The Helen Suzman Foundation and the SABC

A bizarre story of media bias.

The results of the national opinion survey presented in the past two issues of Focus were first made available at a press conference held on February 13 to which all the media were invited, though the results were embargoed until that press conference had been held.

To our great surprise and indignation the SABC led off its early morning news programme that morning with a discussion of the survey, not only breaking the embargo but also using the occasion to attack the survey - whose results they had not seen. The presenter, John Mathan, introduced the survey with 'Well, they say there are lies, damned lies and statistics', and then asked Dr David Everatt of CASE to comment.

Everatt, who had seen none of the results of the survey and who thus quite literally did not know what he was talking about it, argued that 'generally, you should learn an awful lot from a survey. With this particular survey, not a lot, I'm afraid'.

Professors Bill Johnson and Lawrie Schlemmer (who were to present the results at the press conference) were, he claimed, 'two of our more conservative commentators' and were 'backed up by fairly conservative German money'. They had deliberately 'put a negative spin' on the results and had suggested that 'Thabo Mbeki runs a poor second' as a presidential contender, a result they had only come up with by dint of running Mbeki against Mandela. And SO on.

Later that day, Mathan was to explain, an SABC representative had attended the press conference and was given the actual results of the survey. The SABC had planned to give these results publicity in the afternoon SAFM news programme but, Mathan said, this plan was then scrapped so that the sole mention of the survey on air remained the ignorant early morning attack on it.

The Helen Suzman Foundation made an official complaint to the Broadcasting Complaints Commission, pointing out that not only had it been outrageously unprofessional of the SABC to break the embargo but that it had not even invited the Foundation to present or even debate its survey results, instead relying on someone who had no knowledge of the matter. Johnson and Schlemmer had both had their professional integrity impugned by the allegation that they had sought to place a 'negative spin' on the results and had been given no right of reply.

Moreover, many of the statements made in the programme were factually incorrect. Neither Johnson nor Schlemmer could truly be described as conservatives: both were liberals who had opposed apartheid. Johnson had in fact been unable to return to South Africa for many years because of the attentions of the security police.

It was similarly incorrect to describe the Friedrich Naumann Foundation, which supported the foundation, as 'conservative German money'. Of the four German political foundations active in South Africa, only one was further to the left than Friedrich Naumann. The survey had not 'run Mbeki against Mandela' but had deliberately refrained from doing so, and had pointed out that he was actually the leading presidential contender. And so on.

At the BCC hearing on February 24 the SABC presenter, John Mathan, argued that his programme had not really been about the HSF survey but about surveys in general. Professor Johnson pointed out that more than three-quarters of the programme transcript dealt only with the HSF survey.

Mathan then added that while he himself read with the greatest attention and interest Johnson's articles for Business Day and invariably found them stimulating, others reacted differently and saw them as proof that Johnson was a conservative. Professor Johnson pointed out that he had never in his life written articles for Business Day and that accordingly Mathan's entire statement was a fabrication. Mathan then corrected himself to suggest that Johnson had written instead for the Mercury, this too was not the case.

Mathan, who was clearly relying on a negative but extremely inaccurate briefing about Johnson, seemed by this stage visibly rattled and revealed his own bias in the matter by attacking the survey himself, claiming that Johnson and Schlemmer had deliberately asked the sort of questions likely to embarrass the government - for example by asking whether people approved of the death penalty, knowing they would all say they did and thus making the government look bad. Johnson pointed out that the questions in the survey had been worked out by the staff and students of three black universities, most of them well to the left of centre, and that they had suggested a question on the death penalty.

Johnson and Schlemmer had pointed out that many other surveys had already dealt with this and that there was therefore no point in posing this question yet again. Accordingly, this question had not been in the questionnaire. The problem was that Mathan, like Everatt, was attacking the survey on the basis of ideological prejudice without the least idea as to what was in it.

The BCC, though it strongly criticised Everatt and said it was 'critical of the SABC, failed to uphold the HSF's complaint. In coming to this verdict the BCC said it had examined the case in light of a broadcasting Code of Ethics - but this Code was never made available to the complainants, who only learned of its existence at the hearing itself, thus violating every canon not only of transparency but even of due process.

Johnson then wrote to Covin Reddy, head of SABC radio, pointing out that the HSF had attempted to give the SABC the benefits of its research and yet, in effect, an invitation to attend its press conference had been used as an occasion to attack the HSF with no right of reply. The lesson seemed to be that one would be better off if one did not invite the SABC to such occasions.

Commenting on the case, Johnson said: "Some things don't change. Professor Kobus van Rooyen, chairman of the BCC, was a loyal servant of the apartheid regime and, as head of the Publications Board, was its chief censor. If he is not a Broederbonder it would be the first time such a person would have been appointed to such a job. It is a surreal experience for someone who was unable to return to South Africa for many years because of his anti-apartheid activities to have to appear before such a person and to be charged, in effect, with being a 'conservative'.

"I have experience of survey work in the United States, the United Kingdom and France and such behaviour either by a public broadcaster or a tribunal would be unthinkable there. I would like to say that I am surprised by what has happened but the fact is that I am not."