When no debate is better than The Big Debate

Last week the SABC canned the second season of the popular current affairs show The Big Debate shortly before its season premiere. It further went on to cancel all rebroadcasts of the first season of the show. The public broadcaster neither made any announcement about this to viewers who had been waiting months for the show to air, nor gave any reason for its decision until the producers of the show, its committed viewers and civil society organisations expressed their dismay and kicked up a big fuss about it.

To give some context for those who are unfamiliar with the show, The Big Debate is a town hall debate show which brings together government officials, politicians, big business and civil society to discuss some of the most burning issues affecting ordinary South Africans every day. In the rise and popularity of the radical anti-capitalist rhetoric coming from the South African “Left” and emergent political movements such as Julius Malema’s Economic Freedom Front (EFF), the show has successfully facilitated robust dialogue around the utility and success of land reform policies in South Africa and whether the economy is racist and anti-poor.

For many, the show sits at the cutting edge of contemporary news and current affairs programming in South Africa. Cabinet ministers explain the challenges they face in their commitment to deliver on their promise of a better life for all, experts and civil society representatives provide some keen and insightful analysis on the structural causes of these problems and where government has outright failed South Africans, and ordinary people have a platform to directly engage both and call them out on their political double-speak and deliberate frustration of their ability to live full and dignified lives.

In a society where there is little to no accountability for both public and private sector corruption and maladministration whose effect has a manifest impact on millions of people who are only consulted once every five years for their votes, the show has had a profound effect on how the people of South Africa can imagine the bounds and scope of their citizenship. For once, their stories, their realities and their own accounts were being heard and aired on the single biggest mass communication medium in the country, the SABC, and positions and consequent actions were being further engaged and debated from taxis to twitter and all other spaces that enabled it. The The Big Debate is precisely the sort of public-oriented programming the SABC is required to broadcast in terms of its Charter and mandate to educate, entertain and inform. Being a critical institution for the promotion of democracy as it is, surely the SABC should be enabling the production of shows that facilitate the kind of dialogue as The Big Debate does instead of suppressing them altogether?

In its official explanation of the decision to can the show altogether, the SABC invoked weak technicalities and even weaker bureaucratic processes to support its unreasoned decision. Group Head of Communicatons, Kaizer Kganyago, is quoted as saying “it is against the policies of the SABC to outsource news and current affairs. Editorial responsibility for all news and current affairs content is vested in the newsroom. The Big Debate, which is a current affairs programme, was incorrectly commissioned by SABC2 and in so doing, the editorial oversight, which is the responsibility of the newsroom, was compromised.” In the defensive, mind-your-own-business tone we’ve all come to expect from the broadcaster, Kganyago made it clear that “this is all we are prepared say about the matter.” Of course, as we’ve seen from the broadcaster time and again, this is an outright misrepresentation. Firstly, the SABC has failed to give any substance to which policies the so-called outsourcing of The Big Debate violate. The most significant of these policies, its editorial policies which are currently under review, in fact, explicitly make the outsourcing of news and current affairs programming possible provided it complies with the clearly defined requirements expressed in the policies.

All the informational and actuality programming, whether it is produced by SABC News or not, should conform to the News, Current Affairs and Information Programming Policy in Chapter 4.

“All the informational and actuality programming, whether it is produced by SABC News or not, should conform to the News, Current Affairs and Information Programming Policy in Chapter 4.”

Moreover, there is an important distinction to be made between the procedural and substantive requirements for the commissioning and licensing of content. Even if it is true that, procedurally, the show was improperly commissioned by SABC 2 instead of the broadcaster’s central News and Current Affairs function, that alone (and by any measure) does not meet any substantive muster in terms of the canning of an important, much anticipated second season of a popular and professionally produced show, its spin-off radio show and the rebroadcasts of its equally excellent first season. If anything, the canning of The Big Debate demonstrates something more sinister in what is widely viewed as a compromised news desk in the SABC.

For the better part of the last two years, the SABC has been embroiled in one news and current affairs editorial scandal after another with many of these being centered around the reputation of the ruling party. These began with the effective suspension ofPhil Molefe in April last year, reportedly over control of the SABC’s news diary and the clearing of news content covering Julius Malema. This was followed by the outright suppression of any real or critical coverage of the on-going Nkandlagate affair which seemed to set off a chain of events wherein a live radio interview with Julius Malema, another with political editors Sam Mkokeli, Sthembiso Msomi and Andrew England on the then upcoming ANC National Elective Conference in Mangaung as well as a pre-recorded interview with cartoonist and satirist, Jonathan Shapiro (Zapiro), on SABC 3’s Interface were all canned just moments before they were set to be aired. Following each of these scandalous incidents which frustrated the basic tenets underpinning media freedom and public broadcasting, the SABC cited bizarre and dubious readings of policies governing its content output.

At the center of this series of lost battles over the SABC’s soul, is one man in particular: its controversial Acting COO, Hlaudi Motsoeneng. Each of these interventions has been directly linked to him, and the canning of The Big Debate clearly forms part of his concerted campaign for the centralization of all content coming out of the SABC around himself and his decidedly pro-government 70% “good news” vision for the broadcaster. After all, who can forget his self-congratulatory quip following his cancellation of the road to Mangaung radio interview that the decision was “leadership at its best?” In the process, the already deficient credibility of the SABC continues to wane and, with that, the commitment of those few still left paying their TV Licenses.

What has happened with The Big Debate is not simply one misunderstood story in the narrative of a public broadcaster with an unwavering commitment to the people of South Africa as we routinely get told by the SABC. It tells of the capture of a critical institution for the purposes of the masters beyond us the public it is enjoined to serve. It is yet another iteration of the concerted limitation of South Africans’ right to know, and a deliberate frustration of our ability to fully participate in and shape the kind of society we want to live in.

An edited version of this piece was first published in the Voices section of the City Press on Sunday, 27 October 2013 and republished on the City Press online on 29 October 2013.

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