Reg Rumney favours the partial privatisation of the SABC:

And not every State asset is strategic. What’s strategic about the SABC when the Broadcast Act obliges all broadcasters, public and private, to do the State’s bidding? Or is strategy in this context another word for propaganda?

SABC 3, which I understand is not performing its intended role of subsidising the other public TV channels and non-commercial radio, could easily be sold off. The resulting tax revenue from a successful channel could be used to beef up the public broadcaster.

My only complaint about this proposal is that it doesn’t go far enough. Instead selling off the SABC’s more profitable channels and using the proceeds to “beef up” the remainder of the company, the SABC should be sold off entirely. As a general principle, public broadcasters are a bad idea because there is no good reason for the state to be duplicating a service that is already provided well by private companies. Most countries, including South Africa, have some form of advertiser-supported television that is both free for customers to receive and profitable for the networks that broadcast it. Since private broadcasters’ incentives are closely aligned with those of consumers (networks want to air shows that people will watch and enjoy in order to maximise their viewership and advertising revenue), there is no economic benefit to be gained from maintaining a public broadcaster — except to “save the jobs” of the people already working there, but this comes at the cost of creating inefficiencies, wasting tax revenue, crowding private broadcasters out of the market, and retarding the growth of new jobs in the private sector.

Of course, defenders of public broadcasting do not confine themselves to arguments over the economics. They generally argue that public broadcasters fulfil a higher purpose: they provide “quality programming” and “information that serves the public interest”, neither of which would not exist in a pure market system because broadcasters would be too busy chasing ratings by catering to the lowest common denominator. I think this is false: when it comes to quality programming, it is worth noting that profit-driven US cable channels, and not the public interest sensibilities of (say) the BBC, were responsible for the artistic brilliance of The Wire and Battlestar Galactica; and as for access to information, one has to be spectacularly myopic to argue that there is a market failure in the provision of information when we are living the most information-saturated society in human history. Nevertheless, these arguments persist, and are responsible for the ongoing popular support for the BBC in the Britain and NPR in the United States.

However, even if we accept the legitimacy of the “public interest” argument, the question becomes: does the SABC have the intrinsic ability to be a broadcaster that actually serves the public interest? And the answer is no. NPR and the BBC, whatever their faults and biases, do have a genuine public broadcasting ethic that leads them to be frequent and vociferous critics of whatever government is currently in power. By contrast, the SABC was created to be the propaganda arm of the apartheid government, and subservience to authority its hard-coded into its DNA. Additionally, South Africa does not have a strong tradition of press freedom in the way that countries like the United Kingdom do, which means that the government can seldom avoid the temptation to take advantage of the SABC’s obsequiousness. This has created all manner of problems: the elevation of Party Men like Snuki Zikalala to run the organisation’s news division; the blacklisting of commentators who have offended the government; the SABC itself becoming an object of control in the struggle between the ANC and its own dissidents; and most recently, parliament’s attempts to impose political control on the SABC’s board. The public interest is, if anything, harmed by keeping the SABC entwined with the government.