PSB as partner in participation
The transformation of the SABC, as the title of a book by Louw and milton (2012) suggests, was about bringing ‘new voices to the air’. This is in line with the aim of public-service broadcasters to engender democratic participation and inclusive communication, reflecting the diversity of the community. However, the problem with ‘bringing new voices’ to the table is that it assumes that the ‘table’ is fine and that all we need to do is bring new voices. For example, in the South African context, a preoccupation with the ‘numbers game’ in effect re-racializes society in ways that the non-racial ANC of the 1960s and 1970s probably did not envision (Chasi and Mboti,2016).
How then do we participate if, in Chasi and Mboti’s (2016) words, ‘inclusion’ as envisioned in contemporary transformation discourse is not the way? Indeed, what would an Africanist participation theory look like? In 2015, a group of African scholars organized a pre-conference at IAMCR (International Association for Media and Communication Research) where they retheorized ‘participation’ from an African vantage point.The Africanist participation studies approach was proposed as a counter-weight to conventional communication frameworks of enquiry. Chasi and Mboti (2016) submitted that the main objection to conventional communication theories that are in use in communication departments in (South) African universities and governments is not necessarily that such theories are non-African in their original ethos. Rather, the objection is that such theories do not always adequately march in step with qualitative transformations in the everyday lives and lived realities of Africans. At base, this is a question about relevance (ibid.).
Thus, when arguing in the abstract that public-service broadcasters must engender democratic participation and inclusive communication, this is the participation we have in mind. One that marches in step with qualitative transformations in the everyday lives and lived realities of the Africans in whose interest it ostensibly operates. This question of relevance was also behind the 2013 ‘Continental Conference on Media Legislative Reforms and Transforming State Broadcasters into Public Broadcasters in Africa’ held in Midrand in South Africa, at the PanAfrican Parliament (PAP).The conference was co-hosted by the Africa Governance Monitoring and Advocacy Project (AfriMAP), the Open Society Initiative of Southern Africa, Article 19 and the Media Institute of Southern Africa. It attracted a new constellation of local and international organizations, including consultants, universities, politicians, journalists and high-level international partners, to find resolutions for the ongoing problem of state control over public broadcasters. The conference culminated in the ‘Midrand Call to Action: Media Freedom and Public Broadcasting in Africa’ (Mano, 2016).
Noting the dire state of broadcasting in Africa, it called on all African institutions, decision-makers, civil society and social justice organizations and publics to promote media freedom on the African continent as well as commit to actively playing their part in transforming and strengthening all state broadcasters into public broadcasters (Afrimap, 2013). The Midrand Call to Action focused in particular on the [accountability] role that each sector should play, noting with regard to National Public Broadcasters that these should, amongst others, ‘... develop, through an inclusive public process, editorial and programme guidelines that adhere to public broadcasting principles and promote public interest programming ...’ and ‘use digital technologies to promote broader access and public participation in the development of editorial policies’ (ibid.: 6).
Of particular relevance to this discussion is that the delineations of PSB as envisioned within the African context above, is congruent with a PSB ethos that submits that, for a PSB to be useful within a democratic framework, it should adhere to the widely accepted core goals for PSBs, summarized by Barr as being: (1) universal accessibility (geographic); (2) contribution to a sense of national identity and community’; (3) distance from vested interests; (4) direct funding and universality of payment; (5) competition in programming rather than for numbers; (6) guidelines that liberate rather than restrict programme makers and (7) universal appeal (general tastes and interests) (Barr, 2000: 66).
Clearly these principles have changed little since the beginning of public service broadcasting in Britain. Murdock notes that, for much of its history, public service broadcasting:
was designed to demonstrate how the distinctive qualities of the nation, and by extension of the Western Christian tradition, found their highest expression in works that had entered the official canon. Keith was adamant that one of public broadcasting’s central missions was to ensure that ‘the wisdom of the wise and the amenities of culture are available without discrimination ...’, but he took it for granted that what constituted ‘wisdom’ and ‘culture’ would be defined by intellectual and creative elites.
(Murdock, 2010: 180)
Reith’s core elements of a national, non-commercial service that is directly funded by government are still important aspects of the services provided by the BBC and remains one of the most contested aspects of PSB funding in South Africa (cf. Louw and milton, 2012; milton and Fourie, 2015).
In spite of aspirations for alternatives, wholesale mimicking of global North frameworks is still widespread in Africa. Even when transformation in service of
African ideals is discussed, there is still a tendency to revere templates and reference points that are alien. Mano and milton (2020), for example, with regard to their participation in the Midrand-Conference, note that, apart from a few notable exceptions, the experts from the North framed and dominated the policy conception phase. African stakeholders were largely included at the operationalization stage and as implementers. At issue here is that the global North remained an invisible and, due to the nature of the event, at times a very visible point of reference for the conference deliberations and outcomes. Their experience as participants in the conference processes led Mano and milton to conclude that a more inclusive collaboration is needed whereby the voice of African stakeholders are listened to in PSB reform (ibid.). Here it is worth noting that African-developed charters have much to offer to the ethos of PSB. Most laudable is the defined commitment towards a participatory PSB environment that pays specific attention to emancipation, human dignity and dialectical processes of voice and listening. These commitments are geared towards ensuring deeper participation, especially for marginalized communities.
In general, what is at issue in attempts to theorize from the African metropolis, is how do we ‘reorient the media content (to change the focus to stories which have genuine relevance for the African context); transform the presentation style (emphasising processes and dialogue rather than breaking news) and reorganise the structural outlook of the media (where it is argued that, rather than serving as an isolated Fourth Estate, the media should work together with other parties in society for national development)’ (Skjerdal, 2011). What is evident in this is the emphasis placed on participation as a necessary component of communicative theory and practice. This is interesting also in the light of recent efforts towards emphasizing the importance of participation in PSB globally - perhaps influenced by marketiza-tion, digitization and the increasing popularity of social networking. Lowe (2010), for example, notes that contemporary discussions about renewal in PSB has focused increasingly on public participation, although what that means for practice remains uncertain and why it matters is largely framed in ethical terms. He notes that ‘[a]s an “altruistic imperative”, public participation is important among media theorists concerned about growing marketisation that may threaten the vitality of the public sphere for contemporary democracy’ (Lowe, 2010: 9).
When discussing contra-flows in theorizing, it should be noted that concepts shift and change across continental borders, languages and political contexts. Sometimes it merges with so-called concepts from the global North (for example there is some overlap between the concept of ubuntu and the more Western-defined communitarianism), while at other times theorists themselves insist on interrogating the concepts through a Western lens, hence rendering the concept powerless before it is even considered. The argument is raised that the political economy of African mediascapes is still guided and dominated by views from the global North. Values related to ownership, control, management and journalism practices, and freedom of expression as well as public opinion and public interest are therefore inevitably discussed from the viewpoint of an assumed universal gaze (milton and
Fourie, 2015).We conclude by considering what value could be added by looking at PSB from an Afrokological vantage point.