The ANC's proposal to increase state funding for the SABC could be helpful as it might decrease the corporation's dependence on the market and open economic space for other players, writes Anton Harber in Business Day. But it could  be disastrous if government  uses  the opportunity to dictate content.  It all depends on how it  is handled.

Anton Harber writes in Business Day:

GOVERNMENT funding for the SABC could be a boon to public broadcasting. Or it could be a total disaster, depending on how it is done.

The ANC’s call at its Polokwane conference for more state funding for the monolith of South African broadcasting is not the first time the party has made this proposal. But this time it might be taken seriously, as there appears now to be a determination to see at least some of the more controversial conference proposals implemented.

The resolution asked for government funding to go from its current token 2% to 60%. With SABC revenue at just under R4bn in the past financial year, this represents no small amount of money. This might explain why the treasury has in previous years studiously ignored such calls.

The primary motivation for dipping into the public purse is to cure the SABC’s split personality. At the moment, it is a public broadcaster with serious public obligations which have to be constantly balanced, even compromised, by the need to raise advertising.

At every level of the organisation, there is a daily tug-of-war between commercial and public- service interests, and it is the former that usually wins out. The advocates of greater state funding want to shift the balance.

Government funding should allow more content that is not always financially self-sustaining yet is appropriate to a public broadcaster, such as drama in some of the smaller national languages, or information and educational programming, or greater investment in quality current affairs.

A secondary motivation, though not one to raise its head at the ANC conference, is a desire to open the way for other broadcasters, and promote greater diversity. If the SABC takes less of the advertising pot, this should provide new opportunities for other media and make the market more competitive.

BUT the dangers are immense. For one thing, direct government funding could give politicians a stranglehold on the institution. A government that can give and take away budgets is one that has too much control. If government funding is to assist the broadcaster, then it will have to be done at arm’s length.

Experience is that Parliament does not provide the necessary distance from the executive. After all, it has emerged that when Parliament last year had to appoint a new SABC board, ANC MPs took direct instructions from the Presidency.

It should also be long-term funding so it is not subject to annual manipulation, which could make the SABC dependent on the whim of the government. It would need to go through a third party, an independent body of the good and the great, to lessen the chances of political pressure.

It might also be more effective to offer the funding to any broadcaster that does public- service work, meaning that other channels could also apply for support for nonprofit work, or perhaps even the producers of such work could get the grant, and then take it to the most appropriate outlet. While there is already some of this funding for film and video makers, it is relatively small. Why not increase these grants, rather than offer a handout to the country’s most powerful media institution?

A second danger is that funding may make the SABC less interested in its audiences. Currently, its survival is dependent on its capacity to attract eyeballs in a competitive media market. This tends to focus the mind. Take this away, and you are in danger of encouraging boring, pompous programming — the kind that politicians like and audiences flee from.

And one must ask where the figure of 60% comes from? If the SABC is to continue with some advertising, a grant may give it an unfair competitive advantage. It could use the grant to undercut advertising rates, for example, since it will have sources of revenue that private broadcasters do not have. The SABC has been radically restructured in recent years. It has become corporatised and now pays taxes. It declared a pretax profit of some R500m in 2006 and has substantial cash reserves. It has also been divided into commercial and public-service divisions. How does one ensure that it is only the public service side that gets the benefit?

The issue of state funding is a complex one. It needs careful consideration if it is to have the desired effect.

* Harber is Caxton Professor of Journalism at Wits University. This column first appeared in Business Day on 23 January 2008.