The SABC should have a protocol to guide their news bosses on interactions with political parties. And here are some suggestions.
It emerged this weekend, courtesy of the Sunday Independent, that the ANC summoned the SABC bosses to their offices on Monday for a dressing down. ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe and spokesperson Jessie Duarte, met at ANC headquarters with SABC acting group CEO Gab Mampone and head of news Snuki Zikalala.
According to the Sunday Independent, they were critical of the SABC’s post-Polokwane coverage of the ANC, its portrayal of party leader Jacob Zuma and the lack of coverage of the government’s service delivery.
The SABC was extremely foolish to accept this invitation. Not that they should not interact with political parties, but that they should do it according to a set of protocols which are designed to ensure they keep an arm’s length distance from any interest group and protect themselves from undue influence and pressure.
Now that they have obeyed a call to ANC headquarters, they would be obliged to do it for all other interest groups which ask for it.
Protocols, of course, cannot replace good professional judgment, and clearly this is lacking in the SABC news deparment. But guidelines could help set out the “terms of engagement”. Some suggestions of the kinds of guidelines which might be useful:
* If parties have a complaint, or wish to make representations, they should be asked to do this in writing to the head of news. The SABC should consider appointing an internal ombudsman or public editor to deal with such complaints. A meeting should only be necessary in extraordinary circumstances and the party should be invited to visit the SABC for this purpose.
* If the party does not get satisfaction, then it could write to the SABC board, lay a complaint with the BCCSA or take legal action.
* The SABC should invite all political parties to meet with them from time to time in order to encourage better mutual understanding and to deal with practical issues of coverage. But this must be done in a balanced and even-handed way.
* All the major political parties should be able to expect the same coverage of their conferences or their political meetings. The precise nature and extent of coverage has to be at least partly a news judgment, but you could, for example, rule that the major speeches and debates of the conferences of all parties over a certain size will be covered live.
This may be the most important rule: all employees of the news department must keep their party affiliations and membership out of the workplace. They should not be office bearers of political organisations and anyone who describes him or herself as a deployed cadre should be informed that they have resigned themselves from the news department.
Sounds obvious, doesn’t it. But not at the SABC.