Some children's programming on the SABC provides an illustration of what the public broadcaster should be, writes Ebrahim-Khalil Hassen for the SA Civil Society Information Network.  It should present multiple voices and engage with them, and that would begin to rebuild its credibility.

Ebrahim-Khalil Hassen writes on

As Professor Pink lead narrator on the SABC educational programme, 'Knock Knock', explored Galileo’s confrontation with power, the SABC was engaged in its own tryst with changing power.

President Thabo Mbeki appointed the board of the SABC in a move interpreted as incongruous with resolutions taken by the ANC at its Polokwane conference. In possibly an imaginary fisticuff with an ex-President, the admirable gusto of politicians arguing for a free press was expected. Cynics were left wondering if the politicians meant to say, "New President, new news slant?"

Unlike Galileo who was searching for a truth, the management at SABC simply wanted a restructuring plan, as it was already clear that it was losing money quickly. They must have watched 'The Big Time', as the lead character was prone to saying, "To make money, one has to spend money." Lots of it, on arguably the most expensive caffe lattes and tea globally. If media reports are accurate, about half a million being spent on satiating the caffeine needs of SABC executives at a single meeting.

Later that evening, the weather report depicted the world as flatter! No one knew, who decided on this depiction of the world, except that the new directive was sealed in a Mont Blanc attaché case. At this point, you might be expecting a diatribe or praise from the leader of the youth, but ever conscious of the role of the media in making him, he chose not to speak.

Professor Pink to the rescue, Galileo could be credited for depicting all sides of the story in 'The Dialogues' and then arguing for a subversive truth: the world is not flat. Even if those in 'The Big Time’ – public broadcast managers and politicians alike – tell us that it is. Spare a thought for the poor souls though because looking down from a high vantage point, texture and depth are in fact, flattened.

Snazzy, a green puppet featured on SABC, provides a story about why they do that.

The story is about a ruler selecting a successor who gives seeds to many, many people. He tells the gathering masses that whoever returns with the best flowers will be crowned the ruler. A year later, and everyone gathers with the most spectacular flowers. Except one lonely soul who returns with a barren pot. The king immediately appoints him ruler, and then tells the gathering masses, "The seeds I gave you were cooked and thus could not grow. Only an honest person would return with a barren pot."

Whilst journalists aspire to power, it is certainly not political office (although making the transition from journalist to spokesperson might just be that).

The power is rather about telling stories, breaking the story and uncovering all the shenanigans that make up our society. In doing this, there is a legitimate expectation that journalists, when offered the cooked seeds of political messaging, return with barren pots. Perhaps then the role of journalism is to record who pitched up with barren pots and who did not?

But the SABC plays a broader role. In its most grandiose and expensive vision, it is about expanding the international reach of the SABC, ostensibly to both tell the African story as well as improve the quality of reporting.

Blink and there are a dozen more SABC newsrooms internationally and some fancy broadcasting facilities. Blink again and there are a million, nay billion, newsrooms internationally, as citizen journalists (or more precisely those with access to technology) are able to rapidly and quickly transmit news and trigger news cycles in their communities that favour subjectivity over objectivity.

One cannot but wonder if the SABC thought like a citizen journalist. No need for fancy studios or newsrooms in the traditional sense, but rather a more agile and enabled environment.

But is this citizen journalism thing not just the modern equivalent of the rumour mill? Maybe so, but it provides the avenue for more cost effective, labour intensive and original news. Ay, the news by and for the people, rather than Ay, Ay Captain!

But, as we know the people are not equal in reality. In South Africa, our inequality is so huge it poses a significant challenge to our future. This is, however, not present in the current debate on the public broadcaster.

As activists make the distinction between a "state" and "public" broadcaster, they are underlining the need for greater independence and more critical reflections.

The debate is vital as it allows us to invite discussion and problem solving. The SABC has a crucial role to play in widening who engages in that debate, and has to play a developmental role. Unfortunately, the commercial media, even with the best of intentions, is not designed to do that.

Primarily, the SABC plays a significant role in providing localised educational programming and news reporting across multiple platforms in different languages. Through these and other mechanisms, the SABC, thus, has an important role in improving the ability of South African citizens to engage in debate and problem solving.

This, however, is not simply a problem of the marginalised poor, but across the spectrum of identities. One just needs to see the pessimism higher up the income ladder to appreciate a role for ‘challenging’ media content that recognises the problems, but allows us to see how we take responsibility for these problems.

The public broadcaster could play a crucial role fostering participation and building citizenship. More to the point, this would align the broadcaster with a development vision and provide some distance from dominant and wannabee political projects.

In the episode of 'Knock Knock' in which Professor Pink discusses the discourses with the imaginary Galileo, there is careful explanation of how the argument that the world is not flat, was argued. Galileo sets up a dialogue between competing narratives and asks the reader to make up his mind.

Public broadcasters, which should rightly value objectivity, fairness and balance, could learn from that example of having multiple voices and engagement between these voices. It would be the start of building credibility together with the current focus on financial viability.

Just imagine, we could all be in 'The Big Time' because we know what is going on.

* By Ebrahim-Khalil Hassen. Hassen is an independent researcher and public policy analyst. This article first appeared on the SA Civil Society Information Service on 14 July 2009.