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.