“The shocking on-air broadcast on Wednesday of a dead Reeva Steenkamp’s head made cringe-worthy South African television history. It was the first time in South African television history that an an image/photo of a victim, photographed dead on the scene by the police, was shown on South African television in live TV coverage of a court case and a murder trial. – Television critic, Thinus Ferreira 10/4/2014
There has been wide-spread and justified revulsion at the graphic images broadcast on 9 April during the live televised coverage of the Oscar Pistorius trial.
SKY news blurred the photographs in a later report and eNCA, unaware of what was coming in a live feed not under their control (they took the feed from Carte Blanche) removed the image from later broadcasts.
Ferreira, in his comprehensive report on the matter, makes the point that broadcasters were caught by surprise but this broadcast had an unfortunate precedent when no element of surprise was present. I am referring to the SABC broadcasting video material on 14 June 2000 showing the bodies of two murder victims, Brenda Fairhead and her young daughter Kia, on a mortuary slab in the Eastern Cape, images that graphically depicted the appalling extent of their injuries.
The senior news executives at the time were Snuki Zikalala, Phil Molefe and Themba Mthembu and it was on their watch that what could justifiably be described as the most appalling breach of reporting ethics, humanity and good taste in South African media history occurred.
For all those in the media it is important that such occurrences not be forgotten and not be repeated.
The last memory of his loved ones retained by their husband and father, was waving them goodbye as they left to go fishing on the Fish River near Kleinemond in the Eastern Cape, where the family was on holiday.
Then, on Wednesday 14 June, Mr Fairhead was provided with sickening and gratuitous proof of just how ghastly their dying moments must have been when the bloody and battered faces and bodies of his wife and daughter, photographed on a slab in a police mortuary were shown by SABC2 and SABC3 during their 7pm and 8pm news broadcasts.
The Fairhead family described the broadcasting of these photographs as “sick, very cruel and unfair” and a “gross invasion of privacy”. For a family battling to come to terms with their grief and sense of loss, this broadcast was a huge setback.
Disbelief and horror
In a letter to the media one of the country’s leading forensic pathologists, Professor GJ Knobel, head of the department of forensic medicine at the University of Cape Town, bitterly berated the SABC for this action: “I write on behalf of my whole department and myself to express our disbelief and horror regarding the SABC news bulletins on June 14 in which the pictures of the late Brenda Fairhead and her daughter, Kia, were shown. I happened to watch the news in the company of friends, all of whom expressed their shock and anger at the insensitivity of the action.
“One would have presumed that the SABC and its management would display the necessary sensitivity and common decency not to inflict, once again, the horror of the murders onto relatives and friends of the deceased, as well as the general public in this brutal way.
“We regard this inexcusable event as the worst possible violation of the privacy of Mrs Fairhead and her daughter Kia, and their families. Our condolences go out to them.”
In a column (‘The prerogative of the brute’) on this literally appalling news item, the Mail & Guardian television critic, the late Robert Kirby, articulated a growing public concern about the way in which the tax-payer-funded parastatal’s news department was being run by Zikalala, Molefe and Mthembu and a supportive and protective board packed with Thabo Mbeki acolytes. “At what stage, I wonder, will SABC upper management, let alone its board, decide to exercise some authority and bring the crude excesses of its television news department under some sort of control? The department quite clearly believes itself to be immune to any sort of restraint, nor does it deem necessary the exercise of even the most primary rules of acceptable public conduct.
“The current prerogative of the SABC television news department has become that of the brute. It is apparently not sufficient for this department to report and reflect, among other things, on the deep corruption in South African life. The SABC news department seems to have decided that its scope includes a perceived duty to contribute to a prevalent contamination.
“It will be interesting to see how, or indeed whether, the SABC responds to Professor Knobel’s letter. I will be surprised if it does. Its news department has long since demonstrated that it believes itself to be a functional entity in the current political establishment; therefore under control separate to SABC management.” (Mail & Guardian, 30/7/2000).
Human rights abuses
Zikalala issued an apology with this rider: “TV is a visual medium. If people do not know what really happened, it is very difficult for them to visualise it. That is why we showed the pictures.” (Cape Argus, 16/6/2000.)
This was a truly frightening negation of the concept of Ubuntu and of the respect for the dead that is a characteristic of the culture of all people.
It also contravened two publicly articulated values of the SABC as a whole:
- “Compassion and concern for human dignity, the people, life and the environment.
- Sensitivity to the diverse nature of South African society and to the need for justice and healing.”
However, what was more important is that it negated key elements of the SABC’s editorial code:
- “We shall respect the legitimate rights to privacy of individuals and shall do nothing which entails intrusion into private grief and distress unless justified by overriding considerations of public interest.
- We shall take due care and be sensitive in the presentation of brutality, violence, atrocities and personal grief.”
No official sanction
There was absolutely no way in which showing the bloodied and battered bodies of Mrs Fairhead and her teenage daughter on the mortuary slab could be considered as “justified by overriding considerations of public interest”.
In any normal broadcasting organisation in a competitive, multi-party democracy, Zikalala would have voluntarily stepped down over this broadcast but there is no evidence that he was ever exposed to any official sanction at any level of the SABC for this broadcasting brutality.
Indeed, SABC board members like Eddie Funde, Thami Mazwai and Christine Qunta and CEO Dali Mpofu publicly and repeatedly gave Zikalala their full support and ascribed any concerns expressed about his management of the corporation’s news division to white racism.
The public contrition by eNCA over its inadvertent broadcasting of the Reeva Steenkamp visuals shows that at least one of our broadcasting companies subscribes to the media values which should be universal.
Patrick Conroy, eNCA’s group head of news said in an interview with Thinus Ferreira: “eNCA did not rebroadcast the image in later bulletins, although DStv channel 199 did. We cannot explain the rationale for doing so.”
This is as disturbing as was the broadcasting of visuals of the Fairhead mother and daughter in 2000.
Fourteen years later we should have learned from that lesson.
IMAGE: Still of video of Oscar Pistorius at a shooting range, screened initially by SKY News.