The SABC crisis drags on and on, but all is not lost, write Kate Skinner and Tawana Kupe in Business Day.  Some very specific steps could be taken to put the corporation back onto a sound footing.

Kate Skinner and Tawana Kupe write in Business Day:

WHAT is to be done about our public broadcaster? For years, the SABC has been lurching from crisis to crisis, to the extent that its editorial and programming credibility, financial viability and institutional sustainability are now seriously in question.

But all is not lost. We need to get back to basics. First, we need a clear vision of the kind of broadcaster we want. Most people would agree that we want an editorially independent, accountable, publicly funded broadcaster, broadcasting robust, probing journalism reflecting diverse views and supporting a feisty, independent production sector.

Second, we need clear steps on how to get there. A key starting point is to clarify the roles of all the important players. One of the most controversial is the role of the communications minister. As the SABC is a public company, the minister plays a shareholder role and approves corporate plans, finances and the appointment of the three senior executives. This is a perversion of the institutional arrangements appropriate for a public broadcaster — the SABC is not just another state-owned enterprise.

But what is the minister’s role? Principally, her role is to create an enabling environment for the broadcasting sector. In terms of the SABC, it is to draft policy and legislation and to ensure sufficient finances are available.

The institutions that should have a direct oversight role over the SABC are the regulator — the Independent Communications Authority of SA (Icasa) — and Parliament. The regulator’s role is to ensure the SABC adheres to all relevant broadcasting laws. Further, the regulator’s role is to ensure that the SABC adheres to its licence conditions. Given these powers, Icasa should have called the SABC to account on the blacklisting saga; called Parliament to account on the board appointments debacle; and called the SABC board and management to account for the financial crises.

As for Parliament, its portfolio committee on communications needs to play a key oversight role in monitoring the SABC’s programming, board and management functioning, and strategic plans and finances. Currently , Parliament drives the process of selecting the SABC board, but that is now a vexed issue given the political interference in the previous process. On the face of it, an independent panel seems to be the answer, but the possibility of political interference by elite interests would not necessarily be avoided. One possibility is to create a special parliamentary committee that is not dominated by the ruling party of the day. But whatever the decision, we need maximum public participation and transparency.

What should be the role of the board ? The board should focus on strategic issues and monitor performance. It should not interfere in day-to-day management. Most importantly, the board should ensure the appointment of a competent professional, independent and publicly minded management team — and leave it to get on with its job. Management should then implement the strategic and financial plans and appoint respected, professional journalists and commissioning editors — and, again, they should be left to get on with their jobs.

Finally, what is to be done about the issue of financial management and the funding of a genuine independent public broadcaster? First, the board and management need to ensure proper adherence to financial controls. Without these , it is impossible to call for public funds. The mandate of the SABC as a public broadcaster requires public funding. Broadcasting in 11 languages, developing local programming and providing information and entertainment to everyone is costly and cannot be met by advertising revenue.

Licence fees are ideal as they protect the institution from political and commercial pressures. However, consumer bodies are vociferously opposing increases and the SABC keeps pointing to the problems of nonpayment and the costs of collection. The solution may be some form of a “no-strings-attached” direct grant from the Treasury . The SABC could then still take advertising but the latter’s influence on programming, editorial independence and viability would be minimised. Whatever funding model is chosen, it must ensure that funds are secured and assured over the long term.

It is heartening that the late communications minister, Ivy Matsepe-Casaburri, promised a policy and legislative review of the SABC’s governing laws. Hopefully the new minister will take this forward. Now is the time for everyone to participate in the debate so we can get the public broadcaster we deserve.

* Skinner is co-ordinator of the Save our SABC campaign. Kupe is dean of the Faculty of Humanities at Wits University. This article first appeared in Business Day on 16 April 2009.