No surprise

Just found this story and can’t say i’m terribly surprised – it talks about an attempt to make SABC a “true” public service broadcaster.. Let me share a couple of experiences we had when we linked up with SAFM  last year…

 You may remember the programmes we did: from Sandton, the Kaiser Chiefs, the Zim border, Ladysmith at a white-owned farm, and the excellent Zula Bar in Capetown.

We were in partnership with SAFM, as i said, and apart from their editors not answering e-mails, the negotiations before we got there were going well. We would do a week of two hour shows, the first hour to the rest of the world, the second hour to Africa, and more importantly, to the whole of South Africa on SAFM.

It was only when our team arrived in Jo’Burg that the problems began. Firstly, it had dawned on them the implications of our having editorial control. This was obviously a problem not only to them, but to the ANC, who clearly run the place. The BBC’s Editorial Guidelines are clear on impartiality , fairness and balance so there should be no problem ? Wrong. 

One of our team had been in negotiations with Thabo Mbeki’s people about his appearing on our “political” show in Sandton. Once it was apparent that we were in charge, that interview was dropped and indeed the ANC then pulled out all their guests. SAFM said, that being the case, they couldn’t broadcast the programme.

I explained during some terse editorial conference calls, that in Britain, the ruling party would not be allowed to derail our programme by pulling out. We would, in journalistic parlance ,”empty chair” them – that is, put forward their position but explain why they weren’t taking part. Every other shade of opinion would be represented in that room (having all been given the same notice to appear, and all been told who else had been invited) except the ANC.

SAFM weren’t having that, so i explained we’d do the programme anyway and it was up to them whether they took it or not. In the end, hey presto, two senior ANC officials did take part, they both considered the programme to be responsibly handled , both shook my hand warmly afterwards and one of them specifically invited us back.  

After our show on the Monday, (on the Zim border at a truckstop) our SAFM co-presenter was, apparently, phoned several times by ANC officials to make sure he “corrected” things that were said on the programme. As you know, Thabo Mbeki’s attitude towards Robert Mugabe is a sensitive issue (to say the least )- and clearly hearing on our programme Zimbabweans critical of the SA government was something the ANC thought police was a step too far.

On the Thursday we were in Ladysmith – at a white-owned farm going through the process of selling up to a collective of their (black) farm workers. The reason we were there was to discuss the issue of land reform – again, like almost everything in South Africa, a sensitive issue. Our SAFM team (with 2 excellent producers) had never been on a farm like it before. We did the programme in their front room (by candlelight for some of it owing to yet another power cut), with the owners and their friends at one end of the room, the workers at the other (we didn’t sit them like it, they chose to sit like that). It was an atmospheric programme but our SAFM host didn’t like what he was hearing. At the end of the first hour of the programme and just before the hour that was going to be heard across South Africa, he had a “migraine” and had to retire to his car where he was last seen on the phone. No prizes for guessing who he was talking to.

One more day to go and we’re in Cape Town at the Zula Bar – looking at broadly, the future of the “rainbow nation”. Again, i get a phone call asking me to attend a conference call to discuss the “editorial direction” of the programme. Again, i pointed out that the WHYS audience would decide what and how we talked about things, under the guidance of the BBC’s rigorous editorial procedures.

 I then had to persuade our SAFM presenter to take part . He was upset that i , as the editor, was telling him what to do, which is sort of my job.

The programme went well and after the show, the SAFM host disappeared without saying goodbye, while the two producers (a joy to work with) surreptitiously and quietly said goodbye to all of us, thanked us, and talked about how much they’d enjoyed the experience, and had learnt a lot.

The programmes ended up being fair and balanced ; not one guest complained about misrepresentation or bias. On the contrary, similar to our ANC guests, they loved the experience and wanted us to come back again.

The frostiness of our “partners” contrasted spectacularly with the incredible and generous hospitality we received from the Kaiser Chiefs, the people at the truck stop , the farm and the bar who were ,to a man and woman, helpful and delighted to get a chance to tell their stories.

A WHYS team will be in South Africa the week after next and will of course do a professional, thorough, fair and balanced job but this time, we won’t be working with the national broadcaster and i guess both sides will be happy about that….



27 Responses to “No surprise”

  1. 1 nelsoni
    July 3, 2008 at 12:19

    @ mark. Welcome to the world of politics and government interference with the media.

  2. 2 Bob in Queensland
    July 3, 2008 at 12:34

    I hope you’ll keep us informed, Mark, especially if this story doesn’t get general coverage.

    The last time I worked directly with SABC was back in 1994 working on coverage of the first free elections. Obviously there was huge international interest and SABC set up an international broadcast centre in a warehouse-type building near their Joburg studios.

    At that point I think the people I met were still feeling their way in the new democracy and still feeling the euphoria of the changes in their country–it was a time of great optimism. Certainly the people I met, on the the editorial and technical side, were universally helpful and placed no restrictions on what we could cover or say. The only problems I recall were when a certain American TV network (which shall be un–named) plugged in about 4 times as much gear as they were supposed to and blew the main fuses!

    After this positive experience, it saddens me to hear that the ANC is repeating the mistakes and control of the old regime, just from the other side.

  3. 3 Mark Sandell
    July 3, 2008 at 13:26

    Thanks Bob and Nelsoni for your comments. I felt enough water has gone under the bridge (and most of the people i’m talking about have left SAFM)to warrant talking about this. I should point out that the instincts of the SAFM team that travelled with us were bang on ; they wanted to do a fair job (in keeping with proper journalistic practices) and indeed, achieved that but they envied us our lack of interference. And we don’t get interference. That doesn’t mean we get everything right (listeners to WHYS will testify to that!) but the principles of balance and impartaility are not only what we have to abide by, we actually think it’s the best way of working.
    These guys were working for a team who actually thought their job was to portray the government in a positive light. They were baffled when we said it was not our job to portray our government in any light- good or bad. Just tell the story fairly..
    And Nelsoni, i did feel a bit naive as perhaps i assumed it’d be different in the “new” South Africa.

  4. July 3, 2008 at 13:41

    Hi. Ros here. It’s worth adding that when we asked the ANC who had advised them to pull out of the Wednesday show, they named an SABC producer (not the one of the two who travelled with us) who was supposed to helping set up the show. So they sabotaged our ANC guests, and then said we can’t broadcast the show without them. It was surreal.

  5. 5 Dennis
    July 3, 2008 at 13:43

    I am not surprise with the parties decision to SABC a public broadcaster.

    Onondaga Community College
    Syracuse, New York
    United States of America

  6. 6 Mark Sandell
    July 3, 2008 at 13:54

    Thanks Ros, i’d forgotten that.

  7. 7 Bryan
    July 3, 2008 at 14:00

    I find myself in rare agreement with Bob. Yes, the old SABC in the apartheid era was a government mouthpiece as the SABC in the new South Africa is an ANC mouthpiece. But, Mark Sandell, I really don’t think that the BBC should be congratulating itself too much over having escaped such government control, since the BBC and the Labour government so often speak with one voice.

    It should also be noted that the BBC goes on ad nauseum about the Spelman lady and her nanny as if its the most important story in the UK and yet maintains silence on far more serious fraud allegations against the Labour camp. (This is just one of endless examples of the BBC’s bias in favour of Labour.)

    Are you guys really that sure of your independence from government – unless of course the Tories are in power.

  8. 8 Nick in USA
    July 3, 2008 at 14:00

    Isn’t this par for the course in Africa? Don’t South Africans realize that they are being fed a load of bull? Well, I guess I don’t need to ask that because americans are still hooked on Fox news, which is anything but fair and balanced.

  9. 9 Bryan
    July 3, 2008 at 14:06

    Not a good comparison, Nick. Fox News is not a government broadcaster. And Americans have no shortage of left wing media to choose from.

  10. 10 Mark Sandell
    July 3, 2008 at 14:09

    Bryan, i wasn’t congratulating anyone. I just said there are guidelines we have to follow which should be enough for anyone. The Spelman story will mean nothing to anyone outside the UK, but i was always amazed when i was on 5 Live how people could listen to EXACTLY the same bit of radio and then complain of the completely opposite bias. I think if you worked in Gordon Brown’s office at the moment you wouldn’t think anyone – even the BBC- were pro-Labour.
    The point of this post was to share with you what went on behind the scenes during a week of WHYS on the road, relative to a news story. It wasn’t to say how brilliant we are and how we get everything right.

  11. 11 Nick in USA
    July 3, 2008 at 14:45


    Regardless of who operates Fox news (government or private), they are neither fair nor balanced. My point was that many people have a hard time realizing that they are being fed a load of bull. This includes the patrons of the left wing media you mentioned. Also, the government certainly doesn’t need to own a station to control it.

  12. 12 nelsoni
    July 3, 2008 at 15:41

    @ mark, To great extent I would say the BBC and a couple of other Broadcasters have being very independent in News reporting and all that goes with it, they may not always get it right, but by a great distance, i would say the BBC is a credible source for balanced reporting. The problem is that sometimes, the audience already has a mindset. By that I mean, when they listen to the News, they already expect to hear Stories in a certain way, when they hear it differently, the News Organization is perceived to be biased. The problem is that some times we don’t have objective audiences and objective Broadcasters.

  13. 13 Bryan
    July 3, 2008 at 15:51

    “The point of this post was to share with you what went on behind the scenes during a week of WHYS on the road, relative to a news story.”

    Yes, that was a very interesting story indeed and a perfect illustration of how incapable the ANC is of learning from the past. Racism, jobs for pals, unaccountalbility and corruption are rife within the ANC government and free speech is seen as the enemy in such an environment.

    Though the BBC has made great strides in recent years towards opening up debate and publishing all points of view, it is basically ensconced in a left wing cocoon and as such is in synch with the Labour government. This is obviously contrary to the BBC’s mandate but I guess nothing can be done about that short of replacing half the BBC’s staff with people more inclined towards the right.

  14. 14 Mark Sandell
    July 3, 2008 at 16:50

    Bryan, i invite you- as indeed i do to anyone else- to come in and spend a day here or any other part of the BBC – i’ll be happy to organise (you can even decide on the day in case you think it’s fixed) and then blog honestly about your findings. You may just be surprised.
    When i was at 5 Live , i used to invite people allthe time (easier i know with a UK audience) and they would take me up on it. Most (though not all) of their conclusions were that if we got things wrong it was incompetence, not bias.
    And on a personal note, i take exception to the idea that me and others take part in some kind of conspiracy -a conspiracy that people can’t even agree on.
    Since we’ve been doing WHYS we’ve been accused of being pro and anti Israelis , pro and anti Palestinians, pro-western, pro-African, too obsessed with the Middle East, not concerned enough with the Middle East etc etc. I have the e-mails to prove it.
    can they all be right ?

  15. 15 Mohammed Ali
    July 3, 2008 at 17:26

    That is how democracy work in most African countries. In fact Sout Africa is better off.

  16. 16 Will Rhodes
    July 3, 2008 at 17:47

    I do find it amazing that people who are not British and consequently only see one part of the BBC deem it a biased organisation.

    When the Tories are in power, they shout bias, when Labour, they too do the same. International governments say, as it seems from the story above, the same.

    The BBC is a publicly funded body mainly funded by the British people. (I still have to protest at the cost of a license, though)

    What I do see, so many times, is that governments fear the impartiality of the BBC – that is why they criticise so loudly.

    It could be because the BBC has such a large world audience? I think we would all like to have a voice on the BBC – I mailed Ros about how the WHYS show should be much longer, he agree but there are constraints – the main one being that there are just 24 hours in a day.

    I have an opinion on just about everything, and would love to be on the show every day popping up my two pence worth – but then that would stop another having their say.

    If we really do believe in impartiality in broadcasting you cannot beat the BBC for that – disagreeing with what they say or broadcast is fine – but what would you be left with if the BBC wasn’t the institution and organisation that it is?

  17. 17 Bryan
    July 3, 2008 at 18:10

    Well, thanks for the invitation, Mark, I really appreciate it. Problem is, I’d have to get on an intercontinental flight and I can’t do that right now.

    I’m sorry that you take the allegations of bias personally. There are of course people who think the BBC is biased if it doesn’t agree 100% with their own point of view. I’m not one of those. All I ask of the BBC is objectivity and so often I find it sorely lacking in that regard. And this is really obvious in the coverage of the Middle East. The BBC treats Islamic terrorists with respect while pouring scorn on the Israelis. If you think I’m making this up, have a look at the coverage of the Israel-Hezbollah War two years ago. The smoke from the first bombs had hardly cleared when your Middle East editor, Jeremy Bowen, was accusing Israel of “war crimes” while totally avoiding any accusation against the real war criminals, i.e. Hezbollah. I listened to the World Service for the duration of the war. The BBC’s obedient trotting out of Hezbollah propaganda was shameful and unworthy of the profession of journalism. It was as if the war made the BBC take the gloves off and prove its true loyalties to the anti-Israel crew.

    I have challenged the BBC on various forums to defend its reporting of that war. Not one BBC journalist has taken me up on that challenge because they know they are guilty of the most extreme anti-Israel bias.

  18. 18 Mark from kansas
    July 3, 2008 at 18:27

    Better you than me:-) African Governemnts seem to have a great distrust of all people and press. The lack of transperency gives them room to do questionable things.
    Everyone is going to have their influences, wheather it be sponsored or just a group of like minded people. All news is presented with some opinion, thats what makes it entertaining, except John Stuart. Ole john will say “the president lied” not “changed position” and then show you two videos with two very diffrent statements.. All joournalists could take a few hints be a little more blunt, and squeeze some hard evidence in there and call them on their BS.
    The Globalization of Journalism can only lead to good things, good work WHYS team, and be safe on your adventures.

  19. 19 Mark Sandell
    July 3, 2008 at 19:03

    Thanks Mark and Bryan , i don’t take it personally but read your own comments.: “while totally avoiding any accusation against the real war criminals, i.e. Hezbollah.” . You state it as a matter of fact. You may be right. Others take the opposite view and THEY MAY BE RIGHT AS WELL.
    The reporting of those views does not mean “we” take any side. I know it’s a hard concept to get. Why do people who are just as intelligent as you, listen and view just as much as you do, take a totally opposite view of our coverage ?
    Are they just wrong and you are right ?

  20. 20 Bryan
    July 3, 2008 at 19:46

    Mark Sandell,

    “You state it as a matter of fact.”

    I don’t make these statements lightly and without doing the BBC the courtesy of investigating the situation. My conclusions are based on constant exposure to the World Service and frequent access to the BBC website and various other sites on the internet in connection with the BBC for the duration of the war. I believe that after the war there was an Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch report that introduced the novel idea of Hezbollah actually being guilty of war crimes and that this was briefly reported by the BBC. But again, I challenge anyone to find a link to a BBC report during the war that blasted Hezbollah for its war crimes. The BBC was far too busy rolling up its sleeves and bashing Israel. We can indulge in circular arguments here about who is right and who is wrong but all that is necessary is proof.

    Nobody from the BBC or anywhere else has provided a shred of proof that the BBC was even-handed in its coverage of the war.

    And Will Rhodes, please don’t assume that because someone is not based in Britain they only access a small part of the BBC. Through old-fashioned radio and the internet, I am probably exposed to more BBC output than the average Brit, simply because I take a keen interest in it.

  21. 21 Nick in USA
    July 3, 2008 at 21:58

    Really, we can come visit you at the BBC? My wife is a flight attendent, so I get to travel for free. You can be expecting my visit.

    @ Bryan

    I hate to quote Bush, but the BBC “Knows now what it knows now”. You may be right. The coverage of the incident may have been extremely lop-sided, but that doesn’t mean it was intentionally biased. Mark said it himself. Most of the time when they get things wrong, it’s as a result of incompetence. You’re talking about war-time reporting here. The correspondent was calling things as he saw them based on what was happening. Stories don’t just fall into your lap during a war. Also, I’ve yet to hear anyone at the BBC treating Islamic terrorists with respect while pouring scourn on the Israelis.

  22. 22 Bryan
    July 3, 2008 at 22:26


    “Also, I’ve yet to hear anyone at the BBC treating Islamic terrorists with respect while pouring scourn on the Israelis.”

    Check out their reporting on the Lebanon war and you’ll hear it. Apart from Jeremy Bowen’s constant “war crimes” chant at the Israelis, there was Jim Muir:

    “Israeli warship lurking on the horison” and “Israeli missiles lurching towards Beirut.”

    No link here because it was on the World Service but I’m sure you could find someone at the BBC who could dig up the clip for you.

    And here’s Nick Thorpe:

    “The Qassams mostly needle the Israelis, like pinpricks in the ankles of a giant, taunting him to stamp back with his big, US-issue army boots.

    The Katyushas are like poisoned arrows. They drive him mad.”


    Do you really imagine that the BBC would talk about Arab terrorists in that mocking fashion?

    But don’t take my word for it. Check those six weeks of reporting out, if you really want to understand the BBC’s bias.

  23. 23 Jack Hughes
    July 4, 2008 at 04:25

    The BBC is gripped by Group-Think. Certain values and opinions become dominant and those who don’t agree either keep quiet, leave, or don’t even join in the first place.

    One product of this Group-Think is smug complacency in the face of any criticism. Anyone who listens to “Feedback” or similar will recognize the attitude of “talking-down” to the little man who dared to suggest the beeb was less than perfect.

    Another result is that many beebers do not know the difference between facts and opinions. A typical BBC news report drifts effortlessly between the facts of the story and the house opinion on the subject then back to a few facts and then more editorialising.

    The BBC own report into impartiality:
    makes interesting reading – and shows many of these faults itself.

    For example: “There was a feeling that the search for impartiality had at times led to political correctness, which (although indicative of a civilised, respectful society) was itself a symbol of bias.”

    This sentence starts with a fact ( “there was a feeling” ) then in the middle is an opinion “although indicative”. See what I mean about drifting between facts and opinions ?

    Towards the end we read about:
    “When the Question Time audience in the ultra-white city of Lincoln was
    leavened with black and Asian people bussed in from afar, was this a legitimate attempt to skew the audience to fit national proportions – in which case what was the point of going to Lincoln? Or was it an unacknowledged distortion of the true character of Lincoln? Are such decisions made deliberately – or automatically, as part of the BBC’s own progressive culture? ”

    In typical BBC fashion the report lists many failings but makes no recommendations at all other than “try harder”.

  24. 24 Mark Sandell
    July 4, 2008 at 16:48

    Great, i start by sharing a few thoughts with you and then the anti-BBC brigade weighs in. As always, your opinions – as unshakeable as they are- are welcome but it wasn’t what i was talking about. I love the BBC getting slaughtered for bias- because none of you are biased are you ? Just us.
    And yes, Nick and anyone, you are welcome to join our meetings, come and sit in on the programme or just come and have a coffee with us. And then you can investigate the bias for yourselves…

  25. 25 Will Rhodes
    July 4, 2008 at 17:14

    I will say it until I am blue in the whole body, Mark – the BBC is the most unbiased news organisation in the world!

    Those who cry that it is biased have one opinion and believe that that opinion is the only one that matters, their own.

    WHYS – where all these different people get to voice their opinion? Hmmm seems odd that, no? Who else does this?

    A blog that is moderated by those who use it – and a massive international organisation to boot? Who else does this?

    Look in on Question Time – a program on the BBC where some of the most influential people in the world are questioned by an audience of ‘commoners’ with no fixed questions? Who else does this?

    Biased my arky!

  26. 26 Jack Hughes
    July 5, 2008 at 05:09


    Private citizens are allowed to be biased: the BBC’s charter talks about “impartiality”.

    I can only speak for myself, but I am not anti-BBC – I am anti-biased-BBC.

    Lets start with a really simple example from Blue Peter late 2007. Viewers of this children’s programme chose the name “Cookie” for their new cat. BBC management decided this was unsuitable and named the cat “Socks”. Just Google for “blue peter cookie” to read about the furore that followed when this was rumbled.

    OK – do you get the point that the corporation is not, actually, perfect ?

    It’s easy to accuse a referee, or a judge, or a broadcaster of bias – and much harder for the referee, judge, broadcaster to defend himself.

    But why not adopt the idea of “being fair and being seen to be fair”.

    Using “Question Time” as an example, this would mean a raffle of local citizens to decide the audience, and pulling names out of a hat, live on-screen to decide the questions. And Dimbleby to talk a bit less.

    This would help to avoid the “Lincoln audience too white” type of incidents – because the audience would reflect the people of Lincoln – not some beebers idea of what Lincoln folk should really look like. It would also avoid the impression that the questions are fixed.

    It would also have avoided the horrible incident in September 2001 where US Ambassador Phil Lader was reduced to tears by a howling anti-US mob:


    “The BBC’s director general Greg Dyke has issued a personal apology for Thursday’s controversial Question Time programme on the US hijack attacks.”

    “… there was a recognition in the corporation that the audience could have been more representative…”

  27. 27 Mark Sandell
    July 7, 2008 at 10:53

    Thanks Jack, for completely missing the point.

    : “OK – do you get the point that the corporation is not, actually, perfect ?”

    Please point out where i said that it was. Hell, even i personally get things wrong too and have appeared on this blog to explain/ apologise.
    And thanks for the history lesson about when the wider BBC got things wrong. My point about bias was that people who have entrenched views in whatever direction seem- in the main, to only want to hear views that agree with them. Furthermore, our total failure to only present one side of the story is because we have vested interests or we all secretly feel one way, and not the other.
    As a final point on this, i invite anyone to come and spend a day with us – go and talk to whoever you want, and then report back.

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