HomeOpinionSABC and the culture of upward referral

SABC and the culture of upward referral

By Anton Harber

I MUST be a fool. SABC CEO Dali Mpofu once said: “Show me an editor in any media organisation who can ignore counsel from three independent lawyers and pro

ceed to flight a defamatory documentary on the president, and I will show you a fool.”

Here I am, Advocate Mpofu. I have published many times after lawyers have spelt out to me the risks of defamation, and, given the chance, would continue to do so.

That is because editors know that there is a crucial difference between legal advice and the decision to publish. The former is offered by lawyers and carefully considered by wise editors; the latter is made by editors weighing up this advice against other factors, such as the public’s right to know.

If editors did not publish anything that lawyers say is per se defamatory, they would publish hardly anything. Editorial organisations which hand over these decisions to lawyers are those with a fundamentally conservative and cautious publishing approach to news. In fact, one way to gauge the culture of a news organisation is to describe its relationship with its lawyers.

We learnt this during the 1980s, when the mainstream media, after two decades of intense state pressure and facing a myriad restrictive laws, fell into a habit of self-censorship by routinely declining to publish what lawyers said was risky.

One of the critical changes brought by the emergence of the alternative press was to change the way of operating: we were not interested in lawyers telling us what we could not publish; we wanted them to either tell us the risk, or tell us how to overcome it, but we took the decisions away from their chambers back to newsrooms.

Newsrooms have to be equipped to make serious and significant decisions quickly and effectively. They operate under strict deadlines, they cover running stories, which by nature are unpredictable and controversial, and they are flooded every hour with millions of words, thousands of pictures and a myriad interest groups lobbying for attention.

In the midst of this, they have to make the toughest editorial and ethical decisions which may have a major impact on society and individuals, so there is a great deal of pressure to make appropriate decisions.

These relate to the full range of the editorial process: deciding which of the thousands of potential events and stories that present themselves each day to pursue; deciding how to do it and what resources to throw at them; what picture, quotes, information and graphics are needed; when the story is ready to run; how it is to be edited and presented; and so on.

To cope with this demand, and to expedite such decisions, newsrooms develop certain practices and procedures, which coalesce into a newsroom culture. This culture is critical in shaping these decisions and their outcomes.

This culture is most commonly expressed in the concept of “newsworthiness”. Journalists like to think that they develop a nose for news, an instinct for what is important, relevant and appropriate for their audience. They like to think that there is something intrinsically newsworthy about an event that determines that they should cover it, and a set of immutable and global norms and practices which determine how they do it.

That is, of course, a myth. Newsworthiness and the practices that surround it change from time to time and circumstance to circumstance; there may be certain patterns but different individuals and organisations, facing the same set of events in a day, will make different choices as to what is important and how to approach it.

I think that a newsroom culture is often best demonstrated by the questions an editor asks when presented with a decision on a story.

At the M&G, you might typically expect an editor to ask: what does this add to the information already carried in other media, is this thought-provoking and surprising, is it going to make our reader sit up and gasp?

At Business Day, the question might be a lot simpler: does this interest business executives? If not, it is out; if so, it is in.

At the Daily Sun, they have in the centre of the newsroom a mannequin in blue overalls. They would ask: would this man part with R1,40 to know this?

A women’s magazine or motoring editor might ask: will this offend my advertisers? But the same question would be taboo in other newsrooms.

I have not done and know of no systematic examination of the newsroom culture at the SABC. But I do interact with a lot of working journalists there and have at the very least an informed impression of the operation. And it is this: the SABC has a culture of trepidation and nervousness; a bureaucratic watch-your-back atmosphere in which to survive you need to avoid trouble, keep your head low, and above all don’t be provocative.

The question that is asked, above all else, by SABC editors is this: will this story offend anyone in authority, either in their Auckland Park building or beyond? Will it create a stir among those in power, both in the SABC building and outside of it? If so, be careful, be careful, be careful — these are the critical watchwords.

In short, I would borrow a phrase from the SABC Editorial Charter, and call it a culture of enthusiastic upward-referral. The charter sets out which kinds of decision need to be referred upwards to different levels of authority. I think that in a cautious, bureaucratic set-up, individuals are all to keen to send any decision of consequence upwards and onwards.

A young reporter who was involved in the Jacob Zuma trial coverage told me that she had five editors look at each script with only one thing in mind: to keep the coverage on the straight and narrow. This meant she could do no more than account in the most dry way what was said in court that day.

But this was a court case that raised the most wide-ranging, important and difficult issues around gender, tradition, patriarchy, sex and so on. One could not cover it properly without canvassing these rich issues and without moving from an account of the daily evidence. But a culture of nervousness and trepidation would keep you away from tackling them and ensure coverage was bland, dull and inadequate.

It is in such a culture that you would want to draw up a set of guidelines to determine who can or cannot be quoted. If you want control, if you want to limit the capacity of individual journalists to make decisions on their own material, if you want to instill obeisance rather than encourage creative energy, then you would suggest that reporters had to fill some rigid criteria before they could interview someone.

In a newsroom with an open, confident culture, you would encourage journalists to speak to as many different and varied people as possible and then decide which of them has the most interesting things to say. You would expect them to be able to justify their use of a commentator when challenged, but not merely on the basis of their degrees and affiliations; it would be sufficient to say that the person had something to add to the story and enriched the end-product.

Public service broadcasters all over the world have been uneasy with the complex and volatile relationship with state, political and economic power. There have been very few successes around the world in dealing with this. It is only fair to recognise the difficulties and enormity of the task that is faced by Adv Mpofu and his people.

And I should add that we are talking here exclusively about news and current affairs. One should acknowledge that in other areas, such as drama, the SABC is producing a rush of high-quality, local productions. I am not saying this only because I have been involved in one of them.

But I think that a first step in dealing with the problems in news and current affairs is to recognise what the task is. I think one can safely say that the sort of culture I have described at the SABC is not one that is likely to produce good journalism. It is not one that would nurture talent and give it space to be creative and bold — as journalism needs to be if it is to be entertaining and informative.

I have heard many descriptions of problems at the SABC: my colleagues have highlighted the inability to keep skilled journalists; juniorisation of the newsroom; interference from the board; and so on. In my view, these are symptoms, not causes; at the root of the problem is the editorial and journalistic culture I have described.

I am concerned that we — and the current commission of inquiry at the SABC — are keen to find blacklists and phone calls from the presidency, and such obvious manifestations of inappropriate journalistic conduct. But what might be missed, what may fall outside of the scope of the commission, are the values of the newsroom, the culture and the routine practices and procedures which shape their editorial output, and which are the core of the problem.

This leads to another question: what is an appropriate news culture for a national public broadcaster? Part of the problem is that, because of our history, we in this country generally recognise only the extreme approaches:

* journalism that is close to power and sees its role as serving the national political agenda — the journalism of genuflection, or

* journalism that is wholly antagonistic to power, that defines its role as purely a watchdog role. Adversarial journalism.

Both of these approaches have long and rich histories in this country, for better or for worse. But neither is appropriate to a national public broadcaster, particularly in a South African context. You do not need me to tell you how our history has taught us how inappropriate the journalism of genuflection is.

But, for a national public broadcaster in a new democracy, an aggressively adversarial journalism may also be inappropriate. You want a culture that is independent but not adversarial, one that is provocative and stimulating but not aggressive; one that stimulates national debate on the key issues but will not campaign for any position in that debate; one that is committed, above all, to producing quality, one that can reach into the corners of the country in a way the rest of the media cannot; above all else, we expect the public broadcaster to rise above the commercial limitations of the rest of the media; it is the only institution that can do this.

I am contemptuous of those who say the SABC is unchanged and remains like the SABC of apartheid. This is self-evidently not true. But there is — and probably always will be — a tug of war between the two extremes of South African journalism — genuflection and adverserialism.

These are the signs of a society opening up. If this is to be pushed forward, and we are to become a truly open society, then the national broadcaster has a crucial role to play in getting us there. It is, I emphasise, the only institution with the resources and the non-commercial priorities to play this role — but it is failing to do so. The kind of journalism we need so badly is being drowned in a culture of enthusiastic upward-referral.

Professor Anton Harber directs the journalism and media studies programme at Wits University. He is former editor of the Mail & Guardian.

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