What is to be done about our public broadcaster?

Monday, 20 April, 2009 - 14:57

The SABC has been lurching – for years - from crisis to crisis to the extent that its editorial and programming credibility, financial viability and institutional sustainability are now seriously in question.

The SABC has been lurching – for years - from crisis to crisis to the extent that its editorial and programming credibility, financial viability and institutional sustainability are now seriously in question.

However, all is not lost. What is needed now is to get back to basics. First, we need a clear vision for the kind of broadcaster we want. Most people would agree that we want an editorially independent, accountable publically funded broadcaster broadcasting robust, probing journalism reflecting a diversity of views – and that we need a broadcaster that supports and promotes a feisty independent production sector nurturing South African creativity.

Second, we need clear steps as to how to get there. A key starting point is to clarify the roles of all the important players. One of the most controversial is the Minister’s role. Currently, as the SABC is a public company, the Minister plays a shareholder role and approves corporate plans, finances and the appointments of the three senior executives – but this is a perversion of the governance and institutional arrangements appropriate for a public broadcaster. The SABC is not just another state owned enterprise. But then what is the Minster’s role? Principally his / her role is to create an enabling environment for the broadcasting sector. In terms of the SABC it is to draft policy and legislation and to ensure sufficient finances are available.

The institutions that should have a direct oversight role over the SABC are the regulator, the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA) and Parliament. The regulator’s role is to ensure that the SABC adheres to all relevant broadcasting laws, particularly the SABC’s Charter capturing the broadcaster’s vision and mission. Further, the Regulator’s role is to ensure that the SABC adheres to its license conditions. So given these powers, ICASA should have called the SABC to account on the blacklisting saga; called Parliament to account on the board appointments debacle; and called the SABC board and management to account in terms of the Corporations’ financial crises.

And as for Parliament, its Portfolio Committee on Communications needs to play a key oversight role in terms of monitoring the SABC’s programming, board and management functioning, and the SABC’s strategic plans and finances. At present Parliament drives the process of selecting the SABC board, but that is now a seriously vexed issue, given the serious political interference in the last process. On the face of it an independent panel may seem to be the answer but the possibilities for political interference and control by elite interests would not necessarily be excluded here.

One possibility is to create a special parliamentary committee that is not constituted by the principle of proportionality and therefore dominated by the ruling party of the day. But whatever the decision we need maximum public participation and maximum transparency. We need the names of nominators and nominees for board positions to be made public. Also, we need the detailed CVs of nominees shortlisted for interviews to be public. Interviews should be live on SABC radio and television. And finally the Parliamentary committee selecting the Board should give written reasons for why they have selected a particular shortlist of candidates – and allow a reasonable period for public objections.

What then would be the role of the Board and its relationship to management? A representative board selected transparently, made up of members that have the integrity and requisite skills, to lead an independent public broadcaster would need to ensure compliance with all broadcasting legislation and compliance with the Corporation’s Charter. The Board should focus on strategic issues and monitor performance including financial performance. It should not interfere in day-to-day management.

Further, and most importantly the Board needs to ensure the appointment of a competent professional, independent and publically-minded management team – and on a day-to-day basis these people need to be left alone to get on with their jobs. SABC management should then implement the strategic and financial plans and appoint respected, professional journalists and commissioning editors – and again they should be left to get on with their jobs.

So finally what is to be done about the very vexed issue of financial management and funding of a genuine independent public broadcaster? Firstly, the Board and management need to ensure proper adherence to financial controls. That is critical. Without these in place – it is impossible to call for public funds. The mandate of the SABC as a public broadcaster necessitates public funding. Broadcasting in all 11 national languages, developing local programming and providing information and entertainment to everyone is costly and cannot be met primarily through advertising.

License fees are obviously ideal as they protect the institution from political and commercial pressures. However, consumer bodies are vociferously opposing increases and further the SABC itself keeps pointing to the problems of non-payment and the costs of collection. Here one may have to look at some form of a ‘no-strings-attached’ direct Treasury grant that supports specified activities. The SABC could then still take advertising but the latter’s influence on programming, editorial independence and viability of the broadcaster would be minimized. But whatever funding model is chosen, it must ensure that funds are secured and assured over the long term.

It is heartening that our previous Minister promised a policy and legislative review of the SABC’s governing laws. Hopefully the new Minister will take this strongly forward. For now is the time for everyone to participate in the debate on the substantive issues so that we can get the public broadcaster that we want and deserve and one that can sustain and deepen our democracy.

Kate Skinner is the Coordinator for “Save our SABC” Campaign and Professor Tawana Kupe is the Dean of the Faculty of Humanities at Wits University

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