In this file photograph from September 21, 2013, armed police retreat after entering the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya, in pursuit of gunmen who opened fire on shoppers inside.

William Saunderson-Meyer challenges the SABC-TV's claim of being "Africa's News Leader" after their patchy coverage of the Kenya mall siege.

“Africa’s News Leader”, that’s SABC-TV’s boast. It’s as brassy a lie as Joburg metro’s assertion, “Joburg: A world-class African city”.

The only difference is that the Advertising Standards Authority called out the metro on their misleading claim, while SABC-TV still gets away with it. However, the Kenyan shopping mall siege, played out over four agonising days, showed that a slick slogan doth not necessarily a credible credo make.

South Africans were reminded that the state television network is lamentably poor at independent news gathering. Those without access to social media or satellite channels – by far the best coverage was from Sky News and eNCA – were pretty much in the dark.

That’s pathetic, given the hundreds of millions that SABC-TV spends on three terrestrial channels, recently augmented with what purports to be a 24-hour news channel. But it turns out that “Africa’s News Leader” doesn’t even have a Nairobi bureau, instead relying on a single local stringer to cover the whole of East Africa.

SABC-TV also lacks the wit to improvise. eNCA flew in its experienced group news editor, Ben Said, to provide backing to Nairobi bureau chief, Robyn Kriel, who was flagging after many unbroken hours of broadcasting. The SABC stayed safely home, happy to rely on second-hand sludge lifted from Kenyan television.

At one stage all the major international channels had abandoned scheduled programmes to run live coverage from Westgate Mall. SABC-TV viewers, however, had to be content with flicking between Gospel Gold, Nanny 911 and The A-Team on its terrestrial channels, while on the 24-hour news they had to watch endlessly recycled, blurred footage from two days earlier.

It might be that this farce is not just another example of SABC incompetence. Conceivably, it’s based on its commitment to sunshine journalism, with at least 70 percent of bulletins devoted to “good” news.

Terrorism? Nah, it’s gonna screw up our percentages - let’s stick to something cheerful, like East Africa’s improved tourism figures.

Nevertheless, it was not an unmitigated disaster for SABC-TV. The inadvertently flattering result of the politically connected Gupta family launching the African News Network (ANN7) is that at last there is a local network worse than SABC-TV, albeit challenging to imagine that were possible.

ANN7’s coverage of the attack was cringingly poor, lagging so far behind the unfolding story as to become irrelevant. It’s telling also that the air time accorded to Nairobi on some bulletins was roughly equivalent to the obsequious footage of President Jacob Zuma’s trip to the UN.

The apparently unstoppable haemorrhaging of revenue and viewers at SABC-TV should serve as a warning to the Guptas. Even a virtual monopoly is not enough to force people to rely on your news offerings at a time when social media provide easy and relatively inexpensive alternatives.

A major drawback of social media is the uneven quality of the information: much of what swirls about is rumour and speculation. On the other hand, social media has the virtue of making censorship futile and government spin difficult, increasingly making it the public’s first stop for information at times of national crisis.

The Kenyan authorities tried hard to keep control of the information flow, imploring Twitter users not to speculate but “wait for the official communication”. Unfortunately, official statements were infrequent and mostly misleading.

Official sources consistently painted a rosier picture of events than what turned out to be true. Kenyan authorities claimed repeatedly the attackers had been neutralised and all hostages released, only to be immediately contradicted by tweets – from ordinary citizens on the spot and from accounts apparently run by al-Shabaab, the terror group responsible.

Democracies demand speedy, trustworthy journalism. Neither al-Shabaab tweets nor, sadly, SABC-TV news broadcasts, measure up.

Weekend Argus