South Africa

Maverick Life, South Africa

Op-Ed: An Open Letter to Sky News

Op-Ed: An Open Letter to Sky News

By normalising violence and its consequences through the media, violence is seen as almost natural to black people. This practice means it is acceptable to show the deepest pain and most private anguish for all to see, for no other benefit or news value other than to reinforce the stereotype of black people being violent, and overly emotional. By WILLIAM BIRD.

Dear Sky News,

It has been a few weeks but I am still angry. I’m annoyed by your failure to engage, even though it is likely driven by a desire not to accept any form of culpability, it comes across as arrogant and uncaring. You will recall that despite a number of attempts via social media and emails, we received only one very brief response saying the matter had been sent to London and that the video was no longer airing on Sky News, since then nothing. As I said, it is annoying and arrogant however, what is really profoundly problematic and unacceptable is the content of the story in question.

On the 7th of January 2016 you published a story focusing on rape in South Africa. In the item you interviewed both the mother of a child rape survivor and the child rape survivor as well. Africa Check found your piece to be inaccurate, but it isn’t just that the story was inaccurate. It is not just that it was unethical. It is the fact that it managed to do so much wrong in such a short space of time.

Let me be clear, rape and child rape remains an under-reported crime, its complexities and gender dimensions need far greater exposure. I take no issue with the effort to highlight rape. In fact if you see this story, from the Mail & Guardian (M&G) you will see how sensitively rape can be reported – in the same community your story takes place. Unlike your story the one from the M&G unpacks the complexity and critically, respects the rights of those involved. Yours fails on almost every count. So what’s wrong with it?

While the piece possibly aims to bring awareness around the scourge of rape in the community and South Africa, it sadly does this at the expense of the 10-year-old girl who is indirectly identified, and through her being interviewed forced to relive her trauma. While the child was given a pseudonym “Ruth” in order to conceal her identity, and while her face was not shown, her mother (Grace) was identified in the clip thereby indirectly identifying the child. This is in clear violation of the Section 154 (3); 2(b) and 335A of the Criminal Procedure Act where even consent from the parent would not suffice to justify the publication of the child’s identity.

Leaving the legal issue aside for the moment, it is critical that the child is not identified (directly or indirectly) in the media to protect her privacy and dignity, and in the case of Diepsloot, to also prevent possible harm, humiliation and/or intimidation. The protection of the child’s identity is also for security reasons as she is also a victim and witness to a crime, in this instance rape. It is clear from the story that the child has already been teased, and therefore humiliated at school as a result of what happened. Her mother states in the video that this has been happening at her school. Sky News therefore should have taken the necessary precautions to ensure that the child would not be exposed to further humiliation through her indirect identification.

Of further concern is that the story draws on the traumatic experiences of the child who was also interviewed in the story. It is unclear what precautions were taken to ensure that she would not be subjected to further trauma as a result of having to retell her story. Clearly, however, the issue of interviewing the child, as well as the mother in the presence of the child, would have exposed the child to secondary trauma and we have been advised by experts who work with abused children that such interviews, except in truly exceptional cases and where it is demonstrably in the best interests of the child, should be avoided at all costs.

We note that the story is in clear violation of your own code of Editorial Guidelines. See Sections 11 and 14 Dealing with Impartiality & Accuracy, and Protecting Under 18’s respectively.

But wait, there’s more: Aside from accuracy issues highlighted by Africa Check, aside from the risk of harm to the child and mother, aside from the trauma and secondary trauma of going through the story again, aside from the fact that the story was clearly not in the best interest of the child as required by our Constitution, aside from the fact that the piece constitutes a clear breach of your own editorial code, the story is also a clear example of white superiority in action.

You may be aware of the profound outrage expressed in response to comments from Penny Sparrow. You might also be aware of the outrage linked to comments by another broadcaster about one of our ministers’ ability to pronounce certain words. The outrage is born out of centuries of colonialist thinking, oppression and racism and the hurt that it caused and continues to cause. Your story about rape is another example of white superiority.

It’s important that you understand that one of the vilest elements of apartheid was that it was not only about inequality, but also about dehumanising black people. Common techniques to achieve this were to rob people of their dignity and their privacy. It was about making sure violence was seen as endemic to black people. Our media in the late 80s early 90s used to refer to “black on black” violence as though somehow black people just used to fight because they were black, as though it was some kind of innate practice. Some media at the time used to report on “weekend clashes” in which many lost lives as though the events were like football fixtures. Few sought to report the complexity, the political dimensions and the role of the apartheid state in these acts of violence. Similarly, another classic technique was to show the futility of the violence by showing wailing mothers who had just lost their loved ones.

By normalising violence and its consequences, it made it seem almost natural to black people. It made it “ok” to show their deepest pain and most private anguish for all to see for no other benefit or news value, other than to reinforce the stereotype of black people being violent, and overly emotional. In the past we have written about the use of the wailing woman as an audio effect for news stories. In the early days of our transition, we also challenged our public broadcaster on their previous tendency to further dehumanise black people in their moment of pain and anguish. Somehow while white people’s trauma needed to be respected and shielded it was “ok” for all to see black families who lost their loved ones. In the same way as it seems “ok” to show black bodies in accidents, war and disasters. Not sure? Ask yourself how many dead bodies we saw after the Paris attacks? How many wailing families did we see? When did your team go and interview a white child rape survivor and her mother and show them on your channel? Now think about the attacks in Kenya and Mali, and see if you give the same answers.

In South Africa matters came to a head after a tragic disaster at one of our football stadiums, where, in April 2001, after a crowd-panic 43 people died. Our public broadcaster seemed to think it was “ok” to film families going into and coming out of the morgue having just identified the bodies of their loved ones. Thankfully, we were able to persuade the SABC that such a practice was not ethical. In 2004, the SABC implemented new Editorial Policies which, while problematic on some levels, also included specific clauses on dignity and privacy. You might wish to adopt similarly progressive clauses for your news channel. The policies recognise our past and the need to respect all people’s rights, not to hide the news in any way, but to make sure that all people are treated equally and their dignity respected.

While some in our media occasionally still use black people’s trauma for shock, such examples thankfully, are now the exception. Sadly, your story offered no context, it did not seek to minimise harm, rather it glorified the fact that it featured a distressing interview with a child rape survivor with a note that read: “Warning: This video contains and interview with a child who was raped. You may find it distressing.” After a close up of the mother in which she is seen crying and covering her face with her one hand, the voice over states: “Grace is a mother consumed with hate, her family now another statistic of South Africa’s rampant child abuse.”

With further interviews with an alleged rapist (whose identity we note is protected) and a police officer, no explanation or context is offered. The only reason given is the notion that a child was raped by one of the men as he believed it would cure HIV. While the person may hold this view, no mention of any other issues is offered to challenge it. We then learn the police officer is demoralised. With no real explanation and the scale and frequency highlighted, and with no contrary view, explanation or context, viewers are left to make the connection as to the possible causes. Rather than them being about historical inequality, normalised violence, social connectedness, power, structural issues, state failures and/or patriarchy or a combination, viewers are left with the only explanation being that men believe that raping a child can cure HIV. In so doing, the story falls into the racist trap that somehow these things just happen in black communities. It is also, of course, no accident that not only are the people in this community black, but also poor and vulnerable, again serving to reinforce the notion of rape as endemic to black communities.

What makes your story even more problematic is that not only did the story violate the rights of the child and expose them to further harm, it tapped into a colonial and fundamentally racist manner of story-telling. As such it ignores our past, it belittles the hurt and ongoing inequality in our nation, and it does all to this at the expense of some of our most vulnerable citizens.

To begin with, you owe South Africa, black people generally, the community of Diepsloot, and the subjects of your news item specifically a huge apology. The apology should be accompanied by a retraction of the story across all of your platforms. In this context, the fact that you did not see fit to remove all occurrences of the story, but only one or two links, that you have not offered any apology or said how you will seek to make amends, suggests not only a denial of culpability, but also tacit approval of a means of story-telling that is both harmful, racist and hurtful.

Dear Reader, if you believe the story:

  • Violates the rights of the child, or
  • Is unethical,
  • Perpetuates racist stereotypes,
  • Exploits the most vulnerable in our society,

Any or all of these or a combination thereof I would encourage readers to tweet Sky News and demand an apology and retraction and to know what other forms of redress they propose. #BlackLivesMatter DM


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