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The SABC Bill — a massive blow to public broadcasting as we know it

The SABC Bill — a massive blow to public broadcasting as we know it
Illustrative image | Source: The SABC building in Auckland Park, Johannesburg. (Photo: Gallo Images / Veli Nhlapo)

The SABC Bill isn’t just regurgitating old, unworkable ideas; if enacted, it poses a real threat to our democracy and Parliament, and everyone who cares about our democracy should work hard to ensure it is withdrawn forthwith.

The SOS Coalition and Media Monitoring Africa (MMA) have just received a copy of the draft SABC Bill as approved by the Cabinet last week and as introduced in Parliament on 2 October.

To put it mildly, it is a shocker.

That the SABC is in crisis is no secret: R1.13-billion in the red, a massive decline in audiences and revenue thanks to the closure of its free-to-air analogue terrestrial television broadcasts in five provinces, the scandal of a board member aligned with the Ministry of Communications and Digital Technologies engaging in political interference in news, no CEO and a new board struggling to get to grips with an organisation that was without a board for over six months.

So what is needed?

As the government and organisations such as SOS and MMA have been saying for years, the problem is systemic. Only 3% of the SABC’s funding comes directly from the fiscus, about 16% comes from TV licences and the rest, some 80%, is entirely dependent on advertising.

It is required to run on a commercial basis with an entirely uncommercial, indeed extremely onerous public mandate requiring a range of public interest programming in all 11 official languages and sign language. Across the board, there have been clamours for a new funding model. Worse, the spectre of political interference has always hovered over the public broadcaster despite the high court’s rulings protecting the independence of the SABC.

What does the SABC Bill do? In short, it makes all of the above problems worse, far worse.

These are some of the key issues:

Making law in a policy vacuum

The SABC Bill will entirely repeal and replace the 1999 Broadcasting Act and does so in a policy vacuum. Public comments on the last draft of the White Paper on Audio and Audiovisual Content Services originally published in 2020 and updated in July this year are due only on Monday, 9 October. So why is Parliament entertaining an SABC Bill when there has been no agreed policy on what the SABC needs for a quarter of a century and when the many crises facing the SABC point to a clear need for thought-through policy determinations as to how to fix these?

And will the department proceed with the charade of the draft white paper when one of its most heralded sections, the one on the SABC, lies in tatters?

Policy U-turns and more of the same cross-subsidisation failures

The draft white paper originally stated what all industry-watchers have known for 24 years, that “the idea of the commercial division cross-subsidising the public division has been a policy failure since inception… It has become both impractical and expensive for the SABC to have separate books for the two divisions as it requires duplication of services to implement this legislative obligation”. Quite.

Even the current version still maintains that the cross-subsidisation model has been a failure: “This assumption [of the commercial services generating sufficient revenue to cross-subsidise public stations and channels] has proven to be incorrect as it has been public services which have been more commercially successful.”

And yet, the SABC Bill doubles down on the cross-subsidisation model with clear sinister intent — to claw back state control of the SABC.

Back to the future — from a state to a public broadcaster and back again

In brief, what is envisaged is that the SABC’s public commercial services, eg, SABC 3, Metro FM, 5FM, will be hived off into a subsidiary company with its own board of directors. And it is this entity that is expected to generate money to cross-subsidise the SABC’s public operations. It is not clear why the department thinks that creating a company will fix a model that has never worked.

But a close look at the way in which the SABC commercial subsidiary is to operate reveals that the levels of operational involvement by the minister envisaged in the SABC Bill are entirely at odds with the principles of an independent public broadcaster set down by the high court and which have been part of SA law since our transition to democracy. The minister essentially is to have veto powers over:

  • The appointment of each member of the board of the commercial subsidiary;
  • The appointment of the chairperson of the board of the commercial subsidiary; and
  • The remuneration and allowances of the members of the board of the commercial subsidiary.

Worse, the SABC Bill allows for massive ministerial incursions into the operations of the SABC proper, the kind of incursions that the high court has already ruled are not consistent with an independent public broadcaster whose operations are controlled by an independent board. For example, the minister is to have:

  • Powers to expand the functions of the SABC, provided these are consistent with the charter;
  • It appears, powers to remove a member of the board provided the removal is not related to broadcasting or selecting, commissioning or producing particular content;
  • The power to appoint a person to investigate the financial affairs of the SABC if the minister believes funds of the SABC have been mismanaged, and the power to intervene and direct the SABC to take any action if the SABC is in financial difficulty — clearly a blank cheque for wholesale intervention;
  • Veto powers over the appointment of an interim board; and
  • Veto powers over the remuneration of the executive directors of the SABC, ie, the CEO and the CFO.

In short, instead of protecting the SABC from political interference, the Bill seeks to empower the minister to interfere in ways that directly undermine its independence. The lesson that ministerial interference in the running of an independent entity leads to disaster seems to be clear to everyone but the ministry.

And still no funding model

Perhaps the most cynical aspect of the SABC Bill is its refusal to grasp the nettle of the financial hole facing the SABC because of its unfunded public mandate. It is this that industry watchers have been asking for, for years.

Billions in short-term bailouts, even when managed by an excellent board and management team (as has been the case for the past five years), cannot hide the fact that the public broadcasting model of no public funding for an onerous, R2-billion-plus annually public mandate is unsustainable and has been broken beyond repair for decades.

The SABC Bill provides that the minister must develop a funding model framework to ensure that the majority of the SABC’s funding is sourced from state-based funding models, but he is only required to do that within three years of the Bill coming into force!

Talk about kicking the whole stability of the SABC’s finances (already hopelessly in the red) into touch.

How can the minister be sure that the proposed funding model framework will even fit with a commercial subsidiary? He can’t. The amendments to bring about a commercial subsidiary (essentially the existing public commercial division under another name and with no extra resources) to cross-subsidise public services have no basis in reality — everyone knows that public SABC 1 brings in more revenue than the public commercial SABC 3!

To reiterate, the ministry has said, as a matter of draft policy that “the idea of the commercial division cross-subsidising the public division has been a policy failure since inception”. As Einstein said, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

The promise to develop a funding model framework (not even a funding model itself, note) within three years is laughable when the SABC is expected to continue with its existing unworkable funding model for another three years in the face of its financial meltdown.

Surely the right way to do this is to do the comparative international research, undertake a feasibility study, develop the funding model and enact it when you know it will work? This is particularly the case when the policy formulation process, under way since 2011, is yet to be finalised and adopted by the Cabinet.

What’s the rush?

There has been no haste in developing a new SABC policy. The department took nine years from the start of the white paper process to come up with an actual first draft in 2020. Three years after that, we are ruminating over the next (very contradictory) draft. The process is nowhere near finished and yet we already have a Bill before Parliament that is entirely at odds with many of the substantive policy proposals currently being put forward by the very same ministry.

So what is the rush now?  We suspect that the upcoming, crucial, hotly contested 2024 elections are looming large above this Bill. The government is determined not to lose these elections and controlling the single most powerful media outlet in the country is a juicy prize, even if it means our constitutional values, policy processes and independent institutions are thrown out the window in the process.

Civil society and the public must be under no illusion. The SABC Bill isn’t just regurgitating old, unworkable ideas; if enacted, it poses a real threat to our democracy and Parliament, and everyone who cares about our democracy should work hard to ensure it is withdrawn forthwith. DM

The SOS Coalition is a member-based public broadcasting network that campaigns for democratic media and broadcasting, as well as excellent programming by the public broadcaster, to serve the public interest

Media Monitoring Africa acts as a watchdog to promote ethical and fair journalism which supports human rights. We promote democracy and a culture where the media and the powerful respect human rights to encourage a just and fair society.


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