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Saving the SABC Any light at the end of the tunnel?

Written by Kate Skinner

If we are talking the SABC, it is usually bad news. It is 2015 and January isn't out yet but the latest story to hit the media is Minister of Communications, Faith Muthambi's alleged interference in Board affairs including her threatening to remove board members It seems (but no official reasons given) that this is what led to the sudden resignation of board member and corporate governance stalwart Prof Bongani Khumalo. We have been here before... Ministerial interference. The never ending resignation of Board members, three since the new Board took office in 2013.
So what is to be done with our lumbering, maligned old giant? What is to be done with its unstable (usually absent) board and management? With ministerial interference? With its byzantine finances? (The SABC got a disclaimer for its last financial year.) Also, most importantly, what it is to be done with its often lack lustre programming? These questions have been asked so many times people have stopped waiting for the answers... There is a gloomy sense that the only way forward is down. But as we have said (many times) we simply can't abandon the SABC, our biggest, still most important news organisation. So, really, what is to be done?
It is important to look internationally. Across the world public broadcasters are under pressure. A colleague sent me an article recently telling me that the Australian public broadcaster, the ABC, had closed its international service Australian Network (AN) due to budget cuts. The article quotes a broadcasting expert lamenting the fact that AN's "current affairs and news coverage was second to none". AN (used to) broadcast thoughtful, context-rich news about Asia across Asia and beyond.
So across the world public broadcasters are struggling with budget cuts and service cuts. But there is more. The same article argues that the "real state of play in Asia is mobile digital". The new broadcasting world is a world of "content anytime, anywhere, anything" at least for those who can pay. Long gone are the days of a few, free to air national channels led by the public broadcaster with the family gathered round the analogue TV. It is now a highly commercial, fragmented, digital, multichannel, multiplatform world where kids (and adults) watch and download content on their cellphones and tablets from organisations that sometimes don't remotely resemble broadcasters. More and more content is being hidden behind paywalls. In Asia kids download content on their mobile phones from YouTube.
So where do public broadcasters with their free, collective, public focus fit? Do they fit? There has been significant soul searching. Not least in the heart of public broadcasting country – Europe. Recently the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) drafted a 20/20 broadcasting vision. The vision puts forward a series of important recommendations for public broadcasters. Five key principles can be distilled - five principles that should be tucked into an SABC "digital survival kit".
Let's start with the critical principle of trust. In a world with infinite choice (at least for some), there needs to be something distinctive about public broadcasting content. And that distinctiveness needs to rest on trust. Leading international public broadcasters (including the BBC, Swedish public radio, NHK in Japan) have built a solid reputation for professionalism and quality particularly in news and current affairs. And in the digital age this needs to be deepened still further - public broadcasters need more perspectives, more diversity, greater depth, more context in all their programming. There needs to be rigorous fact checking. Audiences / users need to know that in a sea of often half-baked, un-investigated "facts" there is one place of refuge – one solid dependable place that will actively help them understand our sometimes dangerous, certainly complex world.
So.... the SABC needs to think carefully here about its editorial proposals for a "good news" agenda. The SABC should consider issues of quality news, in-depth news, diverse news, accurate news and most important trustworthy news
Next up is innovation - technological and otherwise. There is much that is thrilling, daring, often breathtakingly exciting about our digital world. This should be embraced. Public broadcasters should be ahead of the pack. And many public broadcasters are – the BBC is a shining example with its BBC iplayer allowing citizens access to a wealth of on-demand content. The Swedish and Finnish public broadcasters are specifically developing content for mobile platforms. Swedish public radio uses twitter and facebook to gather story ideas, to help shape and set their news agendas. Daily editorial meeting now include several thousand people's thoughts not just a handful of journalists
The third key principle is accountability. Specifically we need accountability to audiences. As discussed our world is awash with social media, twitter, facebook, Instagram and so forth. These "tools" can be used to gather constant feedback on programming to change, shape and improve programming. And beyond social media, public broadcasters can, and should, develop local and national partnerships with campaigns, NGOs, universities, schools etc. Public broadcasters need to be rooted in their communities.
The fourth key principle is transparency. Ah transparency. Not something the SABC particularly embraces. However across the world leading public broadcasters have embraced this principle with vigour. And in a digital world it is an essential. If you want to find out anything (absolutely anything) on the finances, governance structures, board members, editorial strategy and so forth of the Canadian and Australian public broadcasters, for instance, you just have a look at their websites. This is key to building public trust. It is key to accountability. And it is key to fighting the battle for public resources.
And that brings us to the fifth and possibly most critical principle of all – independence. Let's be frank given the immense power of the SABC, its unique access to ordinary citizens, it will always be contested. So the only way forward is to limit the power of vested interests. And by this I mean all vested interests – political commercial and personal. We need to limit this at a structural level. At present the SABC is a statutory body with the Minister of Communications as its sole shareholder. Civil society campaigns such as the SOS: Support Public Broadcasting Coalition has been campaigning for the SABC to be turned into a Chapter nine institution (such as the Public Protector). Chapter nine institutions are protected by the Constitution and accountable directly to Parliament. Not accountable to the Minister. Further, SOS has been campaigning for no government spokespeople or officials on the Board and for the exclusion of people with direct political and commercial interests.
Independent funding is critical too. The SABC has relied on almost 80% commercial funding. Over time it has relied more and more on advertiser funded programming. This has certainly skewed the programming agenda in a less distinctive, populist direction.
So no doubt our public broadcaster needs more public funding. But given the desperate competing demands for public funds for power, health and education (particularly power) we need to see our public broadcaster showing its worthy of our precious public funds. It needs to stand up for the principles of trust, innovation, accountability and transparency. And it needs to do this urgently or simply be marginalised over time.

Kate Skinner is a member of the working group of the SOS: Support Public Broadcasting Coalition and a doctoral student in the Media Studies Department focusing on public broadcasting in the digital age.

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