5 May 2009

South Africa: At The SABC, The CEO Cannot Also be The Editor


Johannesburg — THE decision by the SABC board finally to release its head of news and current affairs, Snuki Zikalala, when his contract expired at the end of last month, highlights the need to find long-term solutions to the troubled public broadcaster's problems.

Public interest in the SABC stems from the fact that it is a partly publicly funded institution that is supposed to serve the interests of all citizens -and from its potential to do far more to strengthen our democracy.

Zikalala and former CEO and Editor-in-Chief Dali Mpofu were key players in a series of crises the SABC has recently had to endure, under both the previous and current boards. Their stewardship highlighted two fundamental problems the SABC faces -- political interference in its editorial functions, and poor financial management and decision making. As a result of these, the broadcaster's editorial independence and financial viability have repeatedly been put into question.

Today the SABC is in deeper financial and editorial trouble than ever before. It can barely be trusted as a source of information. Many fine journalists and managers have been forced out or have simply left because they could no longer bear to work there.

Public perceptions that the SABC is biased and mismanaged were strongest during Thabo Mbeki's presidency, when it blacklisted certain commentators from its programmes and it became apparent that its finances were in a mess.

While the departures of Zikalala and Mpofu mean two less problems for the broadcaster, it does not mean the end of its reputational and financial woes.

In announcing its decision not to renew Zikalala's contract, the board said a fresh pair of hands was needed to inject new ideas into the SABC's dull news and current affairs department. While this is undoubtedly so, the rot goes much deeper than that.

The roles of a number of key players must be re-examined, and several corporate governance issues sorted out, if the SABC is to be fixed and play its role as credible public broadcaster.

For a start, the way the board itself is appointed has to change. A nonpartisan board appointed on merit and through a transparent process would go a long way towards restoring the organisation's credibility.

More clarity is required on the precise role and powers of the board, the management and the editorial department. Directors should protect the mandate of the SABC but never interfere in any way in editorial decisions. As for the CEO being also Editor-in-Chief, it has clearly not worked here and should be scrapped.

The SABC needs an Editor-in-Chief and a CEO, who should both, individually, report to the board and be encouraged by that same board to get on with their jobs.

That is not to say there is "no boss at the broadcaster" for, clearly, the CEO must control the purse strings. But only where CEO and chief editor clearly falter on an obvious scale, where audience or advertisers are being lost, must the board step in.

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