'Someone has to take the rap,' says chair of SABC news boss's disciplinary hearing

20 December 2021 - 15:54
Phathiswa Magopeni is appearing before a disciplinary hearing after a court-interdicted programme aired on her watch.
Phathiswa Magopeni is appearing before a disciplinary hearing after a court-interdicted programme aired on her watch.
Image: Moeletsi Mabe

Special Assignment executive editor Busisiwe Ntuli has sought to absolve the SABC's news department from the controversial airing of a court-interdicted report.

This emerged during Ntuli’s testimony at the disciplinary hearing of the public broadcaster's head of news, Phathiswa Magopeni, sitting in Sandton at the chambers of hearing chairperson Nazeer Cassim SC.

Magopeni has been charged with misconduct, negligence and bringing the SABC into disrepute for failing to prevent the airing of the report on October 26 despite an interdict against it a month earlier.

She has pleaded not guilty.

After lengthy and messy verbal sparring between Magopeni’s lawyers and Cassim on Monday morning, where they sought to have the proceedings “collapsed”, they abandoned the move and the hearing proceeded with Ntuli’s evidence.

That was, however, not the only controversy to characterise the hearing. The inquiry also heard that SABC CEO Madoda Mxakwe was meant to testify against Magopeni, but abandoned that mission.

Further, the inquiry heard that the SABC board was divided on whether Magopeni should have been hauled over the coals in the first place.

Cassim said those issues were irrelevant to his forum and belonged in court for those wishing to stop the hearing. He then signalled for Ntuli to take the stand. 

Ntuli told the inquiry that the show aired due to a system failure that could not be blamed on the news division, headed by Magopeni.

According to Ntuli, plans had been made to air an old report in the slot allocated to the interdicted report.

She said during the coding process, two identical codes were given to the scheduled repeat show and the interdicted show.

“The programme that was interdicted was assigned the same code as the repeat programme that was scheduled to replace it,” said Ntuli.

“So when they punched in the code of the repeat programme, the system picked up the interdicted programme. There were two different programmes that were allocated the same code by the channel (SABC3).”

It was always understood and known by all involved that the interdicted report could not be aired, though there was a general feeling that the interdict could be challenged, Ntuli said.

As the ultimate boss of Special Assignment, she said she only picked up the coding duplication after the interdicted report aired.

She blamed the SABC3 department responsible for broadcasting content on its platform, saying it should have picked up the issue as it had the final look on anything before it was aired.

Asked if Magopeni should take the rap, Ntuli said only the hearing chairperson had the power to determine the fall person.

Said Ntuli: “We [news] did not set out to deliberately violate the court interdict.”

In response, Magopeni’s lawyer, Kameshan Moodley, asked: “Your superior is here for a disciplinary hearing. Was she at fault ... ?”

Ntuli answered: “I suppose the chairperson will make the decision. From where I am sitting, in my honest opinion, it is definitely a systemic issue.”

Cassim insisted that, be that as it may, someone at the SABC should take the blame for the public broadcaster disregarding a court order.

“Somebody has to take the rap and corporate responsibility. The question is did she [Magopeni] take sufficient measures to ensure that when the interdict came into place, that this kind of episode will not take place? It is as simple as that,” said Cassim.

The hearing continues. 

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