The state broadcaster this month ‘announced’ that it would soon announce when it would start its much-delayed 24-hour news channel. But it seems this ‘announcement’ by the new group CEO, Lulama Mokhobo, might have been premature — again. Fienie Grobler reports.
SABC spokesman Kaizer Kganyago was hesitant to provide any more details following Mokhobo’s interview with SABC2’s breakfast show, Morning Live, in February. He was not even prepared to give the date for the announcement, not to mention the actual starting date for the channel.
“We will announce when we are ready,” Kganyago told TheMediaOnline.
He said the state broadcaster had taken a beating from the media in the past after failing more than once to launch when it said it would. Kganyago said the SABC would this time rather play its cards close to its chest, than run the risk of announcing another starting date prematurely.
Television journalist Thinus Ferreira was one of the first to pick up on the interview with Mokhobo, and wrote about it on his blog, TV with Thinus. Mokhobo had said that the SABC would announce “in the not too distant future” when the new 24-hour channel will start.
“There’s been a lot of really hard work going on behind the scenes,” she reportedly said.
“I have a broad idea of what the content is going to be like. Because it’s going to be a 24-hour news channel it will focus on news, current affairs and quite a bit on key documentaries.
“This year we had a seat on the security council of the United Nations, and I don’t think we as the SABC made sufficient noise about that,” said Mokhobo.
TheMediaOnline hoped to flesh out some of the details on the 24-hour news channel in an interview with news chief Jimi Matthews.
But Kganyago said Matthews would not be in a position to answer any questions on the 24-hour news channel.
However, Matthews would answer questions about his opinions on the media environment, said Kganyago.
Matthews had made several interesting statements recently, and TheMediaOnline thought it a good opportunity to ask him about that.
He told Garfield, the host of America’s National Public Radio On the Media programme: “I have a newsroom filled with poorly-trained reporters, where there is no real incentive to go out and break stories. I find a newsroom that is subjected to the demands of the trade unions, where the first recourse to criticism is to call the union rep, that the place is littered with party hacks. It is without a spirit.”
On the same show, press ombudsman Joe Thloloe criticised the SABC, saying its stories were being taken with a pinch of salt. While it should be the crown of journalism, “sadly, it isn’t doing what it should be doing”, said Thloloe.
TheMediaOnline asked Matthews to comment to this. However, a week after the questions were sent to him, there was no sign of any response.
The SABC’s Vuyo Mthembu, of the broadcaster’s communication department, told TheMediaOnline: “Please note that a decision has been taken for Mr Matthews not to respond to the questions. Although they were his personal views you were sourcing, they might ultimately be attributed within the context of his position as Head: TV News at the organisation.
“We regret any inconvenience caused.”
Asked if anyone else would be available to comment, Mthembu said “there is nobody else who can respond to the questions”.
So for now, there is no news on the news channel, which was expected to be part of the SABC’s digital bouquet.
It is public knowledge that the public broadcaster applied for R6.9 billion in government funding over the next three years. The national treasury gave details of the application to parliament’s portfolio committee on communications in August last year.
According to a report by I-Net Bridge, published on the Mail & Guardian Online, some R384.3 million would be for the 2011/2012 financial year, some R2.026 billion would be for 2012/2013 and the remaining R4.52 billion for the 2013/2014 financial year.
The national treasury last year said the business cases for the SABC’s 24-hour news channel and its sport channel, and its migration to digital terrestrial television, were still outstanding.
The first launch deadline for the 24-hour news channel was April 1 last year, when the SABC said MultiChoice had been chosen to broadcast the channel.
But in May last year, the acting group CEO, Robin Nicholson, who had told parliament it would the broadcaster R80 million per year, said it was not yet ready to air the channel.
“There is an internal target date that we have communicated to the board, but we won’t reveal it until management says it’s going to be delivered by then,” said Nicholson, according to TimesLIVE.
In September last year, the SABC reported on its own website that “plans to establish 24-hour news channels [sic] are on track”.
Quoting chairman Ben Ngubane, the SABC said most stakeholders, including the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (Icasa) had been advised about the channel.
“We had discussions with Icasa and they are very positive about the 24-hour news channel. It’s important for the country, it’s a very important branding tool for the SABC,” said Ngubane.
He said the broadcaster needed better equipment to launch the channel.
“There is a need for new studios, new equipment, new infrastructure projects, the building itself has to be revamped and made habitable and friendly to the people who occupy it,” said Ngubane.
The SABC website’s report said the board acknowledged that “a lot has to be done”.
The civil society coalition, Support Public Broadcasting (SOS), picketed outside parliament last November, alongside SABC unions, film-makers and non-governmental organisations, to call for, among many other things, transparency at the public broadcaster.
It remains to be seen if that will be realised in 2012.
Fienie Grobler is deputy news editor at the South African Press Association (Sapa).