Opinionista William Bird 3 November 2014

The e.tv crisis: What must be done?

Perhaps e.tv will never enjoy the same level of credibility again. But having got this far, it seems a pity to throw everything down the drain. Here are five key steps the organisation could take in the interests of some serious damage control.

Huge damage to e.tv’s credibility and integrity have been done as a result of:

  • The allegations of direct political and commercial editorial interference;
  • The production of a series of items focused on government infrastructure;
  • The allegations against Mr Golding in relation to purchasing Ellies shares, and finally
  • the very personal emails and letters that have entered the public domain.

So far the response has been a difficult HCI annual general meeting and more allegations in media stories, none of which do a great deal to undo the damage done.

Here are five things e.tv needs to do in the wake of recent crises.

1. There must be an investigation. HCI and e.tv urgently need to launch an investigation into the various allegations. It is critical that the investigation is independent, open and transparent. Not only does the investigation need to take place, but its findings and recommendations need to be made public. In addition, the investigation panel must be independent of HCI and e.tv. If members or its set up is perceived to be too close to either it will not have any credibility and be seen as a whitewash. It might be that it has a judge or senior counsel as chair, with media and company law experts who can help investigate and make findings. Either way, its terms and mandate need to be public as well. Without such an investigation, rumors will continue to spread and greater long term damage will be done.

2. Mr Copelyn needs to resign as well. While it could be argued that this may presume outcomes from the investigation, it appears to outsiders that he is deeply compromised by the allegations. If what Bronwyn Keene-Young stated in her letter to staff is accurate, the question arises of why he has not yet resigned. Either way he has been tainted by the role he allegedly played in the political interference or in the knowing and failing to act (or at least taking action months later, as alleged by Mr Golding) surrounding the purchase of Ellies shares by Mr Golding. The longer he stays, the greater the credibility crisis will impact.

3. Go big on their editorial policy. e.tv needs to lead by example here and make sure that they publicise their news and editorial policies including structures. It is critical for their audiences that they know what values help shape their news, but also that they know what structures are in place to help protect the independence of the news. Laying out the structures for their audiences will not only help give greater understanding to their news values, it is also a critical step in undoing the damage to their credibility. Their policies need to be on their website and their audiences should be invited to make submissions on their updating and revision on a regular basis.

4. Transparency – it’s clear. Perhaps one of the biggest shifts in news media has been the realisation of the need for transparency for audiences by traditional media. Given the plethora of sources of information, news media need to rely not only on their brand and credibility, but they also need to be transparent about their news, their news values and their processes. Without being transparent about these, there is little to differentiate them from just about any other source of information. So it isn’t good enough for HCI to claim, “The Company re-affirms its commitment to protect its interests and of its shareholders, to promote an independent media free of political or government interference,” or for them to deny interference during the AGM. They need to be transparent about what steps are being taken and what measures are being put in place to protect the editorial independence of e.tv. There would be some merit in allowing the investigation to take place before they firm these measures up and adhere to them, but it is critical that they are clear and transparent about them. If they are not, who will be able to determine if they are being put in place or adhered to, and if citizens cannot do this how can they be asked to trust the news they are presented?

5. Make new appointments. However people feel about Golding and Keene-Young, their role in building e.tv cannot be denied. They were largely responsible for building it into the successful company it is today. They were also responsible for building the culture of the organisation which often operated more like a family. They promoted from within and nurtured talent. Patrick Conroy started as an intern and rose to head of news; he is one of many who has been with e.tv a long time. As a result they have built an incredibly loyal group of senior management who operate well as a unit. Anyone who has presented with them at ICASA or Parliament will have experienced this. The resignation of Mr Golding and Ms Keene-Young will be felt for years to come. It is critical that new people are appointed soon, and if possible that they come from within the existing management. If not, the damage to e.tv may be even more severe, as outsiders will simply not fit in, or may not be trusted by the staff.

These five steps may not be enough, but they are critical, not just for e.tv but because the crises have occurred in the context where similar steps in relation to the public broadcaster have not been taken, or implemented. They are also critical because they speak to the needs of media which exist in difficult climates. Commercial and political interference are not unique to e.tv or the public broadcaster. Indeed they impact every medium. (Highlighted here in the recent story about the Independent Group.) What makes the difference is how the different media deal with them. Ultimately, those who are open and transparent and engage their audiences in these issues will succeed and those who deny, whitewash, succumb to political or commercial pressures will fail. Not because they won’t make money, but because news is about trust and credibility. It’s the same reason so few media had any credibility under Apartheid: you can spin and deceive, and use smoke and mirrors, but ultimately audiences aren’t stupid. They know what’s real and what isn’t. Our media have enough credibility issues surrounding the coverage of issues relating to the poor and marginalised – they cannot afford it being further undermined.

Finally, two questions for other media to ask about the HCI and e.tv crises. Firstly, given the seriousness of the allegations against Mr Yunus Shaik’s involvement, how is it that it is reported he received 99.4% vote to be on the board of HCI? Do the shareholders endorse such actions or is something else going on? Secondly, if what is being reported is true about the efforts by e.tv in relation to the set top boxes, additional questions are raised: how is it that government ministers could be so “persuaded” through offers of media coverage, and what of the role of MultiChoice in relation to the set top boxes? We already know that they managed to persuade the SABC to do an about-turn on set top box control, but was that all? DM

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