‘Africa’s News Leader’, that’s SABC-TV’s boast. It’s at least as brassy a lie as the Johannesburg metro’s assertion, ‘Joburg: A world-class African city’.
The only difference is that the Advertising Standards Authority called out the metro on their misleading claim, while SABC-TV continues to get away with it. However, the Kenyan shopping mall siege, played out over four agonising days, showed that a slick slogan doth not necessarily a credible credo make.
South Africans were reminded by a story that drew the entire world’s media, that the state television network is lamentably poor at independent news gathering. Those without access to social media or satellite channels – by far the best coverage was from Sky News, followed by eNCA – were pretty much in the dark.
That’s pathetic, given the hundreds of millions that SABC-TV spends on three terrestrial channels, recently augmented with what purports to be a 24-hour news channel. It turns out, however, that ‘Africa’s News Leader’ doesn’t even have a Nairobi bureau, instead relying on a single local stringer to cover the whole of East Africa.
SABC-TV also lacks the managerial wit to improvise. eNCA flew in its experienced group news editor, Ben Said, to provide backing to Nairobi bureau chief, Robyn Kriel, who was flagging after many unbroken hours of broadcasting. The SABC stayed safely home, happy to rely on secondhand sludge lifted from Kenyan television.
At one stage all the major international channels had abandoned scheduled programmes in order to run live coverage from Westgate Mall. SABC-TV viewers, however, had to be content with flicking between Gospel Gold, Nanny 911 and the A-Team on its terrestrial channels, while on the 24-hour news they had to watch endlessly recycled, blurred footage from two days earlier.
It might be that this farce is not merely another example of SABC incompetence. Conceivably, it’s based on the SABC’s commitment to sunshine journalism, with at least 70% of bulletins avowedly devoted to ‘good’ news.
Terrorism? Nah, it’s gonna screw up our percentages. Let’s stick to something uplifting, like East Africa’s improved tourism figures.
Nevertheless, it was not an unmitigated disaster for SABC-TV. The inadvertently flattering result of the politically connected Gupta family launching the African News Network (ANN7) is that there is at last a local network worse than SABC-TV, albeit challenging to imagine that were possible.
ANN7’s coverage of the attack was cringingly poor, lagging so far behind the unfolding story as to become irrelevant. It’s telling also that the air time accorded Nairobi on some bulletins was roughly equivalent to the obsequious footage of President Jacob Zuma’s trip to the United Nations.
The apparently unstoppable haemorrhaging of revenue and viewers at SABC TV should serve as a warning to the Guptas. Even a virtual monopoly is not enough to force people to rely on your news offerings at a time when social media provide easy and relatively inexpensive alternatives.
Granted, a major drawback of social media is the uneven quality of the information: much of what swirls about is rumour and speculation. On the other hand, social media has the virtue of making censorship futile and government spin difficult, increasingly making it the public’s first stop for information at times of national crisis.
The Kenyan authorities tried hard to keep control and mould the information flow to best effect, imploring Twitter users not to speculate but ‘wait for the official communication’. Unfortunately, official statements were infrequent and mostly misleading.
Official sources consistently painted a rosier picture of events than what turned out to be true. For example, Kenyan authorities claimed repeatedly from the second day onwards that all the attackers had been neutralised and all hostages released, only to be immediately contradicted by tweets – both from ordinary citizens on the spot and from accounts apparently run by al-Shabab, the terror group responsible. The tweeters were right, the government was dissembling.
Democracies demand speedy, trustworthy journalism. Neither al-Shabab tweets, Kenyan government statements or, sadly, SABC-TV news broadcasts, measure up.