Stephen Grootes: A credible and successful SABC is well worth fighting for
Earlier this week, on this website, Dirk de Vos decided to attack the SABC, which has been common fodder for people on all sides of the political spectrum for many years, often with good reason. But his attack was slightly different, in being an existential challenge – De Vos argues that the SABC, and particularly SABC Television, should simply be shut down. He is wrong, and here’s why.
(Note: As you know, I have been writing for Daily Maverick for eight out of the last nine years. During most of that time, I also worked for Radio 702 and EWN, competitors of the SABC, and often reported on what was happening there at the time. But this year, I started working for the SABC, presenting SAfm’s Sunrise programme. I am obviously not un-conflicted in this argument.)
Dirk de Vos believes there is no need for it, that if it didn’t already exist, no one would seriously propose that such a thing as the SABC should be created. But he is wrong. He has focused on the wrong problems, and has not necessarily understood the role the SABC is playing, and can still play, in our environment. The problem with his argument is that if De Vos’s proposition were to gain ground, it could lead to the end of one of the most important agencies we have in order to foster social cohesion.
Dirk de Vos has clearly spent much time burrowing through the annual reports and accounts of the SABC. They are remarkably unedifying. The corporation appears to need a bailout from government. Again. The recent history of the corporation unfortunately features Hlaudi Motsoeneng. His excesses include an incredible bonus for himself, apparent corruption wherever he went, and an incredible ego that has rarely been seen in the annals of South African politics. Along the way he tried to introduce “good news quotas”, banned images of political violence, and appeared also to freely violate rules regarding the amount of coverage political parties should receive during elections.
The problems with the SABC did not start with Motsoeneng, sadly. During the time Snuki Zikalala was the head of News and Current Affairs, several journalists who criticised the government of Thabo Mbeki were sidelined, ending up on “blacklists”. So strong was the belief that Zikalala was in the Mbeki camp that members of the ANC Youth League burst into the SABC tent at the ANC’s Polokwane Conference, wanting to see his face after the victory of Jacob Zuma.
Of course, the history before 1994 is much worse. So strong was the SABC, at a time when there really was no other mass medium (apart from strictly regulated newspapers), that most people appear not to have known what was happening (or were giving a very good appearance of not knowing). The power there was in what was not reported. Stories abound of the big red phone that would ring with the voice of PW Botha on the other end, demanding a certain broadcast be stopped.
But history alone, recent or ancient, is not a strong enough reason to give up on the SABC. The SABC is nearly as important as Eskom. We do not give up on Eskom just because it was run into the ground by the likes of Ben Ngubane (who was also once chair of the SABC), and Brian Molefe. Instead, because it is necessary, we fix it, despite the problems it has.
The SABC is no different.
It seems that there is almost total agreement among most South Africans that the dynamic of non-racialism has lost ground over the last 10 years. Lumkile Mondi, the well-known and influential economist, suggested on SAfm the other day that the reason the economy was so hard to fix was that our “social compact is broken”. Around the country there is evidence that people have given up on their “South African” identities, and started to move back towards their ethnic or linguistic ones. There are many reasons for this, including the delegitimising of the state at the centre. What happened at the SABC was an integral part of the problem and fixing it will be the step towards greater social cohesion.
De Vos makes the point that we live in a multi-channel world, that people can pick and choose what they want to watch. He is, of course, absolutely correct. Hardly anyone in the upper-middle classes now waits a week or a day to watch the next episode of a series. There is so much content available that it is entirely possible for families to all be watching different things at the same time on different screens while in the same room. But is that such a good thing for that family?
What is means is that we are living different lives, and have different interests. Some of that is healthy. But not when it leads to a situation where we no longer have anything in common apart from our geographic space. When this nation first began its first painful steps towards integration in the 1990s, many white people would have known they had very little in common with people they had been separated from. At the time, the one thing everyone followed was cricket. It broke down barriers because it gave people a common subject to talk about. Everyone was watching the same thing on free-to-air television (until M-Net managed to buy the rights for the series out of the country).
In the same way now, the last time this nation all watched the same event at the same time was probably the result of the Nasrec election.
It is important that a nation of people of all colours and creeds have a space where they could watch the same content. It leads to the creation of shared values, of what should be allowed to be said and what not, of when it is okay to insult a person and when it isn’t. It leads to a common set of rules that people can follow. In other words, it fosters a “South Africanness” that is a huge aid to our national conversation. And surely no one can deny that this country needs a conversation.
The argument might come that the SABC cannot, and will never be able to, compete with the production values of Netflix. As a result, it will never again have high viewerships among the upper-middle class. But that’s not necessarily true. It is entirely possible to produce good quality programming that hits South Africans right in the heart. The telenovela Uzalo has managed to attract millions of people who want to see their real lives being depicted, and in their language. The same can be done for Afrikaans and English-speaking South Africans, despite what competition there may be from foreign competitors (even on Netflix there is at least one series made here full of references aimed at a particular English-speaking South African audience).
Then there is the news. If you attended the Daily Maverick Media Gathering this week, you will know that my greatest fear for the media is no longer censorship or the lack of revenue; rather, it is a splintering of audiences. In the US, this means that GOP voters watch Fox and democratic voters watch MSNBC. These viewers have no facts in common. Which means the facts don’t matter. When the Washington Post reported on Watergate in the 1970s, both Republicans and Democrats read about it. As voters, their minds were changed by what they read, with the result that politicians had to act. Now, when Trumpian scandals erupt, it doesn’t appear to change the political dial.
This is the result of a splintering. And the same thing is happening here. The middle classes have, over time, left the SABC, meaning that they are no longer part of a meaningful national conversation. It is important, vital in fact, that they are brought back. The way to do this is through compelling, credible content. They have to believe that they will be missing something, some vital part of what is happening in this country, if they are not tuned in. This goes for both radio and television. And is actually not that difficult to do. All you need is proper content. It is never hard, in this country, to find things to talk about, or to find guests who have something to say. The result of this should be, hopefully, that South Africans across the political and socio-economic spectrums are all consuming the same content, and thus have a shared set of facts with which to debate.
What has happened in the US to its media and political worlds, and the way they intersect, may well be because it does not have the equivalent of a BBC, where all views are aired and respected (although the BBC’s model of “both sides impartiality” has serious problems too during Brexit). We should not allow ourselves to make the same mistake.
At the same time, even before the Trump era began, the US was the perfect example of what happens when there is no public broadcaster. When the main television networks first started in the 1950s, the deal that was made was that they could show what they wanted, so long as they broadcast a nightly news bulletin. As a result, news bulletins became about keeping and growing audiences. This resulted in what you could call “sexy news”, images of police chases shot from news helicopters, the race to find the most attractive news presenters – and murder, plenty of murder.
For example, Fox News appears to have a group of female presenters who all look very similar (all blonde and thin). This is the final result of what happens when news editors are interested only in getting the news that people are interested in, rather then doing the news that is important, and what people should be interested in. The end result of this process, of course, is news bulletins that are more about sexy celebrities while a growing economic crisis can be simply ignored because it is “boring”.
Many of the critics of the SABC over the years have suggested that we as a country need to make a choice about its funding. De Vos suggests that if we really want a public broadcaster we should be prepared to pay for it, and thus it should not carry advertising. There is some strength to this argument, in that sometimes people want something that is somehow “pure”.
But it misses another vital point. Were the SABC to stop broadcasting in the country’s main languages, in Zulu, Xhosa, Sotho etc, it is unlikely that privately owned channels would move into that space. Why should the huge audiences that those television channels now have be denied them? To what end? For many people, the SABC through radio and television is the only access to media, and thus to the world, that they have. Is De Vos seriously thinking that these people do not deserve some kind of service that should be subsidised by government? Is some kind of provision of information not something that government should subsidise? And if he does believe that, he should explain what they have done to deserve this punishment.
Then there is the discussion about advertising. If there were no longer SABC television channels broadcasting in the country’s major languages, how would companies that currently advertise to those markets reach their prospective clients? Why should they now be denied the opportunity to do what they are currently doing? And what is so wrong with a company paying for advertising space to help fund a public service in the first place? So long as any company cannot influence content, and follows the usual advertising regulations, it should be welcome.
The real value of this model, Dirk, is that if the SABC is allowed space (by the politicians), and a little bit of time (by those who will have to bail it out) it should, hopefully, regain credibility. The audiences will follow. And with them will come the advertisers.
South Africa is a complex country, with many different communities, languages and cultures. Many people are marginalised, it is easy to see how many people feel ignored. One of the major ways they can be reported on, and have a voice, is through the SABC. It is easy to malign talk radio, and television programmes that have live interaction, but they are important to allow people, ordinary people, to speak. Only the SABC has the capacity to report properly on what is happening all over the country. This is a vital function in any democracy. The fact that it has not been properly done over the last few years could well be one of the reasons that so many communities currently feel so marginalised. But proper news reporting can actually bring to light many of the problems communities face, and should warn politicians they need to act before violence erupts. This is something only the SABC can do.
It is obvious that the SABC has a very difficult past. It is incredibly likely that more trouble lurks in its future, precisely because of the power that it has. Politicians will always seek to control it. The key to preventing this is to ensure there is proper reporting on the SABC itself, and that its own people, the presenters and decision-makers, work together to regain credibility. That will keep the product it produces credible in itself.
In the end, the goal is surely an SABC that has credibility, big audiences (but does not crowd out other players at the same time), and is able not only to pay for itself, but to actually return a profit to government. And it is entirely possible to do that. Because it has done that in the past, and can do it again in the future. DM