Picture: SUNDAY TIMES
Picture: SUNDAY TIMES

WHEN the latest outcry over the pitiful state of editorial independence at the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) began and pickets were being planned, I initially had some qualms.

I thought: who are we — the non-SABC journalists — to get on a high horse over editorial independence at the SABC when most media companies have had their own editorial independence scandals recently?

All this righteous indignation is fine from nongovernmental organisations and members of the public. But, shouldn’t we journalists all be minding our own backyards? I am just a reporter, with no first-hand knowledge of media boardroom intrigues. But I read. And my impression is that editorial independence is under pressure across the board. Whether the impetus comes from politics, profit or owners’ egos, we are increasingly hearing rumours and complaints of owners meddling. The meddling may not be as crude as what we hear about at the SABC, but it is insidious.

Even if there is no direct meddling, the drive for profit is one of the biggest threats to editorial independence. Retrenchments, budget cuts and the obscene scramble for "click bait" compromise quality. And when you compromise quality, when reporters cannot properly be on top of their stories, reportage suffers, becoming overcautious or rashly opinionated.

So, I wondered: are the rest of us really so different from the SABC? Like the rest of us, the SABC does some fantastic work and some, not so great. Its coverage of the wave of strikes in the platinum belt that culminated in the Marikana massacre, was an example of great work. And the SABC was the only media outlet that consistently covered the Marikana commission. It was the SABC that live-streamed the commission.

The SABC reporters I know are hardworking, diligent and committed. And many of them are damn good.

In the end, I did not go to the protest, but only because I had flu and was too ill. I wanted to go. I decided to go, despite my initial qualms, because editorial independence is something worth fighting for — even if it is elusive.

The journalists at the SABC were very brave to stick out their necks. They should not have to do so on their own. When the day comes that I have to stick out my neck, I hope I will not be doing it alone.

There is another reason — much more important — why we should be throwing our weight behind the struggle for editorial independence at the SABC and this is because of the crucial role a public broadcaster ought to play in our constitutional democracy. The constitution says broadcasting should be regulated in the public interest and to ensure fairness and a diversity of views broadly representing South African society.

The public broadcaster has a special role to play in democracy. It is meant to be beholden to the public only — not to political or commercial masters, as the rest of the media are. This mandate is expressly provided for in the law.

The Broadcasting Act says the SABC must provide news that "meets the highest standards of journalism, as well as fair and unbiased coverage, impartiality, balance and independence from government, commercial and other interests".

The SABC’s editorial code — removed recently, I read — said: "We do not allow advertising, commercial, political or personal considerations to influence our editorial decisions.

"The SABC is not the mouthpiece of the government of the day."

There is an even more fundamental democratic principle at stake: the separation of party and state. Public resources should not be used to further the aims of any one political party. Back in 2011, Johannesburg High Court Judge Neels Claassen said the SABC "cannot be equated with a private citizen or broadcaster.... Whereas a private citizen or broadcaster may freely take political sides and promote party-political objectives, a public broadcaster may not use public money to do so."

Prescient then and now.

Rabkin is law and constitution writer.