Fanie Bekker vs Beeld

Complainant: Fanie Bekker

Lodged by: Fanie Bekker

Article: Monster se vrou vas; and ‘Monster’ se vrou bly in aanhouding, as well as a story on June 25, headlined Springs se monster: vrou kan dán vra vir borgtog.

Author of article: Vania van der Heever

Date: 19 July 2014

Respondent: Beeld

Complaint

Mr Bekker is complaining about Beeld’s use of the word “monster” when referring to the Springs man who is currently on trial for mistreating his children. The complaint refers to stories published on 24 June 2014, headlined Monster se vrou vas; and ‘Monster’ se vrou bly in aanhouding, as well as a story on June 25, headlined Springs se monster: vrou kan dán vra vir borgtog.

Bekker complains that the use of the word “monster” is insulting and disrespectful, and that, by using that word, Beeld has already “tried” the accused and found him guilty. He adds that the word “monster” is inappropriate, whether the man is guilty or not.

The texts

The stories, all written by Vania van der Heever, were about a father from Springs who was standing trial on charges of child molesting, attempted murder and assault with the intent to seriously injure the children. The reports referred to this man as a “so-called monster” and the headlines referred to him as a “monster”.

Analysis

Ley says the circumstances under which the man was arrested were well-known. “Beeld was on the scene, in the house and spoke to neighbours and police. Beeld dubbed him the ‘Springs-monster’ and his house a ‘huis van gruwels’ because of the facts that were in the public domain and we reported on. It is fair comment as allowed by the Press Code.”

She adds that:

  • it was obvious from Beeld’s reporting that the man was being tried in court and that he had not been found guilty. “Our readers know this. We have not ‘found him guilty’ of anything. Just because there is a court process, does not mean we cannot comment fairly about the case. We have not identified the man”; and
  • “about every newspaper, TV and radio station has called people like this man and others who were suspected of crime against women and children…this monster-word.”

Bekker replies that the fact that Beeld was on the scene (etc.) was subjective information which did not render sufficient reason for anybody to call another human being a “monster”. He also questions Ley’s statement about “fair comment”, and concludes that the newspaper has destroyed this man’s life.

My considerations

I simply cannot condone Ley’s argument that the depiction of this man as a monster was “fair comment” – not before he has been found guilty. Whatever anybody says, there still is a possibility that he may not be found guilty.

Her argument that other media also use this word is likewise not convincing. I am always wary of a “they too” argument to justify one’s ethical behaviour.

On the other hand, I do not agree with Bekker that one should not call a fellow human being a monster irrespective of what he did. If the allegations are found to be true, the description would be justified.

I note with appreciation that the reporter consistently referred to the “so-called” monster (in the bodies of the stories). That, together with the fact that the newspaper has not identified the man, convinces me to give Beeld the benefit of the doubt as far as the stories are concerned.

However, that did not give the publication the right to use “monster” as fact in its headlines. Not only has the man’s guilt not been proven yet, but the headlines also did not correctly reflect the content of the stories (as required by the Press Code). The simple use of inverted commas, as was indeed done in one instance, would have solved this problem.

Finding

The complaint regarding the content of the stories is dismissed.

The use of the word “monster” without inverted commas in the headlines, thus stating as fact that this man is guilty, is in breach of the following Sections of the Press Code:

  • 2.1: “The press shall take care to report news truthfully, accurately and fairly”; and
  • 10.1: “Headlines…shall give a reasonable reflection of the contents of the report…in question.”

Sanction

Beeld is:

  • reprimanded for calling the man from Springs a monster in the headlines; and
  • directed to publish a report on this finding (the text of which should be approved by this office, and which should end with the words: “Visit www.presscouncil.org.za for the full finding”).

Appeal

Our Complaints Procedures lay down that within seven working days of receipt of this decision, either party may apply for leave to appeal to the Chairperson of the SA Press Adjudication Panel, Judge Bernard Ngoepe, fully setting out the grounds of appeal. He can be contacted at Khanyim@ombudsman.org.za.

Johan Retief

Press Ombudsman