Misstating American public broadcasting for political hits on SABC

In the article, "Time to drop TV licence that forces South Africans to fund SABC 'apartheid dinosaur'" Free Market Foundation researcher Martin van Staden misrepresents the American media model to argue for an end to the TV license fee. It's no surprise that "free market" groups want an end to public broadcasting. But Van Staden shouldn't distort the truth to argue his case.

America's Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) and National Public Radio (NPR) are funded by corporate and private contributions, private grants, and to a small extent by taxpayer dollars. Unlike the SABC, American public broadcasting is completely independent of the government and is neither overseen or influenced by it.

The SABC's larger problem is that there is significant evidence the government does exercise control over the SABC's policies and programming for the benefit of the government in power. 

Americans overwhelmingly respect PBS and NPR because both speak independently to the entire country, not politically polarized audiences looking for opinions that confirm their inherent biases. Both services have demonstrated their independence by routinely uncovering government scandals. In contrast, the SABC frequently seems to be embroiled in one.

Leave the license fee in place or allocate an annual government grant to fund the SABC, but also pass legislation that establishes a solid firewall between the government and the broadcaster, so that it no longer can be used as a tool by the government to cheerlead its policies or ignore opposition voices. That kind of reform will give South Africa the kind of public broadcasting institution it needs and deserves. 

Without a reliable revenue source, the SABC will become preoccupied with fundraising, not programming, and will end up airing mass appeal programming to attract support from viewers and advertisers, which is the model of private commercial broadcasting. That will bring a swift end to minority language services and important niche programming that is not commercially viable. It will also put independent private broadcasting at risk because the government will have a vested interest in the success of a commercialized and unreformed SABC that has long been a useful tool for successive governments. 

Phillip M. Dampier
Rochester, New York USA

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