OPINION: ‘Public relations is the discipline which looks after reputation, with the aim of earning understanding and support and influencing opinion and behaviour. It is the planned and sustained effort to establish and maintain goodwill and mutual understanding between an organisation and its publics.’ Chartered Institute of Public Relations
Academic institutions which teach public relations as part of their curricula could well use a recent interview on the Netwerk 24 website as a case study of what is the antithesis of the definition that anchors this article.
It was conducted by Elma Smit with the SABC spokesman Kaizer Kganyago on Friday 8 May and it is located on the Soundcloud-clip beneath the video. The interview ends when Kganyago abruptly terminates the conversation by putting the phone down while Smit is still talking.
Smit’s phone call related to the SABC’s refusal to give live broadcast coverage to a significant moment in our evolving democracy on the free-to-air SABC2 channel for the benefit of South Africans who cannot afford DStv.
That moment and the fact that a person of colour would succeed Helen Zille as leader of the official opposition was obvious and a foregone conclusion well before the recent Democratic Alliance electoral congress in Port Elizabeth. Smit’s phone call to Kganyago took place hours before the court application by the Democratic Alliance which forced the SABC to change its stance.
Her point was simple and her question was easy to understand: The ANC wants to regain power in the Western Cape, so it held its 103rd birthday celebration in Cape Town a few months ago as a prelude to next year’s elections. This was just another birthday and not its hundredth anniversary but if you go to the SABC’s digital website you get some idea of the saturation 24/7 coverage – much of it live – that the SABC gave the ANC event.
In addition to giving more than an hour of live coverage on channel SABC 2 to President Jacob Zuma’s speech on 11 January it also broadcast interviews with Tokyo Sexwale, Jackson Mthembu, Blade Nzimande, Zweli Mkhize, Gwede Mantashe, Malusi Gigaba, Jesse Duarte and Lindiwe Zulu among others before, during and after the event.
In contrast to that, Wilmot James and Mmusi Maimane were contesting the vacated leadership of Helen Zille which meant that for the first time since Peter Brown started the Liberal Party in 1953 its successor and the largest opposition party in the country would be led by a person who was not white.
Moment of triumph
There could be no doubt that it deserved live coverage to the broadest possible audience as both Mthembu and Judge Zeenat Carelse were subsequently to articulate. Maimane’s ascendancy to the leadership of the Democratic Alliance could well erode support for the ANC ahead of next year’s election because it undermines the canard that the official opposition is a “white party”. The conduct of the SABC makes it clear that it regarded it as politically imperative to prevent as many poor people as possible from viewing Maimane’s moment of triumph. The easiest way to achieve this was to only broadcast the conference on a DStv channel to which many if not most poor people do not have access.
Kganyago was both unwilling and unable to concede Elma Smit’s undeniable and elementary point – if the SABC gave live coverage on the free-to-air channel to the ANC’s 103rd birthday bash in Cape Town then it could not refuse equivalent coverage on the same channel a few months later to the Democratic Alliance elective conference.
In trying to respond to Smit’s patient and courteous questions Kganyago faced three singular and significant problems in relation to the SABC’s stance.
1. It was unconstitutional because Section 16 of Chapter 2 of the Constitution, which relates to freedom of expression, confirms that ‘Everyone has the right to freedom of expression, which includes freedom of the press and other media; freedom to receive or impart information or ideas; freedom of artistic creativity; and academic freedom and freedom of scientific research.’ (my emphasis).
The Constitutional Court has re-iterated this point. In Khumalo v Holomisa it held that: “The print, broadcast and electronic media have a particular role in the protection of freedom of expression in our society. Every citizen has the right to freedom of the press and the media and the right to receive information and ideas. The media are key agents in ensuring that these aspects of the rights to freedom of information are respected. The ability of each citizen to be a responsible and effective member of our society depends upon the manner in which the media carry out our constitutional mandate.
“The media thus rely on freedom of expression and must foster it. In this sense they are both bearers of rights and bearers of constitutional obligations in relation to freedom of expression… (My emphasis)
“In a democratic society, then, the mass media play a role of undeniable importance. They bear an obligation to provide citizens both with information and with a platform for the exchange of ideas which is crucial to the development of a democratic culture. As primary agents of the dissemination of information and ideas, they are, inevitably, extremely powerful institutions in a democracy and they have a constitutional duty to act with vigour, courage, integrity and responsibility.” (My emphasis)
The Supreme Court of Appeal in National Media Ltd v Bogoshi articulated the same principle: “We must not forget that it is the right, and indeed a vital function, of the press to make available to the community information and criticism about every aspect of public, political, social and economic activity and thus to contribute to the formation of public opinion…. The press and the rest of the media provide the means by which useful, and sometimes vital, information about the daily affairs of the nation is conveyed to its citizens…
‘The importance of public interest cannot be overstated and it is the role of the media to convey information which allows all matters of public interest to be fully scrutinized by the public at large.” (My emphasis)
2. Kganyago’s second difficulty in providing the self-evident answer to Smit’s question was that the SABC’s unconstitutional refusal to provide live coverage of the DA conference on a channel to which the most people had access was clearly motivated by political considerations which are in conflict with chapter three, section 10 (d) of the Broadcasting Act of 1999. (Further evidence of this approach is contained in Capetonian Robert Abel’s recent submission to the BCCSA about how the SABC delayed broadcasting Maimane’s ‘Broken Man’ speech during the State of the Nation Address debate on 17 February until well after it had been broadcast by eNCA which works off the same feed from parliament’s video camera system).
The Broadcasting Act places a legal onus on the SABC to provide ‘significant news and public affairs programming which meets the highest standards of journalism, as well as fair and unbiased coverage, impartiality, balance and independence from government, commercial and other interests.’
3. The third problem Kganyago faced was that the SABC’s stance was in conflict with its own editorial code of ethical news gathering and dissemination i.e. “We do not allow advertising, commercial, political or personal considerations to influence our editorial decisions,”… because “We are not the mouthpiece of the government of the day.’ Furthermore,”We are free from obligation to any interest group, and committed to the public’s right to know” and “We are guided by news merit and judgement in reaching editorial decisions” and “We seek balance by presenting relevant views on matters of importance, as far as possible” etc.
His biggest dilemma in answering Smit’s question lay, however, in the following provision of the SABC’s code of broadcasting conduct:
“The SABC ensures that the principles of honesty, openness and transparency govern every aspect of its relationships with shareholder, stakeholders, suppliers and the public.”
He could hardly acknowledge the obvious – that the SABC’s news executives see their role as promoting the ANC whenever possible and, through a de facto policy of censorship by omission, simultaneously suppressing news that is damaging to the dominant faction within the ANC and also supressing, as far as possible, news that is advantageous to opposition parties.
When one balances the attempt by the SABC to limit the audience receiving the message that the Democratic Alliance would no longer be led by a white person against the judicial rulings in Khumalo v Holomisa and in National Media Ltd v Bogoshi and against the requirements of the Broadcasting Act and against the requirements of the SABC’s code of ethical news gathering and dissemination, one realises how utterly corrupt that judicially-thwarted attempt was.
But it was no more or less corrupt than the decision by the same management team to censor the booing of President Jacob Zuma at the Nelson Mandela memorial service and the decision not to interview Thamsanqa Jantjie, the fake sign language interpreter, thus denying him to the opportunity to tell his side of the story and the nation the opportunity of hearing it.
It was the same news management team that totally censored former President Thabo Mbeki’s lecture on OR Tambo as part of the Celebration of the Centenary of the ANC at Fort Hare University on 19 October 2012. One can understand why they did this even if there is no condoning the censorship.
At one minute and 55 seconds on this YouTube clip, which is featured on the Thabo Mbeki website, he says: “However, before I reflect on this important matter, which is obviously relevant to the Centenary of the ANC, I must state that I have prepared this Lecture deeply troubled by a feeling of great unease that our beloved Motherland is losing its sense of direction, and that, we are allowing ourselves to progress towards a costly disaster of a protracted and endemic general crisis. Today, as we meet here at Fort Hare, I, for one, am not certain about where our country and nation will be tomorrow, and what I should do in this regard, to respond to what is obviously a dangerous and unacceptable situation of directionless and unguided national drift.”
Compare that to the 42-second news bulletin insert which the SABC allocated to the story in which not a single soundbite from Mbeki was used – the entire story was done as a presenter voiceover with the express purpose of denying the nation the opportunity to hear his criticism of the Zuma faction.
In contrast to this, three weeks later, the SABC live-streamed President Zuma’s ANC centenary lecture on the SABC2 channel for one hour, 41 minutes and 37 seconds and the subject was the very man previously silenced (quite literally) by the state broadcaster. As the comments below the YouTube clip indicate, the irony was not lost on those who viewed the clip.
In coming to her very swift conclusion to grant the application by the DA and to award costs against the SABC, Judge Carelse would also have been mindful of the previous, excoriating 2012 judgment of Judge Neels Claassen in which he found Snuki Zikalala’s control of the news to have been characterised by bias and distortion.
In this regard the situation at the SABC is now much worse than it was in the Zikalala era and one understands the invidious position in which Kaizer Kganyago finds himself. Defending the indefensible is never easy but his voice tone during the telephonic interview with Elma Smit was belligerently defensive and the way in which he ended the interview was unprofessional. It was bad PR.
All in all, one empathises with Mthembu’s need to distance the ANC from what was an iniquitous decision. I yearn for a return by the SABC to the values which prevailed in the Nelson Mandela era when people like Zwelakhe Sisulu, Barney Mthombothi and Allister Sparks were in charge. That will require a change of staff at the SABC and that, in turn, will require a change of leadership in the ANC.
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