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SABC’s 2014 editorial policy review process

The SABC’s editorial policy review process of 2014 was introduced in line with South Africa’s principle of consultative/participative democratic practice, which requires an extensive consultative process with stakeholders, citizens and civil society all making verbal and written contributions, milton (2014) contributed to that process on behalf of the Media Policy and Democracy Project - a joint project between the University of South Africa and the University of Johannesburg. Key to the contribution was the idea about journalistic credibility. A revised editorial policy, it was argued was needed to rebuild the trust in the editorial integrity and credibility of the broadcaster’s content and the process by which it was produced and distributed. The submission to the SABC’s Editorial Policy review was particularly concerned about governance and the relationship between management and editorial oversight, which was complicated by the so-called ‘upward referral’ clause in the existing editorial policy.

This clause gave the broadcaster’s General Chief Executive Officer (GCEO) the final say on editorial matters. Given the politics of the board nomination and implementation process in South Africa, where board members (especially the GCEO) are often political appointees, this blurring of the necessary distinction between management roles and editorial roles opened the SABC to undue external commercial, political, religious and other influences. In this situation, there was potential for a conflict of interest, with the GCEO ignoring the SABC’s accountability to the general public. It was argued that allowing the GCEO to also be editor-in-chief contradicted the SABC’s claims of'editorial independence’ and ‘freedom from undue influence’ - be that influence from the market or from politics. Issues such as the SABCs blacklisting ofjournalists and commentators, and unilateral decisions by the GCEO to ‘can’ television and radio programmes critical of government or the ruling party illustrate that when management roles and editorial roles collide, freedom of expression is inhibited and journalism suffers.

In the submission, milton (2014) also observed that'upward referrals’endangered the editorial policy of commitment to content diversity given that distribution on the SABC was being dominated by a single point of view. Apartheid and a colonial-era type of control in the institution narrowed down the performance of the SABC. What was needed was content diversity that furthered the goals of a democratic society by enhancing public access to the full range of ideas, information, subject matter and perspectives required to make informed judgements about issues important to South Africans. It also reflected the public service broadcaster’s ‘special mandate to serve many different and discrete audiences’ (ibid.).The goal of diversity thus requires ongoing efforts to ensure that the broadcaster’s content fully reflects the pluralism of South African society, including for example, appropriate representation of linguistic and other minorities. Upward referral thus poses a threat to public service broadcasters being usurped by political appointees who, under the guise of development, use the institution for political gain (milton and Fourie, 2015). It is worth noting that, when upward referral was first introduced into the SABC’s editorial policy, its inclusion in the editorial code was debated at length and at that stage it was argued that it was consistent with international practise in this regard. At issue here is the legacy of broadcasting administration structures, in service of‘international best practice’ that are not adequately suited to media democratization in post-authoritarian contexts.

milton’s (2014) submission to the review process proposed that it was good governance practice to separate the duties of the SABC Board from that of professional management. It was submitted that the GCEO should concern him/herself with ensuring a proper business platform to enable content providers and journalists to do their job. The Editor-in-Chief’s role, it argued, was to protect the reputation of the SABC and its journalism: hence, neither the GCEO nor any other board member should be engaged in editorial decision-making. Board members should adopt policies and procedures that enabled professional management to operate in a way that would give the public full confidence in the editorial integrity of the broadcaster’s con tent/programming. The submission suggested that the SABC should make every effort to ensure that the content it distributed satisfied editorial standards to ensure integrity. It should lead in demonstrating to both citizens and public policy makers that its ‘programming is free from undue or improper influence’. The submission’s proposals were echoed by other civil society actors such as SOS: Support Public Broadcasting and the Right-to-Know Campaign.

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