This is the story of the pastor, the widow and the prying Swazi Press.
The pastor and the widow snuggled down for a kiss and a cuddle under a wattle tree near the Spar supermarket in Mbabane, Swaziland’s capital city.
Then two men, looking for shade to eat their lunch, spotted the couple. They recognised the man as a pastor from their church.
The next thing we know reporters and a photographer from the Swazi Observer arrived on the scene and the next day (Wednesday 6 February 2008) a photograph of the pastor and the widow appeared on the newspaper’s front page along with the headline PASTOR CAUGHT HAVING SEX WITH WIDOW.
If that wasn’t enough the Observer published another ten photos – yes, you read that right, ten photos – on an inside page of the couple and also a news report alerting Observer readers to just how shocking this behaviour was.
Here’s some of what the Observer had to say:
‘On arrival, reporters found the pastor fondling, caressing and kissing the widow as they moved a step further.
‘When our photographer arrived at the scene, several metres from Spar parking, the couple was in deep pleasure.’
Well, I suppose it depends what you mean by ‘deep pleasure.’ They were kissing but they were not having sex. The eleven photographs show both the pastor and the widow fully clothed. So the Observer headline was not accurate. Sensational yes: accurate, no.
The couple were not named but they could be clearly identified from the photographs, even though the newspaper did block out their eyes.
The story took a new twist on Friday (8 February 2008) when the Observer again published a picture of the couple on its front page along with a report on an inside page that the League of Swaziland Churches was investigating the ‘randy pastor’.
The League’s president told the Observer, ‘We are even tempted to believe that this man is not a Christian because Christians do not engage in such practices.’ You learn something new every day: Christians do not have sex.
The story of the pastor and the widow has appeared on the Observer’s website and people across the world have picked it up and are having a good laugh about it. (See the blogsite Of Course, I could Be Wrong as an example.)
In journalism they say that sex always sells newspapers. Add to that a bit of religion and you have a perfect recipe for a circulation builder.
But there is a serious question that needs to be answered: has the Observer violated the rights to privacy of the pastor and the widow?
There are no hard and fast rules about exactly what constitutes an invasion of privacy. It depends to a large extent on who is involved and where people are at the time
Swazi journalists have some help here. Article 5 of the Swaziland National Association of Journalists (SNAJ) Code of Conduct states that journalists should respect privacy and human dignity. The code goes onto say that intrusions into a person’s private life can only be justified when done in the public interest.
The SNAJ code seems quite clear, but trying to apply it to the pastor and the widow is less so.
Most people would probably agree that two people kissing and cuddling together is a private act and their actions should not be photographed and published in a newspaper. But is it still a ‘private act’ if the couple are cuddling under a tree close to a supermarket car park? They probably couldn’t have reasonably expected to remain unseen. So in this case the couple were not in a private place.
But even if the couple were in a public place and seen cuddling by people passing by, was the Observer right to publish eleven photographs, including one on the front page? The answer to that question is less simple.
The SNAJ code allows for a person’s privacy to be breached ‘in the public interest’. We need to be careful how we define ‘public interest’. We should not confuse it with something that is ‘interesting to the public’. I have no doubt that the exploits of the pastor and the widow are interesting to the public. The way the story is being shared on the Internet shows this to be true. But the cuddling couple are the subject of gossip. People are having a bit of a laugh at their expense and that is all. Newspapers shouldn’t be gossip sheets; they need to be held to higher standards.
So is the story in the ‘public interest’? The Press Complaints Commission in the UK defines matters ‘as being in the public interest if they are a matter of i) detecting or exposing crime or a serious misdemeanour ii) protecting public health and safety iii) preventing the public from being misled by some statement or action of an individual or organization.’
The Observer report about the pastor and the widow is not exposing crime, nor is it protecting public health or safety.
Some people may argue, however, that the Observer is preventing the public from being misled by the action of an individual.
The pastor is to an extent a public figure because people who attend his church know him and as a pastor he is also a man of God. People might reasonably expect the pastor to have a higher standard than the rest of us when it comes to kissing and cuddling in public. In that case, the Observer might have a case for saying that it is exposing the pastor as dishonest.
In Swaziland the newspapers often expose pastors for the unacceptable ways they behave. Usually, however, pastors are exposed for criminal activity, such as rape or paedophilia (having sex with children). It is not clear whether the ‘randy pastor’ in the Observer report has committed an offence. There probably are laws about ‘having sex’ in public, but that isn’t what the pastor and the widow were up to. Anyway, I have seen no media reports that the pastor has been charged with committing a crime.
But the Observer report doesn’t attempt to ‘expose’ the pastor for wrongdoing. The report just details the circumstances in which the pastor and the widow were discovered and the pastor’s reaction when he noticed he was being photographed.
So this doesn’t look to me like a report in the ‘public interest’.
So to recap, a man who is a little bit famous had a kiss and a cuddle with a widow who is not famous at all. They had their cuddle in a public place and a nosey photographer took photographs and the next day a newspaper published 11 of them for everyone to see.
The Observer has breached the right to privacy of the couple because of the way it handled its report. It seems to me that the Observer set out to humiliate the pastor in the way the journalist wrote the report and the way the editor published it, first by putting a picture on the front page, then by publishing a report on page three and then by putting ten photographs on page nine.
The treatment of the story was overkill. The pictures were meant to titillate readers over a bit of hanky panky by a ‘randy pastor’. Nowhere in the coverage did the Observer attempt to show that the pastor’s behaviour was inappropriate for a man of the church and therefore it wasn’t really concerned about the ‘public interest’ and only in a story that might be ‘interesting to the public’.
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