Editors and Julius are poles apart

I HAD the bluest Monday three weeks ago. How could I have slept soundly, knowing there was a dead man hanging on a tree on the pavement, just outside the house next door?

I HAD the bluest Monday three weeks ago. How could I have slept soundly, knowing there was a dead man hanging on a tree on the pavement, just outside the house next door?

Such is my aversion to corpses these days I could not bring myself to even look at him. The most I saw was the back of his slumped head. He was the only dead man I ever encountered who never made the news. Having seen hundreds of dead and dying people in my career has taken its toll.

You can well imagine my reaction to the two heart-rending pictures of Leonora Mudzinga, clutching the limp body of her dead son in The Times on Monday. The four-year-old boy, André, had drowned trying to save his one-year-old sister Adelaide, who also suffered the same fate in an uncovered swimming pool. It was just too painful. I did not take the paper home that evening.

The newspaper has come under fire for publishing the images. The strongest objection to the editor, Ray Hartley, came from Patti McDonald, publisher and head of business development at Avusa Education.

"I cannot believe that a newspaper of your calibre can stoop this low and show to the public a moment of personal and horrified grief to others, let alone the dead child. I would like you, as a parent, to put yourself in the mother's shoes."

She continued: "Surely we could have shown compassion to a parent who has lost two children? And when did we start to use pictures of dead children to sell our newspapers? Today's paper leaves me horrified, angry and disappointed in media in general."

Now, there is neither a law nor ethical code against publishing pictures of dead people or grieving mothers. Such matters of taste are left to the editor's wisdom and judgment. That, incidentally, is what makes editing challenging. Otherwise any monkey with a computer and a template would do it.

It would have been convenient for the editor to pull a Julius Malema on the public and simply point out he did not break any law; get on his high horse and ride off into the sunset. That's what's messing up our country.

The bar of probity has been lowered so far that too many public figures trip over it without shame.

The plutocratic Julius Malema might see no problem in abusing his influence to amass wealth, claiming there's no law against it. That option is not open to the mainstream media.

The press cannot voyeuristically exploit people's grief because insensitivity is not illegal. The credibility of our watchdog role rests on our ability to draw this distinction. To his credit, the editor of The Times felt compelled to explain himself in an editorial the next day to readers who were shocked and angered by the images. The decision was not taken lightly, he said.

He and his team "believed that the pictures would shock parents into asking themselves what they were doing to protect their children against a similar fate".

Editors make such decisions knowing they will upset some readers. Good ones, however, do that after much soul-searching and with circumspection - not an eye on winning photographic awards. The purpose should be considered so compellingly in the public interest that it is worth risking the inevitable backlash.

Hartley believes the pictures achieved their objective but has nevertheless undertaken to "think carefully before publishing their like again".

I found overwhelming support for his position among Avusa editors.

Charmain Naidoo, acting editor of The Herald, says the pictures moved her to urge her friends to ensure their swimming pools are covered.

I'm with them despite my aversion to corpses and having banned their use in the past - a move that made me unpopular with photographers, especially whenever similar pictures won awards for the opposition.