Media

Sowetan sies no wrong in “public interest” porn-like pic

By Carien Du Plessis 17 August 2011

Thousands of readers salivated indignantly over the Sowetan’s recent shocking but salacious front page, featuring a man and woman in correctional services and police uniforms –in a rather compromising position. CARIEN DU PLESSIS asked newly-appointed editor Mpumelelo Mkhabela why.

Sowetan’s newly-appointed editor, Mpumelelo Mkhabela says it was all about public interest and it had nothing to do with sales – the picture on his paper’s front page on Monday showing a correctional services official, in full uniform, examining the genitals of a woman cop … in only the top half of her police uniform.

The article headline read: “The fifteen minute bonking that ruined officers’ lives”.

The essential bits – the playful couple’s faces, and the stuff that would have made the picture pornographic – were censored with black blots in the name of good taste, 70s Playboy style. But any reader (over the legal age of 16) with half an imagination would have been well-aware of what was happening underneath.

The paper published a pre-emptive apology, saying they would not normally publish these pictures, which “could justifiably be offensive to sensitive readers” and which would not be allowed under “sound journalistic codes”.

The same story – about the video of the two officials cavorting on duty, and facing dismissal – passed almost unnoticed in the City Press a day earlier, it was buried on the inside pages of the paper and accompanied by a more chaste picture of the two embracing.

Mkhabela was appointed earlier this month following the row over Eric Miyeni’s infamous column (in which he called City Press editor Ferial Haffajee a “black snake”), the demotion of Len Maseko from acting editor to his old position of deputy editor, and a general shake-up in the upper echelons of the paper.

So, does Monday’s picture represent a repositioning of the proud paper that was once banned for its outspoken views against apartheid, to a tabloid in more than format?

Mkhabela, an exceedingly bright, intellectual journalist not at all resembling local tabloid kings like Deon du Plessis, is mildly outraged at the question. “After Women’s Day, our front page was President Jacob Zuma talking about empowering women, but nobody asked if we were repositioning then.”

He said the pictures were published because they were in the public interest. The officials concerned were doing off-duty deeds on taxpayers’ money and wearing uniforms that belonged to the state, and they were neglecting their duty with regards to national security.

“The picture got people debating the issue everywhere,” Mkhabela said.

And they certainly have. Kaya FM featured it on Monday evening and Facebook pages and Twitter were full of it, mostly condemning the “pornography”.

Political commentator Eusebius McKaiser’s tongue-in-cheek Facebook update (he doesn’t do Twitter) stole the cake:‎ “Dear Sowetan readers. We regret the offense caused by the front page picture on Monday. The system, not us, let you down. The system has been suspended pending their appearance at a disciplinary hearing. Yours (as it were), after the bonking fact, Sowetan Editorial Team.”

On a more serious note, the Commission on Gender Equality awoke from its eternal slumber to accuse the Sowetan of using sex to sell papers, and to call for a public apology from the paper. It also gently recommended that Sowetan journalists and editors attend “gender sensitivity workshops” facilitated by the commission itself.

“We are sure that the Department of Correctional Services and the South African Police Service are capable of addressing the individuals involved internally,” it added.

The statement even had a ring of media tribunal about it, what with the commission threatening: “In a country where media regulation is currently being debated, Sowetan’s actions do little to strengthen the free media’s debate”.

Gender equality is, of course, the issue, because there is “rampant abuse of women”, “the sexual misuse of mobile technology” and the small matter of children seeing the “personal and explicit image” in the mainstream media, which is “bordering on the propagation of pornography”.

William Bird from Media Monitoring Africa (MMA) joined in the outrage but in a more considered way. He listed in his statement the usual social and economic problems in South Africa and contrasted them with the “disturbing” fact that the Sowetan chose to “lead with a story featuring sexually explicit material”.

He asked whether the story was led by the picture. “Had the Sowetan not accessed the video footage, would they have run the story?”

Also, government had dealt with the matter, so “does the story really warrant such prominence and dramatic images”. In fact, “what is the actual story?” he asked.

After the debate, then what, Bird wanted to know.

The story could also have “devastating consequences” for the families of the officials involved. “It is not clear how considerations of privacy were balanced against the desire to report the story,” he said.

The reporting (giving the man the pseudonym of “Big” and saying the woman “hastily (took) down her tight pants” only served to titillate and “reinforce sexist stereotypes, he said.

Although MMA isn’t saying Sowetan should not have reported the story, the focus could have been different, such as looking at sexual relations in high-stress positions in the police and prisons, “rather than focussing on the sexual prowess or lack thereof of the officers.

Rumours of suicide spread like wildfire on Twitter on Tuesday – some messages suggesting that the policewoman killed herself, others say it was the guy. If there were any truth to these rumours, it would add another dimension to Sowetan’s story – we hope that they are really, really convinced about their public interest defence. The last thing a spanking new editor needs is such a thing riding on his conscience.

Despite the recent outrage, let us hope that Sowetan doesn’t shy away from boldly tackling issues, and that people would continue reading it – for the news articles of course. DM



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