The current crisis at the SABC offers an opportunity to set things right, writes Anton Harber in Business Day.  But if the politicians use the chance to put their friends into power, instead of creating a process that will protect the corporation from political interference, that opportunity may not arise again.

Anton Harber writes in Business Day:

ORGANISATIONS are popping up all over the place to engage in the fight over the future of the SABC. There is the SOS (Save our SABC) Coalition, and the Television Industry Emergency Coalition

ORGANISATIONS are popping up all over the place to engage in the fight over the future of the SABC. There is the SOS (Save our SABC) Coalition, and the Television Industry Emergency Coalition. A march on the institution is planned for next week. Online chat and e-mail is buzzing with ideas, proposals, debates, memoranda and candidates’ lists.

This is the good news. The industry and public interest organisations are re-grouping to try to shape the public broadcaster, to re-open the rich debate that played such an important role in the first phase of transition in the early 1990s.

In this way the organisation’s financial and governance crisis can be turned into an opportunity to take forward the task that began in that period, and which has faltered in recent years.

Inevitably, much of the debate is already shifting to personalities and position: who should be put forward to do a better job than the palookas who have messed it up so badly? Those who are driven mainly by wanting revenge on the current board are smelling blood, and rival lists of candidates are circulating as if all that has to happen is to fix up the board appointments made by former president Thabo Mbeki in the dying days of his term of office.

But the crisis has laid bare much more important structural problems, which now have to be tackled. If this is not done, and Parliament simply slams a new board in to place, the crisis will come back within a few years.

What the SABC needs is to get firmly back on the tracks, not just put a new driver up front.

The crisis has two elements: governance and financial structure.

On the first front, it is imperative to move to a system that prevents political interference in the appointment and running of the board. The question is this: how do we get a situation in which a board of notables can be appointed who have the standing, experience and competence to do what is a difficult job? And then let them get on with it.

A new ethic needs to emerge — one that asserts that a board of this sort be chosen from the best and the smartest, those who can be trusted to act wisely, independently and in keeping with their fiduciary duties to the organisation.

One of the ideas being bandied about is to secure mandated industry representation on the board, and to change the conflict of interest rules to facilitate this. In other words, independent producers would have their representative on the board. I think this is a short-term solution, which does not take into mind the important principle of having a board that is not there to compete for influence and resources, but to act in the interests of public broadcasting and have the standing and skill to do that.

On the financial side, one must first dismiss some of the hogwash being sprouted. SABC representatives are saying that the current financial crisis was caused by rising costs and a sudden shrinkage of ad revenue. I am not sure what unpredictable costs came up and suspect that it has much to do with acts of managerial madness, such as opening up a news bureau in Jamaica.

Opening bureaus across Africa was a better idea (though probably overdone), but the extraordinary thing is that we have hardly seen more or better coverage on our screens as a result. Someone needs to check what has been happening in those hugely expensive offices.

But it is the SABC’s funding model and scale that will need to be addressed. At the moment, the SABC takes up roughly 53% of all television advertising and 43% of all radio advertising. In short, it is too big and too commercial to function as a successful public broadcaster in a truly diversified broadcasting sector.

It is going to take formidable financial and political vision to sort this out, and get it down to a focused, solidly funded nonprofit broadcaster of manageable size with a clear set of purposes and functions.

The current crisis presents an opportunity to tackle these things once and for all. If the politicians are allowed to simply replace the board with one more sympathetic to them, as they may be tempted to do, it may be the last such opportunity.

* Harber is Caxton Professor of Journalism and Media Studies at Wits University. This column first appeared on 27 May 2009.