Let’s debate the SABC’s compromised newsroom

2013-10-29 10:00

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Last week, the SABC canned the second season of the popular current affairs show, The Big Debate, shortly before its new season premiere.

It went further to cancel all rebroadcasts of the first season.

The public broadcaster neither made any announcement about this to its viewers, who had been waiting months for the show to air, nor gave any reason for its decision until the producers of the show, its committed viewers and civil society organisations expressed their dismay and kicked up a big fuss about it.

The Big Debate is a town hall meeting-style debate show that brings together government officials, politicians, big business and civil society to discuss the most burning issues affecting ordinary South Africans.

With the rise and popularity of the radical anticapitalist rhetoric coming from the South African “left” and emergent political movements such as Julius Malema’s Economic Freedom Fighters, the show has successfully facilitated robust debate around the success of land reform policies and whether the economy is racist and antipoor.

For many, the show sits at the cutting edge of contemporary news and current affairs programming.

Cabinet ministers explain the challenges they face in their commitment to deliver on their promise of a better life for all. Experts and civil society representatives provide insight into the structural causes of these problems and where government has failed.

Ordinary people have a platform to directly engage both and call them out on their political doublespeak and deliberate frustration of their ability to live full and dignified lives.

In a society where there is widespread?maladministration and minimal accountability for corruption in both the public and private sectors, which affects millions of people who are only consulted once every five years for their votes, the show has had a profound effect on how South Africans see the bounds and scope of their citizenship.

For once, their stories, their realities and their own accounts were being heard and aired on our biggest mass communication medium, the SABC, and consequent actions were being further debated everywhere from taxis to Twitter.

The Big Debate is precisely the sort of public-oriented programming the SABC is required to broadcast in terms of its charter and mandate to educate, entertain and inform.

In its official explanation for canning the show, the SABC invoked weak technicalities to support its decision. Its head of communications Kaizer Kganyago was quoted as saying: “It is against the policies of the SABC to outsource news and current affairs.

Editorial?responsibility for all news and current affairs content is vested in the newsroom.

“The Big Debate, which is a current affairs programme, was incorrectly commissioned by SABC2 and, in so doing, the editorial oversight, which is the responsibility of the newsroom, was compromised.”

In the defensivetone we have all come to expect from the SABC, Kganyago made it clear that “this is all we are prepared to say about the matter”.

Of course, as we have seen before, this is an outright misrepresentation. Firstly, the SABC has failed to say which policies the so-called outsourcing of The Big Debate violates.

The most significant of these policies, the editorial policies that are currently under review, in fact, explicitly make the outsourcing of news and current affairs programming possible provided it complies with the clearly defined requirements.

Moreover, there is an important distinction to be made between the procedural and substantive requirements for the commissioning and licensing of content.

Even if it is true that, procedurally, the show was improperly commissioned by SABC2 instead of by the news and current affairs department, that alone (and by any measure) doesn’t meet any substantive muster in terms of canning such an important show.

If anything, the cancellation demonstrates something more sinister in what is widely viewed as a compromised news desk at the SABC.

»?Phamodi is a black feminist, media freedom activist and the campaign organiser of the SOS: Support Public Broadcasting coalition. He writes in his personal capacity. Follow him on Twitter @MrPhamodi or visit: www.mrphamodi.co.za.

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