Kate Skinner’s name has become synonymous with the SOS: Support Public Broadcasting coalition. But after almost five years as SOS co-ordinator, she has decided to focus on her doctorate studies. Fienie Grobler asked her how she experienced the ups and downs of public broadcasting.
1. Could you briefly tell us more about how you first became involved in SOS and what your personal highlights and ‘lowlights’ have been during your tenure?
I was at the SOS launch meeting in June 2008. Media Monitoring Africa had organised it. It was a big grouping of civil society organisations, academics, activists etc. People gathered because they were disillusioned with what was happening at the SABC. The SABC Board and the then CEO Dali Mpofu were in the midst of a showdown with the CEO being suspended and re-suspended. As civil society we looked helplessly on as our SABC was riven with these internal conflicts.
We resolved at that meeting to create a powerful civil society voice to “reclaim our SABC”. People at the meeting looked back to the coordinated civil society movements of the early 1990s – the “campaign for independent broadcasting” and the “campaign for open media”. We agreed that as individual organisations we had limited impact but as a campaign we might actually be able to “save our SABC”!
I was doing research into media diversity issues at the time. I had just finished a project looking at the vision, mission and mandate of the Media Development and Diversity Agency (MDDA) and was ready for something new and exciting. I was appointed at the meeting to co-ordinate the Coalition. At the time we thought we would be around for a few months. Almost four years later we are still around! And what a ride – SOS has seen the following – the coming and going of four ministers, five SABC CEOs, three SABC boards, two chairs of the Communications Parliamentary Portfolio Committee and the resignation of five SABC board members since 2010!
In 2009 we changed our name to SOS: Support Public Broadcasting because we wanted to include community broadcasting issues.
The highlights included getting Minister Roy Padayachie to agree to comprehensive broadcasting policy review process in 2010 and 2011. Highlights also included getting all the key broadcasting organisations, individuals and activists together to create a collective civil society vision for public broadcasting. The drafting of our SOS public service vision doc has been a key highlight.
Some of the lowlights have included the continued governance problems at the SABC under the 2010 SABC Board. SOS played an important role in nominating people to that Board. So far the Board has seen five resignations and constant internal conflict. One of the major disappointments was the refusal of the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Communications to intervene when crises started erupting at the SABC in early 2010 around the appointment of the head of news.
When the chair of the board, Dr. Ben Ngubane violated good corporate governance practices to appoint Phil Molefe without the approval of the board the Portfolio Committee refused to step in to sort out the problems. The crisis was allowed to simmer (and boil) until four board members resigned. The issues were only dealt with at the end of 2010 but by that time the damage was done… The Board was weak and divided. Also, Icasa’s lack of monitoring of local content quotas on TV has been depressing. The SABC has been allowed to get away with feeding us a diet of constant repeats!
2. What do you think will be your successor’s biggest challenge this year? Has anyone been appointed, and if so, who and when do they start?
We have put out job adverts for both an organiser and a co-ordinator (my position). We should have new people in place by the beginning of May 2012.
The co-ordinator’s biggest challenge is to ensure that government launches the broadcasting policy review process. We have been calling for this since our inception. Present broadcasting policy reflected in the Broadcasting White Paper, 1998 is more than a decade out of date. It doesn’t take into consideration the new digital realities. It also contains a number of gaps and contradictions which have contributed to lack of oversight of the SABC and management and governance instabilities.
The co-ordinator needs to ensure that government launches this review and that it doesn’t continue to amend legislation in a piecemeal and uncoordinated fashion e.g. introducing substantive amendments to the Electronic Communications and Icasa Acts. This review is long, long overdue. We need a new coherent and co-ordinated vision for public broadcasting and we need it now! The heartening thing is that the ANC’s communication policies include a strong proposal for this broadcasting review.
The organiser’s key task is to popularise the need for a strong independent public broadcaster and also strong independent community broadcasters. The organiser needs to ensure that we build a public broadcasting movement.
The importance of public broadcasting and why we need to fight for it needs to percolate down to our grassroots membership in the unions. Trade union federations, Cosatu and FEDUSA and trade unions CWU, Bemawu and MWASA are all members of SOS. We are also in an alliance with the freedom of expression network (FXN) which organises community organisations and social movements. We need to ensure that their community members take up broadcasting issues and fight for better public service programming, particularly local programming etc. Finally, the organiser needs to work closely with the Right 2 Know Campaign to popularise the importance of public broadcasting amongst their membership.
3. In what way do think SOS has made a difference to the broadcasting industry in South Africa?
SOS has kept the need for a broadcasting policy review on the agenda – through thick and thin.
With the support of our members and other industry players we pushed for the withdrawal of the Draft Public Service Broadcasting Bill. The Bill pushed for radical, and ill-thought through, changes to the broadcasting landscape. It called for the allignment of the entire broadcasting system (public, commercial and community) to the “goals of the developmental state”. (The present broadcasting system is linked to the goals of the Constitution.)
SOS argued that it would be contrary to international good practice and the growth of our democracy to link our broadcasting system to “the goals of the government of the day”. Independence of our broadcasting system from all vested interests is a key principle. Further, the Bill introduced a new funding model – a broadcasting tax of up to one percent of personal income. There was a public outcry. SOS argued that although it commended the Department of Communications for investigating the need for public funding for public broadcasting – the proposals were not properly researched.
SOS called for an audit of the SABC finances to ascertain the actual financial needs of the broadcaster and from there to develop a new public funding model. The Bill was withdrawn in late 2010 by then Minister Padayachie. He publically promised to launch a broadcasting policy review process. We had called for the withdrawal of the Bill and for a broadcasting policy review.
We have managed to push the idea that the SABC belongs to us as citizens of South Africa. (The SABC seems to think its first and most important stakeholder is the Minister of Communications!)
We have developed research and policy capacity in civil society to comment on public broadcasting issues. We have ensured a strong, coordinated civil society voice that talks for citizen interests.
4. Hypothetically speaking, if you were appointed CEO of the SABC — what would be the first three things you would change at the public broadcaster, and why?
I would ensure that the SABC’s turnaround strategy focuses on the broadcast of quality public programming – in particular local programming. I would move on the corruption and wasteful and fruitless expenditure at the SABC to ensure that there is sufficient money for programming. As part of the broadcasting policy review process I would push for a new funding model to ensure the SABC has sufficient public funds for the digital migration process to ensure quality public progamming on our screens.
5. What is next for you?
I have registered for my phd at Wits and I am exploring issues of media diversity in the context of digital migration. The big question for me is how can we ensure that this new digital environment delivers on its promises to provide a geniune diversity of content – particularly public service, citizen-orientated content. So what policy proposals do we need to put in place to ensure this? What funding models do we need? Also, what lessons have been learnt internationally? I plan to feed my findings into the work of SOS and other civil society organisations so that civil society has hard research to back up its demands for a citizen friendly digital broadcasting environment. I will remain on the SOS working group.
(Fienie Grobler is deputy news editor at the South African Press Association)
SOS: Save Public Broadcasting is looking to fill two positions: SOS Campaign Organiser and SOS Campaign Co-ordinator.
Skills, experience and knowledge required:
A commitment to social justice and public broadcasting issues.
An ability to craft a consensual vision for citizen-orientated public broadcasting
An ability to co-ordinate and find consensus amongst a diversity of individuals and organisations
Excellent leadership, organising, speaking, writing and editing skills
To find out more, or apply, please contact Kate Skinner – email@example.com