I watched SABC News last night …

… something I have found myself – like so many others, according to the stats – needing to do less and less these days. It turns out it was a caricature of itself, which got me thinking about their announced move into 24-hour news.

They covered at some length President Jacob Zuma arriving in Jamaica, but did not cover Curiosity arriving on Mars. There was a definite lack of curiosity, you might say.

Report after report featured bad pictures, poor script, appalling punctuation, and no real voices of anyone real saying anything that had much relation to the reality out on our streets – what we would expect a national broadcaster to be reflecting of an evening. There were lots of boring reports of presidents and ex-presidents and those around them doing things that no-one could really care too much about. The kind of easy, soft, top-down news agenda that a national broadcaster might fall back on when they had no real news to cover.

The problem these days is not that the SABC is as partisan as it was a few years ago, but that it is terminally boring and of deteriorating quality. I saw little real news, little real substance, and certainly few voices and faces of South Africans. My conclusion was that the turmoil of recent years has left the organisation so shell-shocked that a culture of excessive caution has overcome the place, enveloping it in the grey dullness of a civil service. Nobody wants to stick their neck out, nobody wants to take risks, nobody wants to be noticed – all the things that doom us to committing the worst sin of journalism: being boring.

And then, after an inexplicable piece which reassured us that the SABC CEO was really sick when she missed an internal disciplinary hearing (there’s national news for you!), we were told of plans for SABC to produce a 24-hour news channel on DSTV.

Welcome to the 20th century, I thought. The SABC was finally catching up with the way news was being done around the world since around the first Gulf War. There was till hope that they would get to the 21st century.

But this is a good development. Twenty-four hour news has fewer gatekeepers and is harder to control. It will be good for e-news to have competition and it would put the SABC’s huge news resources to more effective use. There is lots of good stuff they could do to fill 24 hours and break out of their current tight time strictures.

The problem is that if you are boring for half-an-hour of news, how boring are you going to be when you stretch it over 24 hours? If this means that we will now see more politician’s speeches, more presidential occasions, more dross, then this is going to be a journalistic, audience and financial disaster.

It is hard to be hopeful about our tired old public broadcaster. They should be setting the bar, but instead they are struggling to catch up with the real world of news.

eNews is, I hear, going to announce soon that they are becoming an international channel, making a bid for a wider audience. Their ambition makes up for what the SABC lacks.

What does one say when a commercial broadcaster is proving to be a better public service than the public service?

One thought on “I watched SABC News last night …

  1. Agree with you, Anton. How one misses those heady days post 1994 when Allister Sparks and Pippa Green were managing news at the SABC. I no longer tune into SABC news because anyone with a few brain cells with realise at once that we are being fed poor quality propaganda. How tedious, to say the least.

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