.

SABC board member Professor Saths Cooper told the SABC editor-in-chief to interview the first lady Dr Tshepo Motsepe as a way of sweetening access to President Cyril Ramaphosa, the axed news boss Phathiswa Magopeni has revealed. 

Magopeni was fired in January ahead of a board inquiry into her complaint, which disclosed serious editorial interference by the SABC CEO Madoda Mxakwe, chairperson Bongumusa Makhathini and now Cooper. 

In a media statement released on 26 February, Magopeni said that Cooper had messaged her on 2 December 2021. His message said: “Change focus, go for wife on a very different kind of feature; use me as ref [reference] saying I’ve been pushing you…she knows me from her 1st yr [year] medical sch [school] days. As women are viewers on 1 &2, it’ll be a hit – her life etc.”  Magopeni said this was an attempt to influence coverage of the President. Cooper added Motsepe’s number. “My response was ‘Great. Thanks’ and I did nothing with it,” said Magopeni.  

Cooper denied editorial interference. He told Daily Maverick “This [message] arose from Phathiswa’s contribution to the strategic planning meeting of the board. And we chatted about it and I suggested [this avenue]. News matters don’t serve in front of the board,” he said. The planning session had addressed SABC access to Ramaphosa. 

By December, relations between Magopeni and the SABC had soured. She faced negligence charges for the airing of an interdicted episode of Special Assignment on SABC 3 about the tow-trucking industry. But she said this was a cover-up for growing political pressure on the SABC from the ANC which had boiled over in the final weekend before the November 2021 local government elections. 

Magopeni was playing coverage by the book, she said. The SABC faces heightened scrutiny by the Electoral Commission of SA (IEC) and is subject to special election media laws. It is the public broadcaster and must give proportional representation to all political parties. Magopeni said the ANC spokesperson Pule Mabe back-channelled with Mxakwe and Makhathini to get the ANC special treatment. 

When Magopeni refused an unscheduled interview with Ramaphosa as ANC president at a stopover on the Limpopo leg of the campaign trail, all hell broke loose.  Magopeni says that because she would not break election plans, stood up for best practice and for her political staff, she was instead charged for violating the interdict.

Magopeni’s statement says that editorial interference by some board members had become routine and that her response to Cooper was a standard one. 

“This [her response to Cooper] is the manner in which I have always dealt with all board members who share information with the intention of influencing coverage. I receive, acknowledge, sometimes engage, and move on. I am not sure how the President’s unavailability evolved into an interview with Dr Motsepe. But this is what I had to deal with. I wish to point out that Prof Cooper sits on the Special Committee that has been set up to adjudicate my grievance,” she says. 

Both Mxakwe and Makhathini have released dossiers of information as reported in this article by Justine Limpitlaw. They say that they supported Magopeni in the new era of the SABC, were proud of her achievements in repositioning the broadcaster’s news offering, and they also released WhatsApp messages where she acknowledged their support and used them as counsel. 

The editor-in-chief role is the toughest editorial leadership role in the country and it has challenged previous incumbents like Joe Thloloe, Barney Mthombothi, the late Allister Sparks and Ameen Akhalwaya, all of whom faced editorial interference from boards and political pressure. This is because the SABC is still the largest and most powerful pace-setter of public square journalism.

After the ANC’s dismal performance in the November 2021 election, both Mabe and the ANC head of elections Fikile Mbalula took a scythe to Magopeni.  The IEC has not yet ruled on a separate complaint laid by Mxakwe into how ANC deputy secretary-general Jessie Duarte publicly upbraided the editor-in-chief at the national results centre on November 2. 

Magopeni was charged within days of the election – the timeline is captured in this article.  

In her response to the dossiers released by her bosses, Magopeni says her relationship with both changed after she refused the interview with Ramaphosa.

“When he [Makhathini] told me that the ANC President was in the final leg of the campaign (in October 2021) and would be making his way to the SABC, I asked him what he was coming to do as SABC News had no scheduled interview with him. He asked if the ANC President would have to leave the SABC without doing the interview. I emphatically said from a News point of view, yes, as the interview was not sanctioned by editors.” She also alleged that Makhathini had tried to influence how the SABC covered the Zulu succession battle and she said that his dossier had smoothed his intervention into an innocent one when she had found it partisan. 

“Mr Makhathini’s premise was that media coverage of the royal family’s succession battle was one-sided and he mentioned one media house as an example. He said the story of what he called ‘the other side’ of the family was not being told. What followed was an explanation of how King Misuzulu kaZwelithini was not fit to lead AmaZulu. He said he himself was among those not pleased. 

“Mr Makhathini said in his view the King had a problem and was unfit to lead Isizwe samaZulu. On 07 June 2021 at 21h00 he shared a 1-hour-54-minute audio clip recorded from a royal family meeting discussing the King’s ‘problem’, that Mr Makhathini believed made him ineligible,” says Magopeni. 

Magopeni agreed that she and Makhathini had enjoyed a cordial and constructive relationship. 

“Mr Makhathini’s involvement in coordinating the impromptu interview with Mr Ramaphosa made me uncomfortable, even though I had a good relationship with him previously. I felt, by his insistence, that he was abusing this relationship. 

“They both pressured and bullied me without success into approving the unplanned interview and bypass stipulated editorial processes,” said Magopeni. 

Mxakwe also said that Magopeni had mismanaged an editorial retrenchment plan and placed the broadcaster at risk. Her statement denies this and says management cocked up the process and made staff anxious.

“I had less than 30 minutes to deliver a presentation on a process that would alter people’s lives and careers profoundly and permanently. CCMA records should confirm this. There was no opportunity for unions and employee representatives who were in that session to ask any questions about my presentation. 

“This (resulted) in massive discontent and anxiety, because staff had no opportunity to ask direct questions about their concerns. Anyone who had acted with due consideration would have known that this was wrong.” She also clashed with her bosses over plans to shut the SABC Pretoria office as part of a cost-cutting exercise.  

“I argued that anyone who understands the significance of a public news service in any country would be able to comprehend that SABC News cannot be without a presence in the capital city. This is the seat of government, as well as the base of international representatives. I said it would be unimaginable for the BBC to be without a presence in London.” 

Magopeni’s grievance will be heard by a board inquiry which the SA National Editors’ Forum (Sanef) has said should be held publicly. The Special Assignment disciplinary case against her in December 2021 was live-streamed and the chairperson Nazeer Cassim found her guilty on one of three charges brought by the broadcaster. He found that the process had been fair and that Magopeni had had ample time to deal with the matter “sensibly” while he acknowledged her concerns about editorial independence. “Ms Magopeni is the responsible person who should have taken appropriate measures to ensure the court order (interdicting the episode of Special Assignment) the court order was complied with.” 

Cassim found her guilty of misconduct and recommended that be given a warning and retract a statement which harshly criticised the process. The SABC fired her before she could do so. 

The SABC did not respond to Daily Maverick’s request for comment.  

***

Daily Maverick’s Ferial Haffajee conducted an interview with Magopeni which is transcribed below. 

Question: Why did you only complain about editorial interference after charges had been laid against you?

Magopeni responded: I first spoke about internal interference publicly in the interview I did on Morning Live on 29 October 2021, four days after declining the Ramaphosa interview.

In this YouTube link at 08:00-08:30 and 11:48 -12:18 I make direct reference to internal interference and imposed interviews, without giving names as I didn’t do so with politicians who wanted stories changed that I also referred to in the interview. My grievance was lodged on 29 November 2021.

Question: The disciplinary committee chairperson makes an important point: you had a staff of about 1000 people and that an interdict on a programme meant it should have been made a priority in your inbox?

Answer: Together with the Special Assignment desk we took all due care to ensure that the interdicted episode did not air. For six solid weeks from 14 September 2021, when the episode was interdicted, to 26 October 2021, when it was aired, every measure had been taken to ensure that it did not air. On 26 October, out of the blue, the episode resurfaced. 

On that day the Special Assignment story editor had provided clear instructions on the episode that was to broadcast that evening, with the title Still Waiting and the codes as supplied by SABC3 schedulers. 

Some aspects of how SABC3 ended up with an incorrect episode emerged during the hearing but still nothing points to that error not happening again because it was a single code assigned to two different stories by SABC3 schedulers. 

News has no control of the material once it leaves its system, but clear instructions were given for the episode scheduled for that evening, but somehow the interdicted episode went to air. To date, no investigation has been undertaken to establish how exactly that story went to air, how the codes got duplicated at scheduling and how to prevent that happening in future.

Question: Justine Limpitlaw’s article reveals that the Broadcasting Complaints Commission of SA (BCCSA) finding of the interview your team conducted with suspended ANC secretary-general Ace Magashule noted significant editorial failures. What happened and why did it take so long to apologise? 

[The interview was an ill-disguised effort by the journalists to exert political pressure on the SABC to stop retrenchments. It lacked a factual basis and was emotionally charged].

Answer: Justine represented Media Monitoring Africa (MMA) and the SOS Coalition at the BCCSA and (she) remains extremely unhappy with the outcome even after the appeal. Once a matter gets referred to the watchdogs, we usually wait for the process to conclude and effect the outcome. 

Exactly a day after the Magashule interview editors discussed the problems that emanated from the interview and steps were identified regarding how it would be dealt with following internal process. This was done. 

In my presentation to the BCCSA I admitted to editorial policy infractions upfront. Our argument cited the highly charged environment, the unprecedented circumstances in which the interview happened, the risks that characterise live interviews and challenges with controlling them. I also shared steps we put in place to ensure that there is no recurrence, including running workshops on editorial policies for the newsroom at regular intervals. The BCCSA took all this into account.

Justine wanted the journalists who conducted the interview to be disciplined as well as the production team of the Full View programme that hosted the interview. They also wanted the News division fined R80K and that we issue an apology to the SABC executive and the public.

Having considered our arguments, the BCCSA instead ruled that we pay a R10K fine and read its final verdict and not an apology as the MMA/SOS sought to prescribe. We did as instructed. I understand that MMA/SOS Coalition has since taken the BCCSA to the High Court because they are still unhappy. DM

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  • Interested to see how this plays out, the standing up for principles, independence of journalism, the right to contest instructions that may have ulterior motives. On this article alone it appears as if Phathiswa did all the correct things and is paying a price of not bowing to political pressure. Hopeful that the board enquiry is indeed held in public.

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