Ferial Haffajee

The SABC's B-roll

2010-10-22 07:46

While the national headlines about the SABC this week relate how Parliament sent the board packing because its turnaround strategy was ill-conceived and tardy, the more damaging corrosion of this fine institution is happening at the shop floor.

There are fine journalists, producers and managers who keep the SABC going:
Morning Live's Vuyo Mbuli; SAfm's Xolani Gwala and Ashraf Garda; Special Assignment's Asanda Magaqa, Elvis Presslin whom I enjoy sparring with on The Editors, among others. This reflects my listening and viewing habits and I'm sure there are other good people who soldier on amidst the decline.

But this week, a producer from Asikhulume had me flummoxed and revealed the poverty of assigning and production talent that has been allowed to creep in through the years of crisis.

The programme had asked to interview me on the occasion of the commemoration of Black Wednesday, the day in 1977 when black journalists and newspapers had been banned.

Here's the transcript of our conversation as I recall it:

Producer: "What do you think about transformation in the media?"

Ferial: "Uuum, what do you mean? Transformation of content; racial or gender transformation? What do you think because then perhaps I'll have a better idea of how to answer?"

Producer: "Everything."

I rabbited on about how transformation for me means a media that represents the demographics of the country's population but more importantly one that reflects the interests of its citizens. The producer looked blank. She didn't ask a follow-up but continued reading from her list.

Producer:  "What do you think about women in the media?"

Ferial: "Uuum," I mused wondering if the answer that "I quite like them" would cut the mustard. My flippant angel took a back seat to the comradely journalist in me. "Do you mean the position of women in the media? Like the glass ceiling and stuff? Well, I've just been reading this report by GenderLinks which shows the number of women sources quoted in the media."

Producer: "Can I have a copy?"

Ferial: "Sure, but I thought that was what the interview was about." I had been told the study would be the subject.

Producer: "Why do you think black editors chop and change so much?"

Ferial: "Uuum, what do you mean. Could you be a bit more specific? Do you have examples of special people - I'm not quite sure what you mean."

Producer: "No, I don't have examples. Just, I mean, why do you think black editors leave their jobs."

I tried to explain that young black editors are skilled, visible and in high demand, thus they don't tend to stay as long in jobs as editors of a previous era. In attempting to give a textured response, I pointed out that poaching was an issue generally in the media. But still, most of my editor friends stuck around: Mondli Makhanya spent six years at the Sunday Times before moving to a much grander job as group editor-in-chief; Phyllicia Oppelt put the Daily Dispatch onto a growth path before moving back to Johannesburg to edit the Business Times and then the Times; Justice Malala stayed at This Day until it, well, closed. Mathatha Tsedu edited City Press until he wanted to leave; Thabo Leshilo was editor-in-chief of Sowetan and the Sunday World until he went to Harvard and came back to a much bigger group position.

The only place that had fired its CEO and news and current affairs editor almost annually in the democratic era was, to put it bluntly, the SABC. But the producer did not seem interested. It was fairly obvious she didn't have a clue what she was speaking about and was simply parroting a set of questions given to her by somebody else with an inchoate axe to grind.

At that point, after she had been through the list of questions and I was counting quietly to one hundred and ten, the cameraman pointed out that he had not yet started rolling. And we did it all again - the same rubbish questions.

It doesn't get worse than this. There was a time when the SABC attracted and trained real talent. Last week, Robyn Curnow of CNN came in to do an interview on media freedom at City Press. She is now a CNN correspondent but I remember that she started at the SABC as a young journalist. Now a global star, she will tell you that the SABC was a great training ground back in the day and it taught her a lot of the smarts that she now employs on a world stage.

Columnists should not think their experiences are defining ones but this is the second example I have experienced of the cult of mediocrity gripping our precious SABC. At a recent filming of a Special Assignment dinner on the media appeals tribunal and the protection of information bill, the set-up and filming were a mess. The floor manager, an important choreographer of the efficient production and appearance of the final programme, looked like she had been picked from the Melville Street outside.

She swigged from a bottle of beer (not even a glass) while the filming was in progress. The programme concept was ill defined and after both incidents I came away that we we're dealing with the B-roll at the SABC now and not only the board that was sent from Parliament in disarray.

- Ferial Haffajee knows she has a lot to learn as a journalist but at least she prepares for interviews.

- Ferial Haffajee is editor of City Press.

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