I recently watched an eNCA panel discussion hosted by Jeremy Maggs with two guests, Jeremy Gordin, publisher of the country’s best-selling newspaper, the Daily Sun and William Bird of Media Monitoring Africa, an NGO that has, of late, increasingly focused on children’s rights in a media context.
You can watch the full interview here.
The reason for the discussion was that the Daily Sun had published screen grabs from a brief cellphone video clip taken by a pupil at a school in Dannhauser which showed the murder of a fellow pupil, 18-year old, Bongani Nkabinde, and thereafter put the video on its website. The pupils involved were later charged with his murder.
Maggs clearly wanted to create political theatre and started the interview by saying to Gordin: “You procured and published what is ostensibly a snuff video. Is this good journalism?”
Unsurprisingly, Gordin took strong exception to Maggs’ public display of ignorance of what a snuff video entails and, as the Wiki link indicates, there is no evidence that a ‘snuff video’ has ever been made anywhere in the world, let alone by a pupil using a cellphone to record a long-simmering feud which exploded with tragic consequences in Dannhauser.
What then became disturbingly obvious was that Maggs had failed to do any research whatsoever in preparing for the discussion. He asked: “When were the parents of this unfortunate victim aware of this?” and Gordin went on to enlighten if that “if you had read the story …” he would have been aware of the fact that the father of the murdered youth had been present at a local clinic when his son’s body arrived on a gurney – i.e. long before the video was made available online.
Throughout the discussion Gordin and his newspaper were the subject of relentless insult. When Maggs asked him whether he would have published the video if his own child had been the victim and Gordin, after consideration, replied in the affirmative this was condescendingly dismissed by Maggs as hypocrisy. Throughout the interview Gordin and the Daily Sun were accused of base motives of profit with complete disregard for the public good.
The gravamen of Bird’s contention was that South Africa is a violent society and that no purpose is served by the visual depiction of this violence in the media because it “disempowers” people.
This left me aghast because it goes one step beyond the formula now being imposed on the SABC by Hlaudi Motsoeneng in that it calls for complete censorship of visuals such as the Andries Tatane murder whereas Motsoeneng has called for a 70% ‘good news’ approach.
This left me astonished because it was William Bird who attacked Motsoeneng for adopting this approach.
In suggesting that the media “disempowers” our society by publishing videos such as the Dannhauser school murder Bird echoes the sentiments expressed recently by President Jacob Zuma.
Throughout the discussion an increasingly bemused Gordin pointed out that Maggs and Bird did not speak for or to the people who bought the Daily Sun and there is no indication that anyone has complained to the Press Council about the publication of the video. He stressed that the major concern should not be about ethical debates interrogating the publication of a few seconds of video material but about what it revealed about our schools and the education system in which such brutality thrives.
However, when Bird resorted to outright slurs, accusing Gordin and the Daily Sun of an “apartheid” approach without providing any substantiating evidence, Gordin finally snapped, roaring in righteous anger, “Codswallop!” “Codwallop!”
I watched the discussion with great interest because I have, for more than half a century, lived a life steeped in photography in a news context. I started a 38-year news reporting career as a photographer on the Natal Witness in Pietermaritzburg in the late sixties and, a decade later, after a year’s full time study in Film Production at the Pretoria Technikon, I joined the SABC as a film reporter in 1977. In this time I have seen many bodies in an out of body bags, burnt to death in fires, crushed in vehicle and aeroplane crashes, dismembered in mountain falls, the victims of murder and suicide, flood and war and throughout that period I and colleagues used a variety of techniques – camera angles, camera height, focus pulls, control of depth of field etc to show what had happened but without offending readers, viewers or the bereaved next of kin.
What I can say as the result of personal experience, academic study and extensive reading is that if the principles of media depiction of violence espoused by Maggs and Bird were to prevail, then some of the most iconic photographs ever taken would never have been published or aired.
Let me take an obvious example.
By any norm or standard the depiction of a nude nine-year-old girl in the media would be ethically questionable and yet it was the famous 1972 picture taken by AP photographer Nick Ut showing a victim of a napalm attack, Kim Phuc, which radically changed America’s attitude to the Vietnam War. I would argue that it was this picture, among others such the photograph by Eddie Adams of South Vietnamese General Nguyen Ngoc Loan executing a Viet Cong officer with a single shot to the head, that led to the recent veto by the American public of any military intervention in Syria.
In the eNCA panel discussion Bird said that the first duty of media institutions which come into possession of visual images such as the Dannhauser killing was to “minimise harm” and on that basis alone the Daily Sun and other “disreputable” media institutions which published the images – described by Maggs as “horrifying in the extreme” – should be “deeply ashamed.”
I am baffled by this contention.
Firstly, the grainy, shaky video was not as explicit in its depiction of violence as, say, the movies directed by John Tarantino and Sam Peckinpah which millions of highly educated, sophisticated people all over the world flock to see without apparent harm. It is brief, lasting only a few seconds. The low resolution images are fuzzy and out of focus and the footage has the disconcerting degree of camera shake which is the norm with handheld cellphone video footage taken under such circumstances.
In the panel discussion Maggs claimed, without providing any supporting evidence of his contention that “the audience was traumatised”. This clip was far less horrifying than the images of Mido Macia, being dragged to his death by Daveyton police published by the Daily Sun during the tenure as publisher of Jeremy Gordin in February this year.
Among the “disreputable” news organisations which failed to “minimise harm” and published or aired the Macia visuals, thereby “traumatising its audience” and which should thus should be “deeply ashamed” was eNCA! These “disreputable” news organisations included every major international television station and newspaper of note in the world.
As a result of the Daily Sun breaking this story – no different in principle to the Dannhauser school killing – and failing to “minimise harm” eight policemen have now been charged with Macia’s murder.
According to Bird, we all know what violence is about and thus images of violence should not be depicted in the media because it “disempowers” people. Since 11 June 1963 when pictures of the self-immolation of Thich Quang Duc in protest against the persecution of Buddhists by the South Vietnamese government outraged the world, we all know what a burning human being looks like. Thus, if the edicts of Bird had been observed, photos of our own burning man – the victim of xenophobic violence – Ernesto Alfabeto Nhamuave, 35, – should not have been published locally and around the world in June 2008. But nobody was more disempowered than Nhamuave and the headline in the UK’s Daily Mail said it all: ‘The tale of the flaming man whose picture woke the world up to South Africa’s xenophobia’.
But let us take the most iconic struggle photograph of them all as an illustration of just how absurd the contentions of Maggs and Bird were in their intemperate attacks on Gordin.
The decision to publish Sam Nzima’s 16 June 1976 photograph of the dying Hector Pieterson was taken by Percy Qoboza, the subsequently banned editor of the subsequently banned The World and that photograph galvanised opposition throughout the world to the apartheid regime.
Qoboza’s decision to publish this photograph was no different in principle to Gordin’s decision to accede to express wish of the concerned parent who supplied him with the Dannhauser school video and asked him to publish it. In each case the editor hoped that publishing the images would highlight an iniquitous situation and would bring about change for the better.
A degree of comedy was provided by Bird when, with a clearly carefully premeditated flourish, he sought to deliver the coup de grâce and hauled a copy of the constitution from his inside jacket pocket to prove his point about minimising harm. Unfortunately the impact was lost because he dislodged his lapel mic and panicked.
But here, as a counterpoint, is what Gareth van Onselen had to say about the constitution and free speech in relation to a recent controversy about a Zapiro cartoon:
What these critiques of free speech are really after is silence — a world untainted by satire or metaphor, criticism or disagreement. Maharaj claims that while cartoonists “have the right to freedom of artistic expression, they must always act in full cognisance of the fact that all rights carry concomitant responsibilities”. The only thing more ominous is that he expects the Commission for the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Communities to do something about it.
Check section 16 of the Bill of Human Rights, which says “everyone has the right to freedom of expression”, which includes “freedom of the press and other media”, “freedom to receive or impart information or ideas” and the “freedom of artistic creativity”. So, three-nil to Zapiro on that front…
Thirty years ago only the well-heeled enthusiast owned a movie camera. Nowadays average-income people carry smartphones with high definition video capabilities and, furthermore, a video clip can be instantly posted on websites such as YouTube or Vimeo.
This has radically changed the way we see the world and the way news is disseminated – as the Arab Spring has proved. In a Daily Maverick article on the controversy, eNCA reporter Yusuf Omar makes the point that citizens are now reporters to an infinitely greater degree than the past and that the media have simply become gatekeepers giving greater context and exposure to this new form of news gathering.
I believe that, just as the Daily Sun was justified in publicising the cellphone footage of Mido Macia, so too was it justified in publishing the Nkabinde footage. There has been no complaint to the Press Ombud. Nkabinde was not a child but a young adult. Furthermore, before the Daily Sun published this clip, other cellphone footage of the anarchy which prevails in our schools was already in the public domain throughout the world.
Gordin’s newspaper merely reiterated the urgency of the situation.
The two Vietnam War photographs mentioned earlier, despite the appalling violence they depict, were considered of sufficient moment and import by Carl Sagan, to be included in this moving tribute to the world we live in.