SUBMISSION TO THE
SABC BOARD'S ENQUIRY INTO EDITORIAL
INDEPENDENCE AND OTHER MATTERS
Freedom of Expression Institute (FXI)
87 Juta Street,
PO Address: PO Box 30668
TEL: (27-11) 403-8403/4
FAX: (27-11) 403-8309
We would like to welcome the investigation launched by the Board of the South
African Broadcasting Corporation, into editorial independence and other matters. From
what we understand, the Board decided to launch this investigation in the wake of the
public controversy surrounding the non-renewal of Special Assignments Executive
Producer Max du Preezs contract, although this incident was merely one of several
that had taken place recently.
The investigation covers the following issues:
The status, within the SABC as manifested in specific policies and
management practices regarding:
Freedom of expression and free flow of ideas;
Journalistic integrity and editorial independence;
Any external or internal influences or practices which might compromise the
impartiality and integrity of the corporation;
Freelance contracts and appointment practices.
Our comments will be confined to these terms of reference as they relate to the news
and current affairs operations of the SABC. This is because these operations could be
considered to be at the heart of the SABCs mission, and they also appear to be at the
heart of the recent controversies.
Preliminary comments around access to information
In order to compile an informed submission, the FXI requested certain information
from SABC management. We are shocked and bitterly disappointed that this request
was refused. It should be noted that in the absence of this information, we have had to
rely on SABC journalists past and present to construct a picture of what is going on in
SABC news and current affairs. We have been asked to protect the identities of the
journalists we have spoken to, as they would not speak to us except under conditions
of anonymity. We have therefore used these sources to extrapolate what seem to us
to be essential points of contention about how news and current affairs operates at the
SABC, and to pose what we see as key challenges for the SABC Board to address.
Statement of the problem
The following seem to be a common thread running through controversies about
SABCs news and current affairs:
Increasing job dissatisfaction amongst journalists, leading to an exodus of
High turnover in key editorial management positions. For example, the position
of editor-in-chief of television news has had 4 incumbents in the past four
Accusations of an increasingly unaccountable, autocratic management;
Accusations of a lack of editorial balance, especially reportage favouring the
Accusations of sensitive material being pulled from programming schedules by
FXI-SUBMISSION TO SABC BOARDS ENQUIRY 2
These accusations are serious, especially given that many people rely on SABC news
and current affairs as their only source of information. According to the SABCs annual
report for 1997/ 98, research shows that 85% of South Africans rely on the SABC for
their main source of news - more than 52% rely on radio, almost 34% rely on
television, and just under 14% rely on newspapers and other sources.1
In order to deal with what seems to be escalating conflict around editorial and
employment matters at the SABC, we would need to identify what the source of the
problem is. Otherwise it will not be possible to pose constructive solutions. However,
before doing so, it is necessary to outline some background to these conflicts, as a
number of them seem to relate to the reversal of transformation agreements arrived at
The transformation of news and current affairs since 1994: some comments
When the new democratically-elected board was instituted in 1993, it faced the
enormous task of transforming the SABC from a state broadcaster into a public
broadcaster. For television, the three television channels were provided with news by
Television News Production, and radio news was provided by a separate Radio News
unit. They identified the transformation of these structures as a priority, as news and
current affairs effectively lay at the heart of the public broadcasting mandate. This
transformation would proceed according to the Boards vision for the corporation,
which included a commitment to impartiality, independence and fair-mindedness,
while being just and accessible to its audiences.
The existing news structure of TNP in 1994 was anchored on input and output desks,
which controlled which stories would be covered, and how they were packaged and
broadcast. This structure was dismantled soon after transformation ensued, as it was
considered an archaic and autocratic method of running news. In effect, that structure
took the control over the production of stories out of the hand of journalists, and
placed it in the hands of a series of desk editors. In practice, the input editor would tell
journalists which stories to cover. Once the journalist gathered the raw material, it was
edited and packaged, and handed to the output editor who made sure that the story
cohered. It was then given to the bulletin editor who would line the story up and write
the intro and the outtro that would frame the story. The potential for newsroom control
implicit in this model should be self-evident: if one makes strategic appointments at the
input and output level, controversial stories are easy to filter out. The posts of editor-in-
chief for input and output become especially important in this regard.
When the new management in radio and television set about transforming the
newsrooms, they did away with the input and output division, and encouraged
journalists to take more control over their own stories. The division between black and
white news was also addressed, as was the physical separation between journalists
and editorial management. With respect to radio, deficiencies were highlighted in the
operations of Radio News after the 1994 election coverage, which led to the
establishment of a think-tank committee. Staff were involved with management in the
development of a new plan to enable Radio News to fulfil its public service mandate in
all the official languages. The new Radio News structure was approved by the staff,
FXI-SUBMISSION TO SABC BOARDS ENQUIRY 3
unions, management and the Board, and was implemented in 1994.
With respect to television, the input function was taken over by a series of assignment
editors, who would hold briefing meetings with the camera operators and journalists to
decide on the stories of the day. Once the journalists had collected the stories, they
would again sit down with the editor concerned and package the material together.
The final product would then be handed to the central production desk. This structure
flattened out the vertical relationship between journalist and editor (although it did not
remove it completely), by introducing principles of editorial democracy into news
production. It also recognised that camera operators were not mere technicians, but
they were integral to the editorial process of creating a story. These principles
informed the television news and current affairs transformation proposals - again
developed with staff involvement - that were adopted by senior management and the
Board in 1994. To ensure that journalists subscribed to ethical practices, an ethical
code for editorial staff was developed.
Reviewing the process involved in developing the TNP proposals is quite instructive.
The Head Facilitator, Duncan Innes, described it as ..a complex and extraordinary
process, incorporating a very high level of democratic participation and
empowerment.3 This process had a particular end: in the words of the Group
Representatives of the TNP Consultation Process, ..today we can say that we have
been empowered by the process and have uncovered a truly untapped extensive
creative base of talent which, if creatively and practically harnessed in the future, will
lead the way to thoroughly representative, democratic and creative programming
strategy for information and news programming in the future. The proof of the
transformation pudding is in the brilliant, dynamic and creative broadcast programming
which is truly reflective of the needs and aspirations of the society we live in.4
Transformation was especially active in the area of affirmative action, with the result
that the number of black and women journalists increased markedly.
The transformation document also outlined some principles towards a new
management structure. Some of the most pertinent points for the purposes of this
submission are as follows:
Editorial decision-making is consultative and delegated to various levels of
editorial management including the executive producer of a programme.
While Editorial decision making is acceptable, editorial domination is
For the structure to be an enabling one, it should
- be responsive to staff and the needs of the medium
- involve as short a chain of command as possible
- TNP top management should be accessible to staff.
Accountability to staff is an important feature for a new management structure.
Each programme should fall under an executive producer.5
With respect to the relationship between TNP top management and staff, the
document outlines the following:
Decision-making should involve the people who will be affected by such
FXI-SUBMISSION TO SABC BOARDS ENQUIRY 4
Top management should share ideas with all staff and not dictate
Top management should set guidelines and empower staff to fulfil them
Operational staff, creative specialists and all programme departments should
have separate and direct line-function representatives at top level
There should be horizontal and vertical integration supported by central
Accessibility to top management is important.6
With respect to financing TNP, the document states that TNP should be run on a non-
profit basis and should not be influenced by commercial interests...All licence fees and
other public funds collected by the SABC should be allocated proportionately to the
public broadcasting arm of the Corporation (including TNP). The SABCs commercial
arm should continue raising its funds via advertising and other commercial activities.7
What happened to these proposals? The commercialisation of the SABC
The transformation proposals were based on principles of editorial democracy, and
more broadly, commitment to public service ideals. The proposals commit the SABC
in particular to addressing the ..needs of underdeveloped sectors of our society, and it
acknowledges that this is best achieved through..creative, people-centred
programming of high quality. In short, the document recognises the fact that delivery of
the public service mandate and the principle of editorial democracy are inseparable,
as democratic ends could (and should) not be achieved through undemocratic
The problem is that these ideals imply a stable funding base for the SABC, as they are
costly. As a result, the transformation proposals called for a multi-pronged financing
strategy, but identified the need for public funds as being especially important. Even in
the days when it clearly operated as a state broadcaster, it did not receive ongoing
government support. In fact, especially since the introduction of television in the 1970's
its overwhelming reliance on advertising revenue (which accounts for over 70% of its
total revenue) cast it as a quasi-commercial broadcaster. Even the controversial 1991
Viljoen report identified the inordinate reliance on advertising as extremely problematic
as ..too great a reliance on advertising revenue results in the PBS function being
relinquished.9 The FXI has also repeatedly lamented the SABCs inordinate reliance on
advertising, and the damage that this causes to its ability to deliver on its public service
mandate. This advertising-driven environment resulted in aspects of SABCs activities
becoming increasingly commercialised: in 1989, it introduced the commercial principle
of internal markets by separating its operations into business units, and the prospect
of privatising some of its services was floated as well.
When the democratically-elected Board came to office in 1993, it faced the dual
challenge of rolling back both the state and the commercial aspects of the SABCs
operations, in order to develop its public service mandate. While internal
transformation proceeded apace with respect to the first, uncertainty reigned about
how to deal with the second.
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In its Triple Enquiry report, the Independent Broadcasting Authority recommended that
the SABC should be funded from a mix of advertising revenue, sponsorship, licence
fee revenue and government grants. The government grants were of especial
importance to assist the SABC in becoming less reliant on advertising revenue. While
some government grants were forthcoming immediately after the SABCs financial
crisis in 1996, they were targeted for specific feature of the broadcasters public service
mandate, and were certainly not large enough to reduce its reliance on advertising
The fact that the government has repeatedly baulked at the idea of providing ongoing
funding has meant that the SABC is gearing itself to compete with increasing numbers
of private competitors for advertising. Following the financial crisis of 1996, the SABC
commissioned McKinsey and Associates to recommend methods of turning the
Corporations finances around. As a result of the cost-cutting recommendations of this
report, 1400 staff were retrenched. These recommendations were rejected by the
Black Engineering Media and Workers Union, Media Workers Association of South
Africa and the South African Union of Journalists.10 The bitter medicine resulted in the
SABC turning its finances around from a deficit of R60 million to a profit of R72
million,11 but it also seemed to mark the beginning of a top-down form of
transformation driven mainly by commercial imperatives.
The McKinsey report also recommended that more staff be placed on contract to allow
the SABC greater flexibility to change formats, programmes and staff to compete with
private stations. For example, this approach allowed Radio Metro to move out some
experienced deejays in favour of younger deejays to increase their ability to compete
with Y-FM. In the words of Romeo Khumalo, Radio Metros station manager: Deejays
are freelancers and we did not break any labour laws because their contracts
expired.12 In spite of Khumalos protestations, this incident has led to a case being
brought before the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration for unfair
dismissal and unfair labour practices. Other contract-related disputes have erupted
since then, but their bases are markedly different from Metro case as they have taken
place in the heart of the SABCs non-commercial operations, especially current affairs,
and have raised questions about the ways in which contracting-out can be used to
erode the editorial independence of these programmes.
This observation is not new. In fact, in her book National Broadcasting under Siege,
Eva Etzioni-Halevy has identified the introduction of a contract-culture into public
broadcasters - especially in news and current affairs - as one possible means of
ensuring political conformity, as journalistss concern for job stability may override their
attempts to produce critical programming.
In assessing this trend in relation to the British Broadcasting Corporation in 1987 (the
year of the books publication), she noted that there was an increasing tendency to
shift news and current affairs staff from the permanent staff, and onto contracts. When
she interviewed staff about whether the resulting insecurity could lead to self-
censorship, respondents noted that this may not apply to more popular current affairs
people as they were paid to be controversial, but ...for contract workers in general,
caution was the rule; and since more and more people were on contract programmes
had become less creative and daring. In the words of one union representative who
FXI-SUBMISSION TO SABC BOARDS ENQUIRY 6
was asked whether they had tackled cases of journalists complaining to them about
Yes, there are loads of cases like that. But there is nothing that I can prove...But I
think the most serious thing is the general intimidation thats going on. I mean, the
political thing is an undertone of it. But the whole system of pressures on people,
frankly, lack of access to personal files; the business of people on short term contracts;
the contracts not being renewed. Pressures to comply, really, with the general
With respect to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, most journalists on news,
current affairs and other political programmes were not permanent. Although Etzioni-
Halevys respondents did not have evidence of journalists contract status being used to
exact political control, most acknowledged that the system had the potential for self-
censorship built into it. In the words of one respondent:
I think that [termination of contract] can lead to...voluntary censorship in a way. A
journalist could know that hes got only three months to go on his contract and maybe
he doesnt want to get involved in any controversy and attack the government or attack
the establishment or whatever...hell sit back a little bit for those three months. Im sure
thats a form of insidious pressure thats there. I mean
Etzioni-Halevy also quotes an ABC union representative as follows: It is not enough
that the ABC be fair. It must be seen to be fair. Caesars wife must be above suspicion.
This is not possible under a temporary work and contract system. She also noted that
while the contract system allowed the ABC to get rid of dead wood easily and to enjoy
and high turnover of fresh blood - although the extent to which this was actually
achieved was debateable - the down side was that it led to anxiety, low morale,
resentment and confusion amongst staff, leading to ...unbelievable antagonism.13
The concept of bi-media, which involves the integration of radio and television, has
also been introduced recently. Interestingly enough, both the BBC and the ABC also
operate bi-media newsrooms, and it begs the question whether the contract-related
worker-management tensions outlined above are implicit in bi-media operations.
These public broadcasters introduced bi-media, mainly to cut costs. Bi-media also
allows the broadcaster to offer a more integrated product to its viewers and listeners.
Yet at the same time, the centralised structure enhances the potential for editorial
control and reduces editorial diversity, as the broadcaster would now broadcast one
version of the news across all services. According to the CEO of News, Enoch Sithole,
the phasing in of bi-media will allow the SABC to develop a wider news service and
eventually to have a news agency-type operation, where the SABC sells news to other
organisations. More importantly, we can use our news to grow audiences and revenue
in a situation where we are aware that in many of our services, news and current
affairs are among the main audience pullers.14 It would seem from the above that the
introduction of bi-media is being done to facilitate the commercialisation of news and
current affairs, a shift that the transformation proposals expressly warned against on
the grounds that ...news should not be influenced by commercial interests. 15
FXI-SUBMISSION TO SABC BOARDS ENQUIRY 7
Commercial restructuring is continuing on the highest of levels, with the government
corporatising the SABC, and separating its services into public service and commercial
arms. This change in legal status of the SABC was recommended by the McKinsey
report to reposition the Corporation to meet competition head-on. The government has
indicated that it may also privatise commercial services in the near future. In short, we
should not be surprised if the sorts of contract-related disputes mentioned above will
escalate with the legalisation of commercial principles through the SABCs
corporatisation. It is therefore essential that the SABC Board acts to correct the
existing problems before they get worse.
What is unclear is the status of news and current affairs with respect to the separation
of services. While the transformation proposal considered it part of the public service
operations, the CEO of News comments imply that it may be included in the
commercial arm. This matter needs to be clarified, as there are serious implications
involved in setting up a commercially-driven news and current affairs operation, which
may be tempted to deliver news to advertisers rather than to audiences, and filter out
controversial news that may not sell to other operations.
The existing structure
In terms of an organogram in our possession, the newsroom has reverted back to an
input-output method of processing news, this time under the auspices of bi-media.
Also, the organogram reflects the re-organisation of the newsroom to reflect the new
bi-media approach. From what we can gather, the editor-in-chief (output) post has
been filled by Phil Molefe, and the Executive Editor (Input) post has been filled by
Snuki Zikalala. The post of Head: Current Affairs was not filled with the resignation of
Sarah Crowe, but instead was collapsed into the post of Head: News to create a
superpost, namely Head: News and Current Affairs. Themba Mthembu now fills this
post.16 It is unclear what has happened to the post of Editor in Chief: SABC Radio
News, previously filled by Barney Mthombothi (Mthombothi resigned earlier this year).
Interestingly enough, this post has been called Editor-in-Chief: Radio News (Output) in
the organogram, which implies that someone else will be responsible for radio input.
From what we can gather, Snuki Zikalala has effectively become the input editor of
radio and television news, by virtue of his heading the bi-media transformation in the
This arrangement seems to differ markedly from the organogram in our possession
from 1996 (distributed in February 1997). At this stage, Joe Thloloe filled the post of
Editor-in-Chief: TV News. Under him were the heads of the various editorial and
administrative departments. Thloloe reported to the Chief Executive of the SABC, and
liaised with the Head of Television for operational purposes.17 With the bringing back
of the input-output split, an additional position with at least as much authority as the
Editor-in-Chief of TV News has been created, and another even more senior post
above these (which Sithole occupies presently).
Some of the following problems that have been brought to our attention with respect to
the new model are as follows:
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Lack of clarity regarding consultation about new models
There is a lack of clarity about the extent to which this new model has been
canvassed amongst journalists. Journalists that we have spoken to were not
clear on what the nature of these changes were, why they were happening, and
even what the implications of these changes are, which attests to their lack of
involvement in the development of these models. There also seems to be a
lack of clarity about new posts that are being created under the auspices of bi-
media, and how people are appointed. In essence, what seems to be lacking is
the sort of ownership over the current newsroom transformation that the earlier
TNP transformation proposals engendered, given their bottom-up nature.
Lack of clarity about the chain of command, especially around editorial matters
One of the problems with the organogram that has been brought to our
attention is that there is confusion about what the precise chain of command is.
We have been unable to understand who the next-in-command is after the
CEO of News (Enoch Sithole). Some journalists have identified Snuki Zikalala,
and others have identified Phil Molefe, while the organogram identifies them as
being of equal status. The net effect of this confusion is that it is not clear where
decisions on controversial matters will be taken - especially those of an editorial
nature - which is not in the interests either of accountability or transparency.
According to the Guide for SABC TV news journalists, dated September 1996,
..if a problem arises about an editorial question or issue, or the programme
maker is unsure, then the programme maker must consult the next level of
executive or management for guidance. If the programme maker does not refer
the issue upward, that programme maker will be responsible for the editorial
decision made. The process known as
organisation.18 The difficulty with the principle of upward referral in this instance
is that it is not clear - given the lack of clarity about the chain of command -
how far up such referral could go. Clearly, if stories are referred up, then they
should go only as far as the most senior editorial incumbent, and not to
Separation of management and editorial functions
Another source of confusion is where the line should be drawn between
editorial and management functions in news and current affairs. It is unclear
where the buck stops in the last instance with respect to editorial decisions.
This confusion is not helped by the confusion around the chain of command
mentioned above. To give an example where the lines between editorial and
management have been blurred, Enoch Sithole occupies a management post.
In effect, he is the super-manager of news. Yet, apparently he has also been
known to make editorial pronouncements. One example that we are aware of is
that in responding to certain allegations in an article by Sarah Crowe in the
Sunday Times on the controversies surrounding the SABC, he wrote in the
Sunday Independent: I will put her [Sarah Crowe] on national television to
substantiate her claims.19 Were Sithole to do so, he would be guilty of crossing
the management-editorial line, and violating the independence of his own
The positions of the editors-in-chief have also been described as a grey-area.
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They have the power to exercise management functions and make executive
decisions, while at the same time they have the authority to make final editorial
decisions. The precise nature of the Executive Editors post for input is even
more confusing. The fact that all these posts have been described as editorial
management, adds to the confusion. Couple this with confusion about the
chain of command, and one has created a recipe for editorial uncertainty, which
can only be detrimental to smooth running of the newsroom. Uncertainty can
also breed conflict, as roles are not clarified. It can also ultimately lead to the
erosion of ethical standards among journalists, morale and initiative. These are
key elements in ensuring editorial independence and freedom of expression in
the newsroom, and beyond.
Re-introduction of input - output split
The introduction of bi-media has brought back the split between input and
output in news production and packaging, as the management of all these
functions through a centralised desk may prove to be too unwieldy. However,
the result is that the gatekeeping role of the incumbent editors has increased. In
effect, the final responsibility for the identification of news stories rests with the
Executive Editor: Input, and the final responsibility for the packaging of news
rests with the editor-in-chief of output. This structure enhances the potential for
the filtering out of controversial news, as such news would be caught either at
the input or the output stage. As mentioned earlier, it is also a model that
disempowers journalists, and is not an appropriate newsroom structure for a
public broadcaster functioning in a democracy.
Creation of top-heavy management, and centralisation of management functions
Part of the aim of transforming the old, discredited newsroom structures, has
been to flatten out management structures, to involve journalists more in the
production of news. As a result, the editor-in-chief post was done away with,
and the incumbent at the time assumed the less hierarchical post of editor of
TV news. Since then, the editor-in-chief post has been brought back (according
to the organogram in our possession). Several management positions have
been created (or re-fashioned) recently, for example the CEO of News, and -
as noted earlier - editor posts in relation to input and output, as well as Head:
News and Current Affairs. In effect, in the words of one source, ...the principle
of flat management has been thrown out, and is being replaced by a growing
hierarchy of managers. In effect, and counter to the principles of TNP
transformation, the chain of command is lengthening. This development could
be related to another problem brought to our attention, involving the
development of an increasingly intimidating and authoritarian newsroom
culture, where journalists are scared to speak their minds. In this climate, there
appears to be very little room for the type of consultation envisaged in the
transformation proposals, let alone management accountability to journalists.
Confusion of editorial lines of accountability in current affairs
One source of huge confusion has been the editorial lines of accountability in
current affairs especially. Even when the post of head of current affairs existed,
there was apparently a tension between where the editorial buck should stop:
with the incumbent or with the executive producer. However, even in terms of
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this regime, executive producers apparently had a great deal of independence.
Reportedly, this independence has been eroded, with the Head: News and
Current Affairs claiming final editorial decision-making powers. It was this
problem that lay at the heart of the dispute involving Max du Preez, and
apparently led to one of Special Assignments programmes (on witchcraft) being
withdrawn in spite of the fact that it had been extensively advertised. The
decision to withdraw the programme was reprehensible, as once they are
advertised, programmes should be pulled only under the most extraordinary
circumstances. We cannot imagine that this documentary formed one such
case. These tensions are in urgent need of attention, for if they are not
addressed, then such incidents are bound to recur.
Employment status of managers vs. journalists, especially in current affairs
According to our information, the editorial management of news and current
affairs, as well as the bulk of newsroom staff, are permanent employees.
However, the bulk of current affairs staff are on contract. Whether the decision
to work on contract is out of choice or whether it is a result of the McKinsey
recommendations to place more staff on contract, there are problems attached
to this mix of contract and permanent staff. Some of these problems have
already been acknowledged earlier in this submission in relation to the BBC
and the ABC, and should be given serious attention. Given that current affairs
is the analytical arm of news, its stability and independence is of great
importance as it needs the editorial space to produce programmes that are
critical of current developments. Yet this arm has been beset by uncertainty,
starting with the numerous programmes that were cut as a result of the
McKinsey recommendations. If management had the intention to do so, it could
easily effect editorial control over controversial content by simply not renewing
the contracts of the people concerned, contract law will probably protect their
actions from legal challenges. To solve this problem, one of two options could
be possible: either increase the number of current affairs journalists in the
SABCs permanent employment - with the result that they would have access to
all the benefits and rights involved such as the right to a fair hearing - or
negotiate long-term contracts where the editorial lines of accountability vest
with the executive producer. The pros and cons of both approaches such be
explored, as this situation of uncertainty cannot be allowed to continue.
Dumbing down of current affairs
Another matter of concern that has been raised relates to the dumbing down of
current affairs. The McKinsey report had much to do with this, in that it resulted
in the amount of current affairs programming being dramatically reduced.
Recently, World Watch was cancelled. This is resulting in fewer matters of
public concern being brought to the attention of the public in greater depth and
fewer exposures of public opinion on issues to viewers and listeners. The
dumbing down of critical debate is not helped if news in turn becomes more
incident-driven, with less exposure of contentious public interest matters to the
Some matters of high interest, that have been brought to our attention for
receiving insufficient in-depth coverage include the following:
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The greater metropolitan schemes for the big cities;
The collapse of the finances of many municipalities;
The unprofitability of the railways;
The effectiveness of the water provision programme;
An overview of the housing problem;
The collapse of the inner cities in cities like Johannesburg;
The brain drain;
The employment situation;
The gold issue and its effects on neighbouring states apart from on SA's
Relations with our neighbours and the SADC trade and customs union
Land re-distribution and the reclamation (ie, return of the dispossessed);
The restructuring of the South African National Defence Force and the
arms purchase programme;
Foreign investment interest - or lack of interest - in South Africa.
Perceptions of bias
There has been an increasing over-concentration on the presentation of the
African National Congress view of matters with less critical views expressed
particularly on TV. While as the ANC is the governing party it is natural that
time and space will be allocated to it in greater measure than to its opponents
or critics, there is a perception that there is an over-emphasis on the
presentation of the government's case. This was particularly noticeable during
the election campaign where the ANC was given sometimes disproportionate
exposure and where news about its activities was presented in a bland or,
even, on occasion, an enthusiastic fashion, while some of its opponents
received overly critical treatment. We are not opposed to the critical treatment
of political parties -- it certainly tended to liven up otherwise somewhat boring
material, but our complaint is that the criticism should be even-handed.
According to the Media Monitoring Project which monitored the election
coverage, when comparing e.tv with SABC, 85.7% of e.tv's coverage of all e.tvs
news items was fair while 70.2% of SABC's news items were fair. This
includes bias towards other parties as well as the ANC. Thirty eight percent of
the items on the ANC were biased; 26 % were positively biased and 11.2%
In conclusion, we call on the SABC Board to conduct an audit of the extent to which its
own transformation agenda is being implemented with respect to news and current
affairs. This agenda is contained in transformation proposals that were adopted by the
Board and senior management in 1994. They offer an extensive plan for the
transformation of TNP News to bring it into line with the SABCs public service
mandate. There are preliminary indications that a number of these proposals have
already been violated, and the spirit of editorial democracy and journalist involvement
in the operations of the newsroom if being transgressed.
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In short, there appears to be too many editorial managers, and too great a
centralisation of editorial control in their hands. In the process, and from what we can
gather, key principles of editorial democracy are being eroded, leading to great job-
dissatisfaction, and lack of ownership of current forms of transformation. Such
hierarchical editorial structures will not engender public trust in the impartiality of the
SABC, which is already under attack for bias in favour of the ruling party.
The quality of service and the quality of employment are inseparable. Severing this
relationship will ultimately lead to a decline in both. Commercialisation can also lead to
a decline in the quality of service offered, as working conditions deteriorate, leading to
the remaining staff being required to do more with less. In response, workers may start
treating their work as just a job, rather than a vocation. This mentality may set in
especially in instances where management plans have been implemented in a top-
down fashion, without worker buy-in.
We are also not sure of the extent to which the Board has been consulted in the
changes that have been taking place in news and current affairs. With respect to our
call for the Board to conduct an audit of how its own transformation proposals are
being implemented, or reversed, we would like specific attention to the paid to the
The implications of the impending commercialisation of news, and the extent to
which this conforms with or contradicts the transformation proposals;
Allied to this, whether news and current affairs will be included in the public
service or commercial arms;
The extent of worker/ journalist involvement in the development of these new
models in news and current affairs;
The lack of clarity about the chain of command, especially around editorial
matters in news and current affairs;
The extent to which editorial and management have been confused in news
and current affairs;
The re-introduction of the input-output split and implications for editorial
The creation of a top-heavy management, and centralisation of management
functions in news and current affairs;
The employment status of managers vs. journalists, especially in current affairs;
The dumbing down of current affairs, involving the gradual reduction of the
number of programmes.
In addition, we would also call on the Board to investigate the need for an internal
complaints procedure to enable members of staff to raise questions about the refusal
by editorial management to cover certain stories, the canning of stories or the
manipulation of stories from one angle to another. At the moment, there appears to be
no recourse in the event of problematic decisions being taken by editorial
management. Needless to say, such whistleblowers would need to have the
confidence that they would not be victimised if they chose to make use of the
FXI-SUBMISSION TO SABC BOARDS ENQUIRY
procedure against a superior. There is also no mechanism provided by the Board to
hear input from the public, a feature that the FXI has been requesting for years, and
we would like this matter to be attended to as well.
FXI-SUBMISSION TO SABC BOARDS ENQUIRY
1. News and Current Affairs, SABC Annual Report, 1997/ 98.
2. SABC Annual Report, 1994, 27.
3. TNPs Transformation Proposals for Consideration by SABC Top Management, Transformation Unit,
TNP, 4/10/1994, 5.
4. Ibid, 9.
5. Ibid, 46.
6. Ibid, 48.
7. Ibid, 20.
8. Ibid, 19.
9. Report of the Task Group on Broadcasting in South and Southern Africa, Chairman: Prof. Christo
Viljoen, Presented to the Minister of Home Affairs of the Republic of South Africa, August 1991, 40.
10. SABC Opts for Voluntary Severance, Sowetan, 29/4/1997.
11. Hunter, S. SABC back in black with R72 million profit, Star, 6/10/1997.
12. Dyantyi, A. Static at Radio Metro as fired deejays seek redress, Saturday Star, 6/3/1999.
13.. Internal Pressures Through Dismissal, Demotion and Displacement, in Etzioni-Halevy, E. 1987.
National Broadcasting Under Siege: A Comparative Study of Australia, Britain, Israel and West Germany.
New York: St. Martins.
14. Sithole gives breakdown of SABC Newss working pattern, Intercom, March 1999.
15. TNP’s Transformation Proposals..., 20.
16. Themba heads News and Current Affairs, Intercom, ?
17. TVN Management and Staff, Infopack on TVN’s programmes, facilities, management, staff and
budgets, and key issues in planning for the future, February 1997.
18. Guide for SABC TV News Journalists, September 1996.
19. Sithole, E. Max Sacking Much Ado About Nothing, The Sunday Independent, 9/5/1999, 9.
FXI-SUBMISSION TO SABC BOARDS ENQUIRY