UPDATE: The SABC has issued an excellent statement admitting that they were in breach of their own policies in asking for payment for interviews and taking steps to prevent it happening again. They went so far as to say they would not be invoicing for the controversial interview. Well done, SABC: a quick, clear and firm response that starts the process of cleaning up.
South African journalism has had some low points in its 200-year history. This week’s admission that the SABC sells interviews without telling the audience is one of the lowest.
Minister Bathabile Dlamini admitted paying the SABC for an interview last year in the middle of crucial ANC leadership battles, and describing this as routine practice and “an investment in the public broadcaster” for which she would not apologise.
What she has done is destroy the public broadcaster’s journalistic credibility, undermined its integrity, and compromised its professionalism. She has certainly destroyed the credibility of SABC’s Real Talk show and its presenter Anele Mdoda. Even if Mdoda was not instructed to go soft on Dlamini, who was after all a client rather than an interviewee, her credibility is blown.To run a paid-for interview with a politician is dubious at all times, but especially in the middle of a major leadership battle. To do so without telling the audience is in contravention of every principle of journalism, every code of conduct, every professional rule – including the SABC’s own editorial charter, the industry code and the Broadcasting Act, which commits the SABC to the highest editorial and journalistic standards. To spend public money to do this must also raise questions under the Public Finance Management Act.
What she has done is encourage an official form of the “brown envelope journalism” that has been the scourge of African journalism. This practice of paying for news coverage – often in the form of a “travel allowance” – has destroyed the credibility and standing of journalists in a number of countries. There are places in Africa where journalists will not cover a press conference unless they get a brown envelope on arrival. It is done by businesses and politicians, but I have never heard of it before as official, above-the-table government policy. This is now a South African innovation.
The irony is that the ANC has frequently accused the commercial media of compromising their journalism in the rush for revenue. Turns out they have themselves been systematically paying to undermine the journalistic integrity of the public broadcaster. Perhaps this is why they have ignored their own conference resolutions for government to fund the SABC and lessen its reliance on commercial advertising: they find it more cost-effective to get what they want by paying for specific coverage.
In South Africa, there are media sectors – such as in fashion and travel – in which the line between paid and editorial space has become unfortunately blurred. But in news and current affairs coverage, there have been only a few cases of the brown envelope, and the individuals responsible have been driven out of the profession.
It is sadly true that the clear and firm distinction that used to exist between paid advertising and editorial has become flexible in all our media. Travel is often paid for, advertising space is bought in exchange for favourable coverage and the power of advertisers to influence editorial has grown. The pressure for revenue under tight economic conditions has undermined best practice.
But there are still rules: gifts have to be declared, as does travel sponsorship. Paid space and time must be clearly marked for what it is. Transparency is essential. And one has to be particularly careful with prominent politicians at sensitive times. Without such rules, journalism loses its standing and credibility – it becomes just cheap advertising.
Under financial pressure and without firm editorial leadership, the public broadcaster has clearly compromised itself. To rebuild its credibility and re-establish its integrity, it needs to clarify and enforce its rules and guidelines. The regulator, Icasa, needs to hold an inquiry into brown envelope practices and ways to enforce the law and the industry code. And Parliament needs to rein in ministers and departments that undermine the SABC and its integrity.
*First appeared: Daily Maverick 19 November 2017