More thoughts on the SABC and Malema

I have now had three accounts of interventions at the SABC to pull back on coverage of Julius Malema as the rogue ANC Youth League leader does the rounds to stir up trouble and revolt.

There have been two newspaper reports: one in the M&G last Friday of a confrontation between unhappy political staff and head of news Jimi Matthews about his interventions to limit Malema coverage; another in the Star yesterday about MetroFM managers preventing an interview with the expelled leader.

I had a third report direct from a senior staffer who told me that they had to remake a news bulletin 10 minutes before going on air because the blunt order came down to remove Malema.

On the other hand, on Tuesday’s SABC3 7pm news, Malema led the bulletin. On Wednesday, though, he seems to have disappeared again.
All reports pointed to Matthews as the source of the orders. This is important, because at least he is in the editorial sphere and there is no evidence (yet) of managerial interference in his work.

No doubt, though, Matthews is being battered from every side on this issue, and under scrutiny from all quarters. Cabinet Minister and SACP boss Blade Nzimande has publicly called for the SABC to limit coverage of Malema, showing his limited tolerance for views he does not like or agree with.

The SABC spokesperson has had nothing but mealie-mouthed denials to offer. And it is a pity. Matthews’ only defence is to be quite open and transparent about what he is doing (since it is going to get into the media anyway). He should publicly set out policy and guidelines for his bulletin editors and promise to intervene if there is any breach of that policy. It need not be anything spectacular, just something in line with standard journalistic norms: we will give proportionate coverage to Malema as long as we take the view that his words and actions are newsworthy; we will take special care not to over- or underplay him; we will treat him and his critics fairly and accurately; we will strive to always place him in an appropriate context so that our audience can come to understand the significance, motivation and impact of his interventions; we will be careful not to incite violence or unrest; we will make sure we ask hard questions …

In other words, I believe that Matthews must come out of hiding and speak out in defence of his policies and decisions. This is the age of open journalism, after all, and he is obliged to set high standards of transparency and public accountability, as head honcho of a public broadcaster. And he needs to take the fight to his critics.

*Matthews is quoted this morning (Friday) saying that what he is demanding is more “nuanced” coverage and he is refusing to follow the herd on this issue. He says they had decided to lead Tuesday’s news on Malema’s speech to Goldfields miners, but not cover Malema’s meeting with soldiers the following day as this had drawn only a small crowd. This is interesting, but I am not convinced it is “nuanced”, a term so vague that it hardly constitutes an editorial guideline. Just putting a story in the news or taking it out is not nuance; but let’s take a closer look at treatment, context, questions and balance.

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