Sure, fund the SABC with tax PDF Print E-mail
The Public Broadcasting Bill proposes to scotch the hated TV licence, and use a 1% tax increase to fund the SABC instead.

The response to the Public Broadcasting Bill has been rather sharp. Ray Hartley, editor of the Times Online, wrote a particularly tidy put-down on his blog, calling the tax idea “a philosophy for a failed state”.

I`m not sure I agree. While his points about the SABC`s mismanagement and corruption are well made, they apply to any public service institution. Whether you fund a disaster with licence revenue or taxes doesn`t make much difference, except that the latter is more progressive and easier on the poor.

The question is whether public service broadcasting is necessary, and if so, who should perform this task and how it should be funded.

To justify a public broadcaster, one must be sure that private broadcasters largely do not fulfil the public service functions the government desires, and that, by contrast, the bulk of the public broadcaster`s programming does fulfil these functions.

Getting private broadcasters to fulfil this task can be achieved by establishing a public service broadcasting fund, to which they can apply if they produce programming believed to be in the public interest. Many excellent films, documentaries and educational programmes have been made with the support of such funds overseas; that such a model works is clear.

The proposal for a Public Service Broadcasting Fund in the Bill is therefore welcome, although its administration by the highly politicised Media Development and Diversity Agency gives one pause, as does the provision that it is to be reserved for exclusive use by the SABC.

Either way, let`s assume there remains a need for a public broadcaster as such. If so, it should be publicly funded, and tax is a fair, effective and cost-efficient way to do it. However, the proposed rate of 1% of income is a huge amount of money. Per capita, this would make the SABC more expensive than Canada or Australia`s public broadcasting, though not as expensive as those in the UK or Finland. And that assumes the tax funding is the only revenue the SABC generates.

If South Africans are to accept such an onerous claim on their incomes, they will want to see some conditions attached to it.

First, the funding must be ring-fenced in such a way that it cannot be diverted to other government spending. The Public Service Broadcasting Fund seems to achieve that.

Second, it should not be possible to use this fund as a political lever that compromises the independence of the public broadcaster. As it stands, expect political interference.

Third, the management and procedures of the SABC must be cleaned up. The SABC must deserve this funding. Citizens should never feel they`re throwing good money after bad into a bottomless well of graft and incompetence.

Fourth, and most importantly, the SABC should cease accepting commercial advertising.

This last condition will go a long way to revitalising the quality and independence of South Africa`s media sector, by removing the massive leech on potential revenue that the SABC represents today. It will encourage the development of local programming and fund the import of quality foreign material. A lively, competitive, and thriving media industry can grow up around the SABC, instead of being smothered by its statutory market dominance.

If that`s the only clause added to the Public Broadcasting Bill once comment closes on 7 December, it will represent a forward-looking policy that empowers South Africans, spurs its economy, and strengthens its democracy.

Given the historical antagonism of the government towards the media, however, I`m not holding my breath. As I express such hopeful idealism, I imagine MDDA cadres are hammering away at modest little proposals of their own to tighten political control over the SABC and weaken the independent commercial media sector.

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