The Citizen was within its rights – but wrong

The Citizen newspaper may have been within its rights to sack a photographer who criticised his employers, but it was a foolish thing to do.

Last week, photographer Johann Hattingh was dismissed for “negative and defamatory comments about the company which he made on Twitter”, according to editor Martin Williams. “I respect journalists and photographers who speak out about and safeguard ethics and standards, but what happened here was a case of defaming the company, which led to a total breakdown in the relationship between the employee and the company.”

Hattingh made the Twitter comments as part of the outcry when the Citizen doctored an agency photograph to remove bodies from a grizzly Kabul bomb blast picture without informing readers. Editor Williams later apologised and said it had been the result of a miscommunication: he had asked that the bodies should be blurred, but they had actually been totally removed.

There was a furious Twitter debate about the seriousness of the offence and the damage to all of those involved. It was in this exchange that Hattingh appears to have made remarks that led to disciplinary action and, finally, his dismissal.

The Citizen was within its rights to hold Hattingh accountable for what he said about them in a public forum. There are countless examples of people losing their jobs because of loose talk on social media.

But a newspaper should be more tolerant of criticism and more open to debate among its staff and with the public. A newspaper should be encouraging freedom of speech and setting examples for a more relaxed attitude towards such things.

I am not suggesting that what Hattingh did was right, and he may have been due for some disciplinary action But a dismissal for expressing a view in a heated debate is harsh, and damages the newspaper and its reputation as much as Hattingh himself did.

For photographers to express such strong ethical views as he did is admirable, as much as he appears to have done it in an inappropriate way. On the other hand, Williams repeatedly said that readers did not really give a hoot for this issue, implying it was only a small band of critics who were stirring it up. It was an unfortunate remark, indicating a shallow, populist and cynical view of ethics, and one that lends credence to those who say editors don’t really care about deceiving readers.

Interestingly, none of those responsible for the serious breach of ethics appears to have been disciplined. Williams only said, opaquely, that “the company has dealt individually with all people who had a role in the serious error”.

Justice is not done when those who commit a cardinal ethical breech are dealt with “individually” but someone who has strong views on it is fired summarily.

4 thoughts on “The Citizen was within its rights – but wrong

  1. The Citizen was wrong to sack Hattingh and it is hoped the CCMA will come to a different conclusion. Shooting the messenger has become a national sport.

  2. I suppose the question should be asked as to whether everyone is over-reacting or perhaps even under-reacting to this whole issue? Sometimes it feels like we journalists are so stuck up their respective nether-regions that we forget to focus on matters that, well, matter to the very people we’re actually employed by – our readers. Just saying.

  3. I don’t expect to be able to persuade those who have made up their minds but here goes anyway.
    Presumably in your last par you mean breach, not breech.
    This was not “dismissal for expressing a view in a heated debate”.
    What Hattingh said was false. In one tweet there were at least two lies. First he said the pics ed complained. That’s not true.
    Hattingh was not at the evening conference where the use of the pic was discussed. Ask him if you don’t believe me, or ask anyone who attended the meeting. I’ll give you their names. In that way you might start to come close to what the Press Code says about these matters in “1.5 A publication should seek the views of the subject of serious critical reportage in advance of publication;”.

    This is similar to the legal principle of Audi alteram partem, “hear the other party”.
    I know we breached the code. I have apologised and taken steps to ensure there is no repeat.

    In the same tweet Hattingh also said “senior editorial staff were OK with it.”
    That also is untrue. Not one senior editorial staff member expressed any satisfaction with what happened. Now they have all been painted as ethically dodgy.
    You say what he did was “admirable”. I don’t think lying to defame your employer and colleagues is admirable.
    If Hattingh had expressed an honest opinion based on facts the outcome might have been quite different. Defamation based on falsehoods is simply unacceptable. It also breaks the Press Code.
    I genuinely welcome open debate but it should preferably based on facts, not lies.
    On another minor point, a lot is being said about the CCMA. Let me save folks some time by mentioning that this looks more like a matter for the statutory council.
    As to the question of readers not caring much, that is simply a statement of fact. You choose to read into it snide thoughts about populism. Fine. I have some understanding of where you are coming from.
    Anton, I would really have appreciated a call from you before you made some of the statements I have seen.
    There’s a lot more to this but that’s enough for now.
    The truth is seldom pure and never simple.
    Kind regards

  4. As I understand it, the Citizen stands by its initial decision to blur the bodies in the photograph (not to be confused with the cloning mistake) rather than using another photograph. I’m genuinely interested in understanding their position. The practice of blurring news photographs is something that affects journalism in general rather than just The Citizen. Industry has tussled with the issue of graphic images for a long time, part of the response was to photograph subjects in a way that protected identity. Surely the practice of blurring takes us back to the days before identity-protected photography was developed? Remember those days of seeing someone accused of a crime with a little black box over their eyes? Now this device is no longer widely used and largely regarded as stigmatising. Here’s some of my thoughts on this –…ring-practice/

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