Pictures: THINKSTOCK
Pictures: THINKSTOCK

THE sun is setting as I drive home from the office. A power cut in Auckland Park has made me unproductive. City Power has warned it could take days to restore power, depending on when workers end their strike. Most of the traffic lights on Empire Road are not working.

As I dodge a few potholes, I take my eyes off the road to take in the headlines on posters: "Dog Eats Baby" reads the most disturbing of the disturbing headlines. I ignore the desperate stares of beggars at the traffic lights, leaving me feeling instantly guilty about the warm safety of my car. But all of this changes as soon as I switch on my TV at home and turn to the ANN7 news channel.

A glamorously dressed, cheery newsreader with shiny blonde hair flashes a bright smile. For a moment it is not clear whether I am watching Top Billing or South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) news. The manically cheerful presenter reports on one good story after the other. And the weather prediction is sunny and warm all round.

All of this seems very odd until I remember that the SABC has said it would like to broadcast a minimum of 70% positive news and ANN7 has stated its intention to also focus on the positive. But what are these kinds of quotas other than propaganda? Everyone knows that, for many decades, propaganda was the SABC’s raison d’être. But the idea of positive-news quotas takes propaganda to new heights. Propaganda, also called lying by omission, presents facts selectively to further a political agenda. If propaganda is a form of ideological warfare, are we confronted with a war of positivity?

Edward Bernays, a nephew of Sigmund Freud, is widely believed to be the inventor of modern propaganda. In his 1928 book, Propaganda, Bernays wrote that the "intelligent manipulation of the organised habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society". He wrote that the manipulators "constitute an invisible government, which is the true ruling power in our country". Bernays has been credited with coining the euphemism, "public relations". He believed in the creation of "false realities", which then became "news events". When the US tobacco industry realised it needed to appeal to women, Bernays was hired to convince women they should smoke in public to celebrate their "liberation".

It is doubtful that the African National Congress is clever and deceptive enough to manipulate us in such subtle and clever ways. In South Africa, it is not the invisible hand of the government that misleads us. The hand of the government is visible and the people are not fooled.

The positive-news requirement is reminiscent of the way news was reported in Soviet-controlled East Germany.

The East German state broadcaster understated the severity of catastrophic events, such as the Chernobyl nuclear-power-plant disaster, leaving the populace in the dark for decades.

Journalists aspiring to work for the East German state broadcaster had to attend a special apprenticeship programme at Karl Marx University in Leipzig. Here, they were taught to generate content that put the communist government in a positive light.

The happy-news quota has already led to some less than happy news.

Predictably, the Democratic Alliance has suggested that the implementation of the happy-news quota could be in breach of the Broadcasting Complaints Commission’s code of conduct, which requires news to be reported "truthfully, accurately and fairly", in the correct context and in a fair manner.

Needless to say, a compelling argument can be made that the happiness quota infringes on the constitutional right to freedom of expression.

In the light of the Constitutional Court’s strong track record in upholding freedom of expression, it is highly unlikely that the good-news quota would pass constitutional muster.

In the meantime, the SABC can draw inspiration from the website, sunnyskyz.com, which reports exclusively on positive news.

One of the site’s headlines this week says Malawi will use $15m it earned from the sale of the country’s presidential jet to feed the poor and grow crops to fight malnutrition. Now that is positive news worth reporting on.

The 70% good-news quota is likely to increase to 90% as next year’s elections creep closer.

When days are dark, it is good to know that the sun always shines on TV.

Swart is professor in international law at the University of Johannesburg.