Media Monitoring Africa (MMA) is concerned by the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC)’s announcement of its decision “to centralise the editorial direction and control of all the talk shows that deal with issues of politics and governance, [o]n all radio stations, [into the hands of the] news and current affairs [department].” This decision has far reaching implications, not only for the broadcaster’s radio services but most importantly for the listeners, as it adds a new level of bureaucracy to talk show programmes.

The decision is a significant shift from existing practice in relation to talk shows and programmes and is likely to have far reaching implications for the operations of the SABC stations and News Division.

The classification used is so broad that it is likely to affect almost every talk show that discusses any issue deemed as political and/or governance-related. It would appear that any debate and discussion on issues such as service delivery, police brutality, government corruption, poverty, inequality, racism, teenage pregnancy, the public health system, social grants, accountability, e-tolling, transformation in sport, media, education etc, may not see the light of day as they have clear political dimensions, or they would have to be “directed” and/or “controlled” by News and Current Affairs Division, before taking place.

The practical operation of the decision is not clear, for what would happen to open-line shows where presenters take calls from their audience to discuss issues that concern them?  What will happen if the caller wishes to talk about a political or governance-related issue? The concern is that presenters and producers and show hosts may be tempted to shut down discussions rather than open them up if they fear violating the new process.

It is also noted that current affairs shows like Special Assignment have been subjected to significant cuts in production costs, and the News and Current Affairs Division is already operating under extremely tight budget constraints and is under severe pressure to perform.  The decision would appear to place an unrealistic and unfair additional workload on News staffers.

MMA is also concerned that the decision may be a violation of the existing Editorial Policies. SABC’s existing Editorial policies on Programming state:

“Freedom of expression is at the heart of our programmes. We provide a home for programme makers that encourages them to innovate; to take risks and to develop their craft so that audiences may be given a rich diversity of top quality programmes.”

By placing effectively almost all talk shows under the direction and control of a single News and Current Affairs Division, the Editorial Independence of each station is compromised, and it undermines potential for innovation, and the ability to meet each specific audiences needs.

There is also potential for the decision to add to concerns of editorial interference.  It is notable that a letter written by a group of unnamed SABC reporters, presenters and producers highlighted their fears regarding political interference at the SABC.  We have also recently witnessed the interference in a Metro FM talk show as well as the resignation of one of SAfm’s most respected talk show hosts, Siki Mgabadeli, also reportedly as a result of editorial interference.  One of the most effective means of addressing such concerns will be to carry out the long over due Editorial Policy Review.

It is critical that the decision does not result in presenters feeling they have little option but to resign, or feeling they aren’t able to do their jobs as freely as a result of an additional layer of bureaucracy.

It is not clear who made the decision, and while there may be legitimate concern over balance and fairness of talk shows, it would seem the most appropriate place to raise these issues and any existing inadequacies in the SABC policies would be when the SABC conducts its editorial policy review.

MMA calls on all the SABC to revoke the decision until such time as a full, transparent and public editorial policy review has taken place.  Should the SABC not reverse the decision MMA will do all it can to keep a close eye on developments that may arise as a result of the decision and we would like to assure members of the public, journalists, producers and news staffers that civil society will assist in any way we can to help prevent or act on instances of political interference.

For more information:

William Bird, Director: Media Monitoring Africa

Cell+27 82 887 1370