When the suggestion was made last week that the SABC should be able to tap those who stream Netflix on their phones or tablets for licence fees, it was not well received. Why, when it is not enabling reception, should it be entitled to fund its operations from viewers who have exercised their leisure choices in a way that cuts them free from the dregs on offer from the state broadcaster?
That is indeed the free market question. But it is not the only question.
The broader issue to be considered is how to ensure the survival of the SABC, and whether a state broadcaster is in fact necessary. Objectively, it is desirable to have news and opinion which is driven by the public good, and not by clicks and views. South Africa is a vast and complex country, and even with the best will in the world, commercial media would never get to the far-flung nooks and crannies where the unfashionable, the invisible and discarded members of our society live.
Moreover, as we have seen with land-reform fraud, it is in the remote areas that much of the corruption takes place, and where a watchdog is necessary.
The SABC has not done itself any favours by its craven relationship with the ANC, which was able to hijack operations for propaganda purposes. Some propaganda is to be expected, to promote the interests of the state, but not those of a political party.
Government, in turn, has not done the SABC any favours by starving it of funds. By definition, a state broadcaster is not a commercial enterprise and cannot operate in the market as one.
A different model must apply, and licence fees are a vital part of it. It would help if the SABC collected the fees owed to it, but also stopped hounding people who don’t have a TV set anymore. That surely has something to do with how ill-disposed citizens are to the organisation.
Nevertheless, finding a viable model for the SABC is important, because without it, swathes of activities and people neglected by politicians and marginalised by the economy, will be doomed to invisibility forever.