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Fixing the SABC: Plausible, Possible, Priority


Stephen Grootes is the host of the Sunrise show on SAfm. He's been part of the political hack pack since before the Polokwane tsunami, and covers politics in a slightly obsessive manner. Those who love him have recommended help for his politics addiction. He quotes Amy Winehouse.

On Wednesday Parliament’s Communications Committee settled on five people who will now be put forward to be appointed as the new interim board of the SABC. For many, this will be the final end to one of our worst ever sagas, a tragicomedy marked by the awful Hlaudi Motsoeneng, and those around him. And there will be relief that this is all over. But, the process that is currently being followed is very likely to lead to all of this happening again. We need to think again about how best to manage the SABC, and what we want from the corporation.

Before you read this:

My day job puts me in direct competition to the SABC. The programme that I present, the Midday Report, is broadcast on Radio 702 and 567 Cape Talk, and competes directly with a similar programme on SAfm. As a political reporter, I am also in competition with the SABC news team. That said, as a political reporter, I have spent an awful lot of time reporting on the corporation, on its various boards, on its controversies, and its general state of being. And so have taken it upon myself to have some views on the corporation’s future. If you believe that this makes me perhaps biased, or arrogant, I might have to plead guilty.

There is a regular pattern that plays out with the SABC. A board of some shape or kind is appointed by Parliament. That board’s members represent different constituencies: in the past the SACP and the unions managed to have their members on it while the ANC dominates the show, of course. But there is a parallel hierarchy as well. During the Mbeki era it was well-known that the corporation’s head of news and current affairs, Snuki Zikalala, defended and promoted the then president, even to the point of giving him an interview on 14 of its radio stations at the same time just before the ANC’s Polokwane conference. When President Jacob Zuma took over in 2009, nothing changed. The next head of news, Phil Molefe, was appointed only after then SABC chair Dr Ben Ngubane appeared to have first checked with Zuma whether that would be okay. What is known is that Ngubane referred to Molefe as the “shareholder’s choice”, in the sense that “shareholder” means government.

Ngubane of course has gone on to bigger and possibly more worrisome entities; he now chairs Eskom.

Eventually, for various reasons, the board either tears itself apart, or the parallel hierarchy leads to some people resigning, or its CEO gets above his or her station. Then it all gets dissolves and Parliament appoints an interim board, again. This is sometimes an easy process, as it was on Wednesday. As everyone knows, these interim board members’ terms are only for six months, and their job is only to get things going again. The real fight starts over the long-term board. It is there that real control lies.

The reason this is so contested is the same reason that the BBC is always involved in some controversy or other in the UK, or why even the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, end up in the news. They have a huge political impact. Here, if you control the news output of the SABC, you control what most voters hear, and know about what is happening in the country. This is changing now, in that more people are moving to the cities, where there is independent media, smartphones seem to be everywhere, and e-tv has a relatively big audience. But the SABC is still the biggest media operation in the country, by far.

Unless some changes are made, the current system of Parliament appointing permanent board members is not going to work and we will end up with the same mess.

Perhaps the first and most radical solution would be to remove the cause of this contestation. To break up the SABC. And instead, to create a series of different broadcasters which are subsidised by government, to fulfil the mandate of informing the people of South Africa. There are several ways this could be done. In radio, it could simply lead to a series of big independent radio stations, all standing on their own, that are subsidised by the state, one for each of the main languages. There would still be a fight over editorial independence, but it would be a series of fights, rather than one big fight which the ANC tends to win, every time.

A variation on this could see the SABC being broken up into provincial companies, each with their own radio station. There could be content-sharing agreements to lower the cost, and you could have a system of “national splits”. This would see a national bulletin at certain times, coming from a central point, while the provincial company would then produce provincial bulletins. They would even be allowed to have extra content on national issues. This would increase diversity, and lead to wonderful opportunities to see how the Western Cape would cover an issue like the erection of the Zuma statue, compared to, say, North West. But this solution could also be vulnerable to corruption, and there is a risk that some language groups would lose out completely.

In TV it could be time to ask if the SABC should really broadcast entertainment at all, and if it should just have one free-to-air terrestrial channel broadcasting news. Other, independent players could then be licensed, leading to greater diversity, and more people producing news bulletins.

But is unlikely that the ANC, even divided as it is now, would agree to this kind of radical thinking, because it may remove the source of some of its power.

An easier and less radical solution to the problem of political contestation would be to change the way the board is appointed. It’s been suggested before that a body like the Judicial Service Commission (JSC), which is composed of politicians and experts, is used. That could work, but could end up hopelessly politicised, as the JSC itself has been from time to time.

Another idea could be to have a special guarantee for the editorial staff of the organisation. You would start by drawing up a proper editorial policy. The one that was created before Motsoeneng came along and tore it up would be a good start. It used a system of “upward referral”, where a journalist would only go to their boss in the event they believed there was a problem or a difficult decision to make. It would be designed to stop the dreaded phone call from the 14th floor. But that on its own would not be enough, as Zikalala and other managers at the corporation have proved.

What could be needed is a special process for on-air news presenters and executive news producers, a system where if there was a reason for them to be disciplined for any reason, they would appear, not before SABC managers, but before a special independent panel. This panel would need to be run by someone of real heft and independence. It’s the kind of job for former Constitutional Court Judge Albie Sachs. And of course, these hearings would be held in public. It would mean that someone who makes editorial decisions for the SABC would be assured of a fair, proper, and open hearing should their managers move against them.

It would be tempting also to say that the appointment of senior presenters and producers in the first place would have to be approved by this panel, to make sure it was not just party appointees being smuggled into power. And this panel would probably have to manage the salaries of journalists as well, to remove that power from management.

Another way around this would be for senior presenters and producers to be allowed to speak in public about SABC issues. If there is an argument with management about what can go out on air, they should be allowed to tweet and write about it, in real time. Without fearing any punishment. This would allow a much more public process to unfold.

And presenters could choose to explain to their viewers and listeners what is happening around them. This would mean that when a presenter has to interview their boss about a hugely controversial issue, which has happened many times in the past, they would be allowed to say how they feel about it, beforehand, and explain which questions they want to ask. That would inform viewers and listeners as to how to interpret that interview when it happens.

Yet another solution to many of the problems at the SABC would be to do one simple thing. Make the editor-in-chief a former judge. Sure, they wouldn’t necessarily have journalistic experience, but they can hire people for that. They would be independent, and when journalists have fights among themselves about how to cover stories, this person could be the final arbiter. And everyone would trust that person. If it’s a simple editorial dispute over something that reasonable, intelligent people can disagree on, then no action need be taken against the person whose view does not prevail. But if someone keeps trying to interfere for political reasons, this editor-in-chief would be able to point it out, and take action against them.

This solution has several benefits. It could be done quickly, would be relatively cheap, and wouldn’t require huge surgery to the SABC. And the impact it would have would be massive. Journalists, generally speaking, do their best work when they feel safe and protected at their place of employment. Reporters and presenters at the SABC would be free, and able to report the news, in the best way they know how. They would be able to simply get on with the job, and present different viewpoints, knowing they would not lose their jobs simply for doing their job.

But, Gentle Reader, as you know, we like to live in the real world. And in the real world, the prospects of the ANC, which has an effective veto on this sort of thing, agreeing to any kind of change, are very small indeed. Which means the set of events that have played out as tragedy, and as farce, will simply happen again. Because we will do the same thing again and again, expecting a different result. Because, on some issues, as a country, we are insane. DM

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