On Wednesday 19 March I assembled the necessary victuals and settled down at 11h30 in front of the television screen. I hardly moved for the next 10 hours, flicking between DStv channels 403 (eNCA), 404 (SABC) and 405 (ANN7) comparing how they covered the public protector’s report on Nkandla.
In essence each channel covered the marathon media briefing adequately which was hardly difficult – the only testing element being to process the plethora, the huge volume of damning evidence.
Unsurprisingly eNCA was by far the best in assembling the supporting visual and audio elements which related to Madonsela’s testimony to pervasive ANC corruption. They had her in the studio for an interview with Iman Rappetti, they had a link to Cape Town to bring in constitutional law expert Professor Pierre de Vos and they crossed live to Jeremy Maggs interviewing various experts against a backdrop of the Union Buildings.
The SABC provided an anodyne but adequate summary of Madonsela’s findings and the ANN wrap by the always-excellent Hajra Omarjee also conveyed the essential elements of the story.
The devil in the detail part 1
The devil, however, was in the detail.
The SABC’s Vuyo Mvoko is a decent man and an honest and experienced reporter. He displayed his journalistic integrity when he walked away from the editor’s appointment at The New Age and he does his best now not to compromise that integrity in a compromising milieu.
As I watched his live introduction to the event in the 30 minutes prior to the start of the media conference I suddenly realised, with growing astonishment and no small amount of professional empathy, that he had no Nkandla overlay to leaven his piece to camera!
All he had was talking heads, ANC apparatchiks like Thulas Nxesi rabbiting on about “fire pools”. Also included as overlay, obviously, were his own interviews with the Big Kahuna talking head, the man whose polished dome has, thanks to Zapiro, become the derided symbol of the biggest of the party’s Big Vegetables, a symbol of everything that is rotten in the Loothuli House administration.
Try this as an apposite analogy. A major breakthrough, the Smoking Gun, has been revealed in the Watergate saga and the ABC News political reporter is doing a live and lengthy piece to camera outside the White House prior to the big media conference. To break that shot he needs cutaway material but all he has is his interviews with Tricky Dick Nixon and his officials …
Think of this for a moment … the late and hugely missed Mandy Rossouw broke the story with Mail & Guardian colleague Chris Roper in December 2009. In the ensuing four years how many in-depth documentaries has the SABC, the best resourced media organisation by far in the country, done on a story which has and is dominating our political discourse and will continue to resonate in infamy for years to come? Four? Two? One? The answer is easily available. Go to the Special Assignment web page, type Nkandla into the search bar and the predictable answer pops up: No results.
This is hardly is hardly surprising. The major contribution from the tax-payer funded SABC to our understanding of what is happening at Nkandla, why it is happening, what can be done about it, what the implications are for our country locally and for our standing in the world community came from Jimi Matthews. Raising once again the apartheid spectre – although the dwellings of John Vorster and PW Botha, as the report shows, cost a tiny fraction of what Nkandla cost – he insisted that the Nkandla compound be called “Mr Zuma’s Nkandla residence”. For much the same reason, what the world calls the Marikana massacre was first called the Marikana tragedy by the SABC and is now being referred to as the Marikana “incident”.)
Should you enquire about the dearth of in-depth investigation, the difficult-to-contact SABC spokesman, Kaizer Kganyago will, with bored resignation, provide you with a by now hackneyed and by rote template answer. Nobody should have the temerity to question how the state broadcaster interprets and implements its code of “ethical” news coverage but, since you’ve asked, the answer is obvious: Nkandla, just like Thamsanqa Jantjie and the booing of Jacob Zuma at the Nelson Mandela memorial service on 10 December last year is a “side story” to what President Zuma constantly assures us is the ANC’s “good story to tell”.
eNCA had no such problems. The sagacious Karyn Maughan compiled a nine minute 28 second backgrounder: “Karyn Maughan filed this special report from Nkandla, in KwaZulu-Natal. She spoke to residents who say they are hurt by the overspending on the President’s private homestead while they survive with minimal services.” You can watch the insert here and it goes to the heart of everything that is evil about Nkandla and the political party which gives such evil its blessing. It asks how R246 million can be spent on one man’s luxuries while his neighbours go without access to adequate housing, water, electricity, medical facilities and schools. It is not a question that the SABC of Hlaudi Motsoeneng, Jimi Matthews, Nyana Molete and their fellow ANC imbongis have been professional enough to ask.
The devil in the detail part 2
The second element which revealed the state broadcaster’s obsequious obeisance to His Master’s Voice occurred in what television techies call the “lower third” – the lower section of the screen where written information can be carried without intruding too distractingly upon the main visual image being broadcast.
Firstly, eNCA used this space far more creatively than the SABC did.
Secondly it was the information or rather the SABC’s trademark censorship by omission that was striking in what we call the strap and what Americans call the crawler – the moving ticker tape conveying written information at the bottom of the screen. During the 1960s, US television moguls who made a lot of money from sport coverage realised that if the outcome of the league championship depended on another game being played at the same time as the game being broadcast they could maintain interest by carrying the outcome of that game in the crawler at the bottom of the screen. After 9/11 the use of straps became ubiquitous on news broadcasts and, as the technology improved, the information and the way it could be presented became far more creative.
An hour or so before Madonsela started speaking a group of reporters was locked in a room without cellphones or other means of communication and each was given an embargoed copy of the report on the strict understanding that its contents could not be revealed before the media conference started.
By 14h15 the gist of the report had been widely disseminated and the Democratic Alliance started issuing statements that were carried on the eNCA strap but were never mentioned – at all – on the SABC strap.
The most important statement from the DA that eNCA carried on its strap was that they wanted President Jacob Zuma impeached but there were several.
- DA wants National Assembly recalled for impeachment proceedings to start against President Zuma.
- DA will table motions against all other ministers implicated in Nkandla report.
- DA says Nxesi has most to answer for since he deliberately misled parliament on Nkandla.
The SABC strap frantically and repeatedly reflected what little solace the report provided for the ANC leader…
- Zuma did not mislead parliament on family houses
- No mention of corruption in public protector report
… and there were, as always, the SABC trademark spelling mistakes which rolled monotonously and without correction across the bottom of our television sets for hour after tedious hour in telling testimony to the way in which standards have dropped at Auckland Park since 1994.
Just as Thamsanqa Jantjie was an essential interviewee after the Nelson Mandela memorial service and was interviewed by every news agency present – except the SABC – so too is the Nkandla architect, Minenhle Makhanya who seems to have discovered the architect’s version of the Alchemist’ Stone by converting a R400 000 initial brief into a R16.5 million bonanza.
Since the release of the Nkandla report no news agency has managed to get an interview with Makhanya.
All it will take however is one phone call from President Zuma and Makhanya will be instructed to make himself available for an interview.
Nobody, in the media community, we are told, has closer links to the President than Hlaudi Motsoeneng – not for nothing is he known at Auckland Park as ‘the Conduit’. So will he telephone Number One and implore him to prevail upon Makhanya to lay his wisdom upon the multitude via the SABC?
Don’t hold your breath… because, as Kganyago will assure you, the role played by this noted anglophile in the sordid Nkandla scandal is a “side story”.
In the meantime, Loyiso Gola, host of eNCA’s LNN, gave his pointed input into the saga…