By Anton Harber
It was an easy decision not to show the horrific close-up pictures of Reeva Steenkamp’s body released in court Wednesday. The broadcasting code precludes it, and we could not see sufficient public interest to justify such terrible images.
Even beyond those broadcasting rules, we considered putting the pictures online on enca.com with serious warnings to tell readers they should think twice before looking. We didn’t. I found the pictures deeply disturbing and degrading and I do not think it was worth the risk of children seeing such pics.
Prominent commentator Nomboniso Gasa took to Twitter. (Or should we call her Numberniso, because we know we are headed for trouble when she numbers her tweets.)
Wrong. We did not publish pictures of Anene Booysen’s body. We are obliged to check facts before we broadcast criticism, and can only plead with others to do the same out of a sense of fairness, decency and responsibility.
Actually, we make decisions not to publish inappropriate material all the time, especially since we were fined by the regulator for showing pictures of the body of Muammar Gaddafi. We may err from time to time, but we try and be consistent in our policy to be careful with pictures of dead bodies, particularly when they are gruesome.
Even when there is a public interest argument for showing the horrors, such as with the Marikana massacre or the Andries Tatane shooting, we refrain from showing the worst and stick to those we think are justified because we have an obligation to show what happened.
Sometimes material may slip through because it is running live, but we are able to give it more thought and care when we consider re-using it. We have to make a lot of decisions on the fly, and that can be very challenging. (When we appealed the Gaddafi case, the BCCSA accepted that the pictures were running live and overturned the finding that we were guilty of running inappropriate pictures, but upheld the ruling that we failed to provide sufficient warning.)
Yesterday, we were caught in a major courtroom drama, where the defence gave us Pistorius on his stumps – a show designed for the world to see how vulnerable he appeared without his legs. I can see no argument for us not to use it, even though we were aware that his defence was playing to the media and to public sympathy. If we start cutting out evidence because we don’t like it, we are on a road to self-censorship.
When our marketing department came up with a promo that used this footage, it was rejected for being distasteful, as we do not want to draw viewers by playing on someone’s disabilities.
In court, the prosecution countered with the Steenkamp pictures, again playing largely, I believe, to the media and public sympathy. When I heard her family wanted them used, I was arguing for us to try to find a way to publish, at least online, using warnings and blurring to minimise potential harm. My instinct is always to try and publish as much as we can. But when I saw the pictures, I realised there was no way to do so.
If you think we are inconsistent in our treatment of black and white, male and female, straight or gay bodies, as Ms Gasa is suggesting, then please give us examples, so that we can fix it. Meanwhile, let’s all be vigilant about accuracy before we broadcast.
Anton Harber is eNCA Editor-in-Chief.