At the height of the drama in parliament last night as white shirted police waded into EFF MPs, fists flying, eNCA parliamentary reporter Paula Chowles posted a cellphone clip taken from the press gallery in which you hear her asking, “Why aren’t they showing the wide shot?” Ed Herbst takes a look.
She was referring to the fact that, despite the drama, the live feed camera, controlled by parliament and thus the ANC, remained fixed on a medium shot of National Assembly Speaker Baleka Mbete and National Council of Provinces chairwoman Thandi Modise while you could hear the mayhem unfolding in the background.
What the ANC seems unable to grasp is that every citizen with a smartphone is also carrying a video camera and so within minutes the YouTube clips were being posted which shows just how viciously the police intervened.
The parliamentary feed was at times an embarrassing disgrace. Listen to the echoing repeats on this clip when what is said is repeated several seconds later in a disconcerting echo effect.
But what was most disconcerting about the SABC’s live coverage was the complete absence of any information in what broadcast 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.
This is where, since 9/11, TV news broadcasts have ubiquitously and routinely carried a moving written tickertape of information – what the Americans call a ‘crawler’ and we call the ‘strap’.
From 18:45 eNCA’s strap was informing the nation under the headline: ‘Breaking news’ that the cellphone link to parliament had been deliberately taken down so that there could be no communication with and from the parliamentary chamber, which meant that reporters in the press gallery and MPs were effectively incommunicado. They could not send SMSs or transmit visual images – stills or video.
The SABC’s live feed had no strap at all and we need to be told why.
If eNCA could include a strap why not the state broadcaster or is it not precisely because it is a state broadcaster and it wanted to limit the visual and audio damage to the governing party which was a looming inevitability?
The Twitter feeds under the hashtag #bringbackthesignal are illuminating because they show how the SABC and ANN7 tried to limit the damage to the ANC:
@MichaelMpofu says: “Vuyo Mvoko says MPs are chanting” names of their political parties” – NO VUYO.They’re chanting – BRING BACK THE SIGNAL.
@MyPE says: “OMW SABC reporters have very bad ears as they refuse to say that MP’s are chanting #BringBackTheSignal – what are we? Two years old!
Gareth van Onselen tweets: “Despite having actual visuals of the entire DA and EFF caucuses chanting #bringbackthesignal not a word about it on @ANN7tv
As a news station eNCA broke away from what was happening in the House, from time to time as the situation demanded, interviewing DA parliamentary leader Mmusi Maimane as he led his party out of the chamber, for example. The SABC stuck rigidly to the parliamentary feed however, precisely because it was under ANC control.
The way in which the SABC effectively censored its coverage of the SONA mayhem by omission is nothing new and I would like to give a recent and related example.
Normally vision trumps hearing when watching television broadcasts but sometimes the message conveyed by sound is more powerful. The upsound “Pay back the money” had a far stronger resonance with the public than the visuals of the EFF shouting it in Parliament on November 13 last year.
Now when you edit a voice-over insert for a television news bulletin there are two sound tracks – one is the ambient sound of the filmed event and the other is the reporter’s voice report that is recorded separately in a sound-proofed video editing suite. To make it sound as though the reporter is speaking at the event, the two sound tracks are combined at the conclusion of the edit and run together with the visuals and this is how you perceive it in your home.
On 13 January Speaker Baleka Mbete announced that she would not grant an EFF request for a special sitting of the House to discuss Nkandla.
This was clearly a significant story and both eNCA and the SABC reflected it on that night’s TV news broadcasts.
The difference was that on the edited package by the SABC’s parliamentary reporter, Lukhanyo Calata, only his voice track was broadcast under the visuals so that those who listened to the SABC TV news bulletins did not hear “Pay back the money! Pay back the money!,” which the ANC clearly considers as damaging.
eNCA being a news station and not a propaganda station followed the conventional practice of mixing both the voice track and the ambient sound track beneath the overlay visuals to give a true reflection of what the story was about.
There is nothing new in this. Normally the SABC simply ignores news events which do not reflect well on the ANC – farm murders are an obvious example.
Sometimes, though, it is a bit more complicated and thus a bit more demanding than that – an example being the booing of Jacob Zuma at the Nelson Mandela Memorial Service in Soweto on 10 December 2013. It was a live SABC feed so the cameras were ordered to cut away from the people booing him, the big screen at the FNB Stadium was switched off when it became obvious that people were jeering every time it showed Zuma and reporters at the venue were individually phoned and instructed to refer to the booing as little as possible and then only in the context of “unruly behaviour”. The second element of the story that day, Thamsanqa ‘Fog Donkey’ Jantjie, the bogus sign interpreter, was more easily dealt with – the state broadcaster simply did not interview him.
When City Press revealed the extent of such corrupt news gathering practices, international news agencies covering the death of Madiba relayed this to billions of people all over the world to the immense detriment of our country’s standing in the context of media freedom.
As opposition to pervasive corruption grows, as service delivery falters, as the absence of any ethos of preventative maintenance leads to increasing infrastructure decay and failure, so its grip on the throat of the state broadcaster tightens.
The SABC’s coverage of last night’s SONA events is merely a further example of that.
As Public Protector Thuli Madonsela said in a tweet, “Fellow South Africans, how did we get here?
IMAGE: @KatyKatopodis, EWN, on Twitter
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