In a surprise shift the ANC has told the SABC, the national broadcaster, it no longer wants it to act as a propaganda machine for the ruling party.

"We don't want the SABC to be the mouthpiece of the next ANC government, we just want you to operate professionally," was the strong message from the ANC to Dali Mpofu, the chief executive of the SABC, at a meeting two weeks ago.

The ANC has also set its sights on the membership of the new board, controversially appointed by President Thabo Mbeki soon after the Polokwane conference. It had strong words, too, for Khanyisiwe Mkhonza, the new chairperson, who was told in informal meetings what party leaders expected of the public broadcaster.

"She also had her ear pulled," said an ANC source.

ANC leaders were reportedly unhappy with the national broadcaster for becoming embroiled in the succession debate between Mbeki and Jacob Zuma, his successor as ANC president, and taking a side which manifested itself in its reporting.

"It was never the intention of the ANC to make the national broadcaster resemble the SABC under apartheid," the source said. "Individuals within the organisation took it upon themselves to act for the political masters."

The ANC source confirmed that Mpofu was summoned to Luthuli House last month and told in no uncertain terms by the leadership, including Kgalema Motlanthe, the ANC deputy president, that the party was concerned about the organisation's taking sides in the battle between Mbeki and Zuma. The party was embarrassed by the broadcaster's bias (towards one candidate, Mbeki) and the lack of credibility of news and current affairs programmes.

While Mbeki benefited from SABC airtime, an interview scheduled with Zuma in 2005 before his rape trial was canned and a song in support of Zuma was banned from the airwaves. A critical documentary on Mbeki was screened only after much dithering at the SABC.

"I won't comment on the meeting. I understand the position of the ANC," Mpofu said.

"The ANC doesn't have to tell the SABC that it does not want it to be its propaganda machine. It never instructed the SABC to be its propaganda machine. The ANC has its own communication structures, while the government has GCIS ."

Mpofu said the ANC's policy document at Polokwane on the SABC had strengthened the hand of the corporation.

"Divisions between government and the ANC have nothing to do with the SABC. We never treated the ANC and government as the same. The government is accountable to the people who voted for it while the ANC accounts to its membership," he said.

Mpofu added that there had always been an incorrect perception of the SABC as being a mouthpiece for the ANC under Mbeki: "I would have never gone there if it was to act as a mouthpiece for anyone. We don't care for ministers, we care for the public."

Mpofu said that, despite constant criticism, credibility among viewers and listeners remained high.

However, Mkhonza, the new chairperson, said that the board had held its first meeting last week and was "seriously concerned" about the negative perceptions of the broadcaster.

Mkhonza said she had not been given an official position from the ANC on its expectations, but was aware of the ANC's concerns from media reports.

She confirmed that there had been informal meetings with some NEC members - including Gwede Mantashe, the secretary-general - but said official meetings were yet to be planned.

"Concerns have been raised by various parties. We want to hear the concerns of all political parties, not just the ANC, and deal with the issues, especially regarding credibility," she said.

Tiyani Rikhotso, the ANC spokesperson, said the organisation wanted the SABC to carry out its mandate and play a developmental role that was expected of a public broadcaster.

"Our expectations of the SABC are similar to those of any citizen; we want a broadcaster that executes its public service mandate," he said.

He said there had been several meetings between the ANC and the SABC, but he would not comment on them.

When the NEC meets in March it wants to have tension over the SABC board - made up of Mbeki supporters - resolved.

Critics say the parliamentary process to elect the SABC board was flawed because of interference from the presidency and Luthuli House. The final list was not the one approved by parliament. It featured four additional names sent in a fax from Luthuli House. Legal experts say this amounts to a violation of the constitution.

However, while the ANC has no intention of reversing the decision through a constitutional court challenge, it hopes to deal with the issue by the end of the month.

Jane Duncan, the executive director of the Freedom of Expression Institute, said that, on the surface, the ANC's position concerning the national broadcaster was a positive development.

"One hopes it is not an attempt to make the SABC partial to Zuma and there are grounds to argue that the SABC has been less than partial in its reporting and support of Mbeki," she said.