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‘Racist photo’: the real story is us, not Sunday Times

Marelise van der Merwe and Daily Maverick grew up together, so her past life increasingly resembles a speck in the rearview mirror. She vaguely recalls writing, editing, teaching and researching, before joining the Daily Maverick team as Production Editor. She spent a few years keeping vampire hours in order to bring you each shiny new edition (you're welcome) before venturing into the daylight to write features. She still blinks in the sunlight.

The Sunday Times has issued a limp-wristed non-apology, and South Africa is unusually united in ridiculing its new common enemy.  But is the authenticity of the photograph even the issue? I don’t think so.

On Sunday, half the country was up in arms over an (apparently) child-murdering racist. On Monday, it was up in arms about inaccurate reporting. But the real problem with the Sunday Times approach is not that the photo was used in error, but the coverage itself – and how it plays into South Africa’s horribly deformed political landscape.

Is it even relevant that the photograph in question was (apparently) a hoax? It’s embarrassing for the Sunday Times, but given the broader context, the inaccurate reporting is just gravy. It’s an opportunity for us to point and laugh, to find fault with the paper instead the state of our country, and breathe a sigh of relief because the bogeyman isn’t real.

But that’s cowardice and oversimplification. The really sloppy journalism isn’t in the lack of fact-checking, it’s in the story angle and presentation. And the bogeyman is real. The proof of this isn’t in the photo, no. But it’s in our responses.

Let’s take the presentation first. Our country’s top-selling newspaper stumbles on (it thinks) a scoop. Let’s assume the story is true, the photo isn’t doctored, nobody has ever covered the story or been suspended from a university, or, or, or. But, as fellow Maverick writer Rebecca Davis pointed out via Facebook, “What does this story tell us that we don’t already know? That some whites are racist?”

Well, quite. But that’s not all one can criticise in the coverage. Although much of the media outrage is over inaccurate reporting, one can’t dismiss the Sunday Times’ approach as an honest mistake. It’s not that a gullible journalist made an error, believing in good faith that the photo was real. The article openly declares that the photo went to print before all the facts were checked. I quote: “While it is not known if the photograph is genuine or has been manipulated, a child protection charity has expressed concern for the well being (sic) of the youngster”.

And there, folks, you have the definition of sensationalism. Translation: “We’ve found this picture that may or may not be real. The authorities are finding out if it’s real. Shocking, hey? We’ve blown it up real big so you can see.”

The picture was undated and – as Independent Online pointed out – there was no indication whether it was posed, digitally manipulated or left in all its “undoctored” glory. The Sunday Times openly reported that it had sent the picture off for investigation by the Hawks and that no conclusion had yet been reached.

But surely, then, that is not a story?

And that’s not only because the allegations might turn out to be a lot of hot air. There’s a reason why discretion is advocated in responsible journalism – why  “if your mother tells you she loves you, you check it out”. One does not release details of sensitive investigations willy-nilly; one names names with caution. One does not print facts one has not checked. The reason is twofold: to protect innocent people from slander and public hanging, and to avoid hampering ongoing investigations. Adding a disclaimer that the picture is “being investigated” is not enough. Assuming the photo was real and this was a murder investigation, blabbing about who’s being checked out could have jeopardised the search for the suspect. And this is the most basic of journalistic rules.

So what’s with the presentation of what even the journalist admits is a non-story? It’s shameless fear-mongering. The “maybe this isn’t a real photo” disclaimers effectively occurred in the fine print. Not every person who walked into a shop and saw the paper lying on the rack would have bought it and read the article, but they sure would have seen the picture and responded to it. And the journalists and editors responsible must have realised this.

South Africa is laughing at a newspaper that’s been shown up for an embarrassing “mistake”. My point is this: it wasn’t a mistake. It’s not news to the paper that the photo wasn’t real; it already covered that possibility in a variety of textual disclaimers. If the journalist, subeditor and editor concerned had cleared that photo, erroneously believing it was real, I could almost – almost – forgive their wilful provocation of outrage. But they didn’t. They just printed it because they could and because it would get a reaction.

Nowhere in the article was there any attempt to open up meaningful dialogue around race relations in our country. Nowhere was there any attempt to make anything better. Even if the photo had been 100% real, the coverage would still have been inflammatory. The outrage it provoked was superficial, designed for tomorrow’s bin liners, not to provoke thought.

The article is positioned righteously – which is a little rich, considering it’s gratuitously circulating the image it’s condemning. It quotes director of Women + Men Against Child Abuse, Miranda Jordan: “This hate image incites racism that almost all South Africans have fought so hard to eradicate.” The voice of Vogel from Kidz Clinics adds: “Once an image is posted on the Internet, it can never be deleted. So… this hate image will be linked to this young man and this child for the rest of their lives. This is a gross violation of this child’s well-being and privacy.”

Really? Then why are we circulating it for the sake of sensation?

So much for presentation. As for the public’s response, it’s just as telling. Take a tour of Facebook and Twitter, and you’ll find – more or less – the following camps:

1. People who believe the article and photo are factually correct, and are outraged by the behaviour of the “racist pig” (I quote a lively Facebook discussion).

2. People who are aware that the photo is (probably) a fake, and that the journalist didn’t check the facts. These people are outraged by the “bad press” South Africa is getting, and the “harm to the country’s reputation”.

But aren’t we missing the point? I didn’t know the photograph was a hoax when I first saw the headline, but my instinctive response was: Does it change much if it is? Because whether or not that particular racist exists and whether or not he posed his actual, personal, child-abusing body next to the actual, murdered body of a black child, the fact remains that the public responds to him because he exists, even if only as a familiar character in our stories, our stereotypes, or our history. He is instantly recognisable – a caricature who represents a widespread and insidious truth in our country. And that’s why the picture is so horrifying.

Take a further tour of Facebook. Run some relevant keywords. (I recommend using a language other than English, because Facebook is primarily monitored in English and the reporting of English pages is, therefore, that much more efficient.) I ran with “wit en trots”, which delivered numerous listings. As did “ou Suid-Afrika”. My personal favourite was “Ek mis die ou Suid-Afrika”, with the tagline, “Hoe kan jy moord, armoede en geweld met verdrukking vergelyk?” (“How can you compare murder, poverty and violence with oppression?” – because, of course, oppression is perfectly okay, and the old South Africa never witnessed any violence or murder.) The latter includes an admonition to watch language use on the page, because Facebook moderators were threatening to delete it – a fate which befell the “Wit en f*kken trots daarop” page, shut down owing to hate speech and the inciting of race-based violence.

Open up “Die ou Suid-Afrika nuus” and you’ll find the former SA flag, plus numerous photos of Verwoerd, and the explanation that “die blankedom” (whites) must “do something” about the “mistake” they made in allowing the 1992 referendum – apparently a decision which caused the “rape” of Afrikaans and the apparently worrying increase in the black population “over the last 100 years”. All of which is allegedly against the “faith” of white Christians in the south of Africa.

Not that it’s only whites, or Afrikaners, that are guilty of racism. If you want some hardcore anger and raging, take a look at Julius Malema’s fan page, where everyone from “buru” and “boere” to “makwerekwere” get taken down as a matter of course, among heartfelt promises to “call together the guerillas to fight”. Then you get the fundamentalist Muslim pages calling for “Muslimah’s (sic)” to “fear Allah” and “stop running off with k*ff**s”  because it’s “sad and freakin’ disgusting”.

All of which makes charming reading. But in the face of all this, when one measly photo is exposed as old news and (probably) fake, what makes us heave a sigh of relief and say, “Oh well, that’s all right then. Bad Sunday Times, your fake photo gives South Africa a bad name”?

Discounting the photo doesn’t change that there are whackos out there who abuse children, who believe killing people of other races should be a new national sport. Whether or not that particular photo turns out to be usable supporting evidence, the truth is that (a) racism and child abuse are real and (b) there is a lack of helpful discourse about it in South Africa. We’re either patriotic (read: in denial), presenting our country as the poster child for reconciliation, or we’re outraged – “want ons is mos nie almal so nie”. (It’s Anni Dewani syndrome: as soon as it turned out her husband was the prime suspect, South Africans felt vindicated, and Facebook and Twitter were abuzz with patriots pumping their fists in the air and yelling that South Africa – as a nation – had been found not guilty. Yet there is crime here.) Photoshopping in one controversial photo doesn’t negate the widespread racial hatred that still exists.

So who’s really giving South Africans a bad name? Who’s really making the good people of our democracy look bad? Poor journalism aside, I don’t think it’s the Sunday Times. It’s South Africans ourselves – and that’s what we should be talking about. DM


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