Ridiculous. The Zimbabwean government is claiming that a recent SABC documentary about prison conditions in three Zimbabwean prisons contains footage from other countries. Almost simultaneously, the government arrested three prison wardens for allegedly providing secret material for the documentaries. It’s hard to take seriously claims of a desire to “re-engage with the West” in the midst of continuing this kind of repression. I’ve got a video and article about the SABC program.

I posted last week about a forum where SABC board member Bheki Khumalo said that he can differentiate between posts with SABC and as a sometimes-spokesman for the Department of Minerals and Energy. Having just arrived back in South Africa a couple days before I attended the forum, I was not yet up on all the conflicts of interests among SABC board members. These conflicts often concern dual roles with the government or ANC and the SABC.

A South African Press Agency article about a recent court case concerning mineral rights quotes a government press release that includes a statement from Khumalo. He is identified in the article as a government spokesman. Khumalo seems to have a lot of titles these days. Wits journalism professor called him “a deployed ANC cadre.” SAPA calls him a government spokesman. And, of course, he is a SABC board member.

So is SAPA wrong to merely identify him as a government spokesman? Not necessarily. That is the title making him relevant to the issues at hand in the article. Still, his numerous positions make me wonder whether the fact that his SABC role goes unmentioned leaves readers in the dark. In the case of this mineral rights case, are ordinary people affected by Khumalo’s dual interest in state-sponsored media and state-run mineral business dealings? Is the people’s case being made properly in the public space that theoretically exists in SABC’s media outlets?

The two year election cycle in the United States was so consuming that sometimes I can’t believe I managed to do the work it took to graduate in the midst of it all. There was always another poll or clip of a talking head spouting some kind of likely wrong-headed analysis to get me all hot and bothered. By the end of it all, I think any sane person would agree that the rantings of O’Reilly, Olbermann, Hannity, and many others were anything but good for the state of the media in its civic role. Still, I can’t deny that I was thoroughly entertained.

It appears that many South Africans won’t likely be saying the same thing about the ongoing election coverage here. At a panel discussion tonight at University of Witwatersrand about the South African Broadcasting Company’s coverage of the current electoral campaign, one of the major complaints many expressed was not, as the discussion was billed, about bias. Keep us interested! Such was the plea from the audience, and echoed by many serving on the panel, which included SABC News Committee Chairman Bheki Khumalo.

William Bird, a panelist and director of Media Monitoring Africa, a Johannesburg-based media monitoring outfit, was not especially critical of the SABC’s bias, at least in terms of favoring a particular political party. The broadcaster needs to see itself as an advocate for the citizen’s point of view, rather than focusing on the question of which political party is receiving the most coverage, Bird argued. Panelists Anton Harber, the former editor of the influential Weekly Mail (now the Mail & Guardian) and current Wits journalism professor, and Kate Skinner, the coordinator of the Save Our SABC Coalition, were of a similar mind to Bird’s.

Some of the more fraught exchanges occured early on in the panel, as Harber used his opening remarks to criticise Khumalo for being a “deployed ANC cadre.” “I have to wonder if it’s appropriate for the head of SABC to be a government spokesman,” Harber said, referring to Khumalo’s work for the government’s Department of Minerals and Energy. Harber also called for the establishment of a public editor or ombudsman for the broadcaster.

Khumalo countered that he rarely does the government work and that he leaves “his party affiliation at the door,” when he enters the board room of the SABC. He, perhaps inadvertently, drew laughs for his promise to release a book in “three or four years” explaining himself more fully. Former Bush administration press secretary Scott McLellan’s controversial “tell-all” memoir “What Happened” would serve as a model for his own book, Khumalo said.

When one questioner complained about how boring the SABC newscasts are, Khumalo agreed that there is a need for more interesting documentary and debate programs. He also mused aloud as to whether there was a lack of creative and editorial capacity among journalists in South Africa at the moment. He said that he hoped younger journalists might fill the gaps that currently exist.

Still, the matter of entertaining reporting did seem to boil down to, at least in part, Bird’s casting of the issue. If the broadcaster does not view itself as an advocate for the people, then it will not be particularly interested in entertaining the people. It was telling, then, that when Khumalo spoke for at least ten minutes uninterrupted about the SABC’s financial troubles, he said civil society might have to help prop up SABC during its time of need, in addition to any additional infusion of state funds. Skinner had earlier admitted that “civil society is generally not very good at pushing people forward to talk about all of these issues,” referring to the deeper policy questions many want to see the SABC ask South African politicians. The media, at least an independent one, is an important pillar of civil society, not separate from it.

Harber rightfully emphasized the issue of independence in his characterization of a desirable state broadcaster. Independence from the government, and in fact, established politicians in general, seems a wise course for such an influential broadcaster like SABC. I.F. Stone, the renegade journalist who spent his life covering Washington, D.C. famously said it best: “All governments lie.”

I often wonder if established media in Philadelphia in general identifies too closely with the bureaucratic mindset of city government rather than the people when it comes to their coverage of the town hall budget meetings and workshops of the last few months there. Still, one of the most feel-good days of my time at WHYY was when I saw an academic book about theories of civil society on an editor’s desk.

When news sources, particularly those funded by the people, identify their civic purpose as their highest one, you can be sure that good and even entertaining journalism is likely to follow. In different countries public funding can mean different things. I am referring to services funded by private citizens and foundations, or by public revenue — plainly put, taxes. No matter where you are, when journalists identify too much with bureaucrats, technocrats, and politicians (autocrats?) they will end up hamstrung creatively and unable to serve their civic function properly. It follows then that the most basic way to evaluate journalists is if they can at least keep things interesting.