17 August 2011

South Africa: Sowetan Cop Sex Video Story Sends Confusing Signals

Photo: Pierre Holtz/IRIN
A young man ferries bananas for sale.


What in the world is going on at the Sowetan? Does the paper even know itself?

A couple of weeks back, heads rolled over the lackadaisical editing that saw Eric Miyeni's creepy rant against City Press editor Ferial Haffajee make it into print. This week we've had the cop sex video story on Monday's front page that has quickly become such a talking point in South Africa.

The story about a 17-minute video of a police reservist and a correctional services officer having sex in a hospital in Krugersdorp while they waited for a suspect to be treated ticked all the right titillation boxes and it was a laugh in a tacky sort of a way, but what is it doing on the front page of the Sowetan, which went upmarket a few years back to distinguish itself from the Daily Sun?

So patently wrong

Not only is this story so patently wrong for the Sowetan's market but putting it on the front page would have more than irritated readers with children who, in our sexed-up day and age, really don't need curious questions from the kids while beating one's way through the traffic on the school run because they've spotted the raunchy picture in the hands of exuberant street sellers.

You expect bawdy stories such as this on the front page of the Daily Voice which is why you buy that paper, no disrespect intended as the paper has its place in our media landscape.

In the Sowetan, you'd expect such a story to be inside the paper just as City Press did on Sunday. And that's the most bizarre part of all of this, the story was already old by Monday and, still, the Sowetan went to town with it the next day. Did the Sunday staff not actually read City Press?

But maybe that's for us media luvvies to ponder. What does this matter when the paper sold like hot cakes?

How you play it

For one, it reminds us when it comes to sex, South Africans are not as conservative as we sometimes think. Secondly, it highlights that it's how you play it that counts.

City Press's more straight, sober take on the story didn't cause half the storm the Sowetan has. It's quite possible that the sex video had been touted around town for quite a while before it landed with City Press and the Sowetan. Patrick Conroy, the group head of news at e.tv, told Bizcommunity that the tape was offered to the news channel a few weeks ago and it turned it down because it didn't consider it a story.

To me, the most bizarre thing about how the Sowetan played the story was that it amped up the sensationalism but also tried to moralise about the sex romp. "We apologise for publishing material of this nature today.

But we hope that you, dear reader, will understand the rationale," the paper explained itself on Monday. "We are doing so reluctantly, albeit with good reason.The seriousness of their conduct lies in complete disrespect for the people of this country."

Mmmm. Ja sure, dudes. That's why the paper was flying off the shelves because everyone was outraged by the cops showing disrespect to their uniforms and, therefore, the country.

Shot itself in the sanctimonious foot

I'd also say the Sowetan pretty much shot itself in the sanctimonious foot the next day when it trumpeted gleefully how well the paper had sold.

"Sowetan was sold out by midday and the newsdesk was inundated with calls from readers who could not find copies of Sowetan," wrote the paper. "Just before lunch time, the full story was uploaded. By late yesterday the articles had received 1290 comments. It was Tweeted 55 times and had 347 comments."

No matter how you spin it, South Africans bought Monday's paper in great numbers because this was about voyeurism, titillation and having a bawdy laugh.

From an industry point of view, the sex-cop video story was confusing. I'm all for newspapers surprising their readers every now but I wonder if this monster sell-out for the Sowetan will have a long-term cost for its brand and to the loyalty of the middle-class market the paper has been nurturing?

New editor

Maybe the sex-cop video spells a repositioning for the Sowetan under the new editor, Mpumelelo Mkhabela, who has just taken over after a year at the Daily Dispatch. It's hard to say as Mondli Makhanya, Avusa's editor-in-chief, referred Bizcommunity yesterday to Mkhabela while he did not respond to a request for comment.

I don't think any of this bodes well for the Sowetan under its new editor and new publishing team sent in by owners Avusa to put the paper back on track after the Miyeni saga.

I've written before that I question Mthabela's suitability as a title editor as he wrote the infamous Sunday Times Transnet story and was one of the reporters on the earlier Land Bank story that led directly to a task team being called in to review the Sunday Times' news processes a few years back.

The biggest problem with the sex-cop video is that the public interest is debatable. I think the paper would have a hard time defending it on an ethical basis, if organisations such as the Commission for Gender Equality and the Media Monitoring Africa take their objections further or if there is a law suit or a complaint to the press ombudsman.

Ethical minefield

Doing sex exposés are often an ethical minefield if there is no corruption, maladministration or high-level politicians or public officials involved.

The two people involved here are low-level officials and he was dumb enough to video it and send it to a buddy. We've seen this kind of thing before usually with kids, who don't realise how such things go viral.

Other issues to consider if you're an editor or news editor with this video in your grubby paws are:

Did the woman know that the man was video-ing them having sex? (City Press suggests not.)

Knowing how word of mouth works especially with a story like this - will the woman's identity be protected by changing her name and obscuring her face?

The City Press story said that the video was "apparently the talk of the town in Kagiso where the presumably married female cop lives and surrounding areas". Which means people already know about it and possibly her identity.

Will you, therefore, cause uncalled-for harm by being sensational and plastering a picture on the front page (rather than inside the paper?)

South Africa is a chauvinistic country where terrible, violent things are done to women in the name of "teaching them a lesson". Will this woman be victimised, threatened or physically hurt because of the story if her identity is known?

What if the woman has children? Will they be hurt or victimised if her identity becomes known?Were these things thought through at the Sowetan when the staff planned their loud, steamy front page? If not, I suspect there is more weird stuff to come from the paper.

I don't have a whole lot of faith in the emergency Avusa team sent in sort out the paper (and sister title Sunday World) and I think the Sowetan has been all over the place since Avusa took over.

Why it went up upmarket in the first place seemed like a weak manoeuvre. Why give up the ground and readership so firmly won by former editor Aggrey Klaaste to the Daily Sun so quickly?

Succession of weak editors

And I think part of the answer lies in a succession of weak editors.

A friend and I came up with a set of questions for prospective editors last week. Some were flippant: Will you buy a fancy car when you become editor? (Indicating, we thought, that the candidate was in it for the status rather than the craft.)

How often do you go out to lunch? (Editors should be too busy to flounce about restaurants.) Are you a teetotaller? (Always a good thing.) Have you been a political reporter? (Probably not a good thing.)

Most important, we decided, was, "have you run the news desk?"

Unless you've done news desk, you can't run a paper as you'll never really know how to balance ethics under pressure with the need to be first and best with the news.

In this case, the Sowetan was neither first nor best and it was on ethically shaky ground.

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