In 2016 the airwaves, newspapers, and televisions screens were filled with news about the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) . It seems quite ironic that South Africa’s biggest news broadcaster has become one of the year’s biggest news stories.
The House of Hlaudi is one of the biggest talking points in South Africa, and it does not seem as though it will be coming to an end anytime soon. The SABC is now inundated with accusations of censorship – and silly corporate decisions taken by the megalomaniac in charge.
The SABC has been the South African state broadcaster since 1936 when it started out as the main radio broadcaster. The SABC was yet another one of the typical Apartheid era parastatals – just as Eskom, SAA and Telkom had been. As in any 100% state-owned parastatal, the government had a say in who got to be appointed, employed and heard at these state companies, at the expense of the taxpayer. The SABC was not much different to Pravda and the Soviet public broadcaster of yesteryear.
In modern times, many have argued for the need for a public broadcaster. The foundation of this need is based on a widely accepted standard of broadcasting, centering on the fulfilment of the public interest. Proponents of the SABC argue that there is an underlying public interest that is only fulfilled by, and through, having a state broadcaster, such as the SABC. This, however, begs two questions in particular.
Firstly, is the SABC the be-all and end-all broadcaster able to fulfil public interest? The public interest is said to be anything that has appeal or relevance to the general populace. To suggest that the SABC – and only the SABC – has the potential and ability to provide for viewing in the public interest is myopic at best. If this were true, there would be a national Internet service provider to provide this essential service, which is so vital to a democracy and the economy. The public interest is, if anything, harmed by keeping the SABC entwined with the government. Clearly, this is not the case with the Internet, where private companies provide this essential service not only adequately, but to such an extent that it serves to grow and develop our economy, and enhances and matures our democracy.
In most other countries, the role of the broadcaster is fulfilled by private broadcasters professionally, properly, and with the public interest at heart. It is ill-considered to suggest that, when the SABC gets privatised, the public will only hear proverbial radio silence regarding important national and local news. It is clear that the SABC, as a state-owned enterprise, is not the only body in South Africa that is capable of providing insightful and vital viewing.
Many warn that, if there were no state broadcaster, the sector would be dominated by news bias through networks which propagate certain ideological points of view. The issue with this stance is that it assumes that a state broadcaster (and, by extension, the SABC) does not have any biases of its own. The media is inherently biased, and no amount of nationalisation or privatisation will ever airbrush this away. The more pertinent question, therefore, is whether we really want to fund a state broadcaster with tax money – and then leave its choice of bias to its management’s whims?
What does, however, happen when a state broadcaster is an active participant in the market of news broadcasting, is that the playing field becomes unfair and unequal, as private companies cannot compete against bailouts handed to state broadcasters. In this instance, the diversity of views in the media is smothered – and the going gets tough in a sector largely driven by advertising income and viewership.
The second – and probably the most important – question this begs, is whether or not the SABC currently fulfils the public interest.
Accusations of censorship have marred the SABC for the last couple of years, and particularly in 2016. This should not come as a surprise, however, as the SABC was – in essence – founded as the propaganda arm of the Apartheid government. This is not to say that all viewing and listening at the SABC boils down to the blind advocacy of government interests; but, rather, that it is far too prevalent to ignore.
Inevitably, public broadcasting functions in a politically contested arena where – as demonstrated again in recent months – the discourse is often careless political rhetoric. The SABC does not have the intrinsic ability to serve the public interest. The public interest is receiving unfiltered and frank news on our government. As soon as this function is not fulfilled, the main justification for a state broadcaster has fallen away.
For the SABC to again carry the interests of the public at heart, it needs to serve the citizens of South Africa and not the needs of any branch of government. It is, after all, the South African Broadcasting Corporation; not the Government Broadcasting Corporation.
We need news broadcasting that is for the people and by the people – not for the government and by the government.