NEWS ANALYSIS: SABC 24-hour news will change politics
THE SABC’s announcement on Monday that it is starting a 24-hour news channel next month could be the starting gun for a race between itself and eNews for viewers. It will also have big implications for how politics is perceived, and thus practised in SA.
Countries such as the US could be classed as "television democracies", where no one can do well in politics, unless they come across well on TV. A politician needs good teeth and a strong hairline to get anywhere.
ENews has already made an impression. It has become routine for important press conferences to be broadcast live by the channel, along with other speeches and events. Politicians know this, and have begun to realise its importance. It is common practice for an African National Congress (ANC) politician to wait for the channel to be ready before starting to speak. The SABC has felt compelled to follow suit, often breaking from its ordinary programming, because it feels the heat of the competition.
For democracy, the advantage is that everyone watching can see the full interchange between reporters and politicians, they can see for themselves if someone is ducking a question. There is no editing to make a particular politician look good.
While eNews has had the playing field to itself until now, it has also found it difficult to convince politicians to play along. The ANC has accused the channel of selecting camera angles to make crowds at its events look small. That claim has been met with the rejoinder that security at ANC events often make it impossible for cameras to be placed in better locations.
The addition of the SABC 24-hour news channel will help eNews to better make its case in discussions. It should also lead, over time, to events being planned with television as the main priority. In more developed media markets, it is common for political speeches to begin around two minutes after the hour, to allow the news channels to do their headline packages first.
While our political system is very different to those in the US or Europe, politicians will have to pay more attention to TV with an extra live channel. University of the Witwatersrand journalism professor Anton Harber says it will have the effect of "speeding up" the news cycle. It will be harder for politicians to refuse to answer questions for long, with two TV channels focusing on that issue every hour. It will be more embarrassing to refuse to answer questions if the entire nation is watching.
The SABC has been accused of playing politics. There were claims ahead of the ANC’s Polokwane conference that its coverage deliberately favoured then president Thabo Mbeki (at one point, he did a live interview on 15 of its radio stations while then rival Jacob Zuma was not afforded the same opportunity). This could lead to fears that a news channel would be used for political ends.
But Prof Harber points out at a news channel "there is less gate keeping as you’re running it live, rather than controlling or manipulating it for the seven ’o clock bulletin". He hopes the SABC will use the channel to "drive the news agenda, but to do that, you have to get out of the studio. You have to go out in the field to get the sense and feel of the nation."
Generally speaking, the more politics on television, the more people can get access to it and the better for democracy.
However, TV does have its weaknesses. It is hard and expensive to explain ideas properly without good pictures. This makes legal issues, and tough policy discussions difficult to report on. They can get neglected in favour of crime stories and puppy contests, with the net effect of dumbing down politics.
• Grootes is an Eyewitness News reporter.