The state of the SABC took yet another nosedive recently. Kate Skinner says we can’t just sell it and looks at what the problems are and what can be done to fix them.
There is a rather sad joke doing the rounds: “When it comes to the SABC, it is not that the right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing, it is that the left hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing!” This is probably a fair statement about the state of affairs at our public broadcaster.
The question is, what has gone so terribly wrong? How is it possible that we find ourselves in exactly the same position we were in mid-2009? How is it possible that we once again have ended up with a completely dysfunctional, inquorate board that has suffered mass resignations and been removed by Parliament? Is it the board’s fault alone or are there other forces at play?
That the new board has collapsed in similarly spectacular fashion to the old board is an important pause moment. There is clearly a deeper reason for the boards’ failure than the boards themselves.
In the almost perpetual management and board crises since 2007, it is easy to stop caring whether it is the minister, Parliament or the board. It is easy to throw up one’s hands in horror and say, as the Daily Maverick has, “Let’s not bother. Let’s immediately move to dismantle and sell what is left of the SABC!”
But the problem with this is that South Africa needs a public broadcaster. We need a public broadcaster that prioritises local languages and local programming and makes sure that more marginal, less profitable audiences such as the poor, those speaking vernacular languages, the elderly and rural people, and generally all those outside the commercial advertiser target market get a look-in. We need a public broadcaster to make programming that doesn’t necessarily draw a huge audience – but is nonetheless critical for democracy and the public interest – such as documentaries, educational and children’s programming, and critical and investigative journalism.
So to sell off the SABC? That would be throwing in the towel and turning our backs on the need for public media.
So there is no way round it; it is important to look at the heart of the malaise.
I believe that in the first instance problems have arisen from a general lack of a coherent understanding of the principles that underpin public broadcasting. Senior politicians, state officials and even social commentators often fail to appreciate the distinction between a ’public’ broadcaster and a ’state‘ broadcaster. Public broadcasters cannot be treated like other parastals, such as Eskom or Transnet. The SABC deals in the realm of ideas and critical thinking not concrete deliverables, such as roads and electricity. Ideas and concepts can be manipulated and influenced for a factional or narrow political agenda so the SABC, if it is to play its critical information role, needs to be insulated from these undue influences.
The minister of communications may be the shareholder of the SABC, but she should have no role in appointing the executives, influencing editorial directions, shaping corporate plans etcetera. She should never be a role-player in the broadcaster. All matters of significance should be governed through a professional management team within the direction set by the board. Accountability should be done transparently through parliament, which must bring in public participation.
Also, as a ‘public’ broadcaster, the SABC should not be so reliant on commercial funding such as advertising, as this allows commercial firms to dominate programming. The SABC therefore needs a much greater proportion of public funding (The SABC presently relies on 80% advertising funding). As a ‘public’ broadcaster (as opposed to a ‘commercial’ broadcaster) there really should be no role for consumption-pushing, advertiser-funded programming.
In the second instance, problems have arisen from a (convenient) confusion over the roles of oversight structures. Oversight structures include the ministry of communications, the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (Icasa) and parliament. The ministry’s role should be limited to that of crafting a coherent policy for the information and communication technology sector.
The regulator, Icasa, should be hands-on in ensuring that the SABC fulfils its charter obligations (encapsulating its public programming mandate), its licence conditions (including programming requirements) and ensures local content quotas are fulfilled. Sadly, Icasa has been notoriously weak in holding the SABC to account on its content obligations.
And parliament? This body should oversee the SABC’s corporate plans and finances, select appropriate people to the SABC board (and Icasa) and pass good legislation.
Sadly, parliament has fallen short on all accounts. It has failed to hold the SABC to account in terms of its corporate plans and finances. Since 2010 it has let the SABC board get away with not producing an effective turnaround strategy. It has not dealt with the recommendations of the auditor general’s report or the subsequent Special Investigating Unit (SIU) on corruption and mismanagement.
It has also not intervened when major crises have arisen at board level. In 2010, for instance, parliament simply refused to intervene when crises developed around the chair’s illegal unilateral appointment of the head of news. Parliament, for reasons known only to itself, chose to wait more than six months to hear the matter, letting the board effectively crumble. Four board members resigned in the interim. Also, parliament allowed the chair to get away with corporate governance breaches, without even a rap on the knuckles, further unsettling the board.
Further, parliament steadfastly refused to pass an amendment to the Broadcasting Act to deal with a critical gap that has lead to untold instability. The Act is silent on who appoints the executive members of the board; that is the CEO, CFO and COO. Civil society organisations have been campaigning since 2008 to ensure that this gap is resolved by declaring that the non-executive members of the board (those appointed by parliament) appoint the executives without ministerial interference. Ministerial interference at executive appointment has simply caused non-stop crises since 2007.
In the third instance, crises have arisen from inappropriate outside interference. The SABC is a highly contested institution. This is normal. Around the world public broadcasters experience outside pressures. However, the role of the board is to resist these and to stand steadfast on issues of editorial independence. The SABC board seems to have completely misunderstood its role. It has not clamped down on the rampant business interests of staff members. Further, it seems to have actively encouraged ministerial intervention. It has chosen not to take on the powers given to it by the Broadcasting Act that clearly states that the board “controls the affairs” of the corporation. It has not fought for its own power. It has handed over executive appointments to the ministry. It constantly defers to the wishes/views/interests/opinions of the stakeholder: that is the minister.
So is it the board alone that has created the problems? Clearly not.
Given these problems, what is to be done? Quick fixes will not save the SABC. The future of the SABC, and its operating model, including insulation from interference, must be part of the ICT policy review process that is finally unfolding. As part of this process the vision and principles of public broadcasting must be clarified (to emphasise the important ‘public’ nature of the public broadcaster), the roles of the oversight structures need to be clarified (stressing the important roles of the regulator and parliament) and the important central role of the board and management. Given the serious problems around ministerial interference, serious thought must be given to the SOS: Support Public Broadcasting’s proposal to turn the SABC into a constitutionally protected Chapter 9 institution, which reports directly to parliament with minimal input from the minister.
South Africa needs a public broadcaster. The SABC is simply too important to fail. n
Kate Skinner is the former co-ordinator of the SOS: Support Public Broadcasting Coalition who remains a member of the organisation. Follow the coalition on @soscoalition or visit the website: