The problem with the SABC is that government policy towards it is simply taken from general government policy on parastatals, without any attempt to provide for the specific demands of a public broadcasting corporation, writes Jane Duncan of the Freedom of Expression Institute in Business Day.

Jane Duncan writes in Business Day:

WHAT ails the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC)? Put crudely, the SABC is built on a rotten policy base entirely inappropriate for a public broadcaster.

Any attempts to review the Broadcasting Act will be futile without revisiting its underlying policy, which implies the need for the new SABC Act to go through a green paper/white paper process. Such a review should aim to bring long-term stability to the SABC.

The government's main policy blunder is that public broadcasting policy has merely been read off general government policy on parastatals. Wits University academic Roger Southall has identified at least three seismic policy shifts on parastatals since 1994, which he has characterised as a shift from the left (captured in the Reconstruction and Development Programme, or RDP), then to the right (captured in the Growth, Employment and Redistribution Plan, or Gear), and then back to the centre (developmental state policy).

Any public institution that has been made to undergo three seismic shifts (possibly with a fourth looming) in a period of 13 years will be susceptible to instability . This is especially so with a public broadcaster that practises a creative profession, and which therefore requires the highest possible levels of institutional stability to maintain staff morale.

In the period following the appointment of the 1993 board, real attempts were made under the management of Zwelakhe Sisulu to transform the SABC in line with the RDP. Yet the fiscal austerity measures of the late 1990s were to forestall this process, and led to a hurried decision to force the SABC into financial self-sufficiency. The public commercial services were expected to cross-subsidise the public services, rather than relying on public funding. Also, some commercial services were tipped for privatisation.

Yet, at the time, there was no indication that the SABC could afford self-sufficiency; in fact, the very commercial services that were meant to cross-subsidise the public services have generally been loss making.

Determined to ignore these inconvenient details, the communications department implemented these plans with obscene speed (in the process undermining its own green paper consultation process). The bill eventually culminated in the Broadcasting Act of 1999, which transformed the SABC into a state-run business: a transformation that changed the identity of the broadcaster in crucial, if illunderstood, ways.

The department clearly considered the clarification of the SABC's public broadcasting mandate to be of secondary importance. Hence, 10 of the 16 clauses in the SABC's charter — the heart of the broadcaster's mandate — were cut and pasted from the BBC charter. Yet, unlike the BBC, no provision was made for renewal of the SABC's charter.

Overall, the government's privatisation programme was largely a failure, in that it did not generate significant income for the state, and did not lead to significant black economic empowerment. In response to this , the African National Congress and the government began to espouse the notion of the "developmental state".

It argued, in line with the east Asian model, that the state had a responsibility to correct market failures, and that parastatals were central to this process as they represented sites of strategic intervention in the economy.

But developmental states tend be authoritarian, in that they involve development being "driven from the top". In SA, this translated into power being centralised in the executive, more especially in the Presidency. So it is not surprising that new board appointments to the SABC, Transnet and South African Airways — which took place at roughly the same time — were controversial as they allegedly involved cadre deployment to ensure that these parastatals met developmental state objectives.

The SABC's "profits before people" approach of the Gear years led to a public backlash against the SABC in 2002, resulting in changes to the Broadcasting Act in the form of the Broadcasting Amendment Bill. The department attempted to intervene by controlling the development of its editorial policies, while setting up a parallel state broadcaster, but their attempts at direct control were thwarted.

So the only avenue left to the government to steer the SABC towards developmental objectives was by exercising indirect control through the back door provided by the SABC's articles of association and shareholder compact. The articles were concluded between the communications minister and the board in 2003, and revised in 2005.

In terms of the articles, the minister (as sole shareholder) has total control over the proceedings of general meetings, and must approve the SABC's corporate plans and strategic objectives. The board does not have final decision-making powers over the appointment of the three executive directors. It should be borne in mind that the group CEO is also the editor-in-chief of the SABC, which means that the minister has indirect control over editorial content. Aspects of the articles may well be illegal as they violate the right of the board to control its affairs, as required by the Broadcasting Act.

The board has changed in other, less dramatic ways, since corporatisation. The first democratic board was conceptualised as a sort of mini-parliament, where a creative tension was "staged" through the choice of board members with dissimilar views. Such a tension is a crucial guarantor of the board's independence, as no one stream of thought can dominate.

On the other hand, selecting people with similar political views and economic interests creates the potential for, at best, like-mindedness and, at worst, elite pact-making. Like-mindedness can lead to institutional biases creeping in insidiously, and infusing the SABC's institutional culture: a problem that became more apparent after 2003. Granted, corporatisation has led to a smaller, more efficient board, but at the expense of public confidence.

Once the 2003 board was installed, it set about aligning the SABC with the government's changed policy towards parastatals, and adopted a policy position favouring development journalism. There is nothing inherently wrong with this ; internationally public broadcasters often prioritise neglected issues and constituencies, in spite of their universality mandate. But if the board's members exhibit like-mindedness, this can lead to an assumption that there is only one definition of "development" — namely the official development state model — and a failure to recognise that the development model is contested. What is called for is an "unbiased bias" on the development agenda.

In fact, in order to re-orientate the SABC towards developmental state objectives, the board probably felt a need to involve themselves in the day-to-day running of the organisation, marking a shift from a policy-making board to an operational board. In the process, it set the stage for structural conflict between itself and the SABC's group executive over their respective roles.

A cost/benefit analysis of corporatisation and the separation of services must be undertaken, as it is anybody's guess as to how much these changes have cost. In all likelihood, they have probably greatly increased the cost of running the SABC's internal market, given the armies of contract consultants, accountants and administrators needed to administer the split.

In short, the SABC has been treated as a garden-variety parastatal for some time now, which has failed to recognise the SABC's distinctive qualities, and peculiar needs for independence and accountability.

If the SABC is to be run as an independent, accountable public broadcaster, it may need to be decorporatised. Yet such a step will require the policy underlying the Broadcasting Act to be reviewed, and its charter must be canvassed properly. The SABC Act will take longer to conclude. But as we have seen, rushing headlong into ill-considered measures can prove very costly in the long run. Once a properly considered public broadcasting model is thrashed out, perhaps we will attain an SABC that will make us all proud.

Duncan is executive director of the Freedom of Expression Institute.