09 November 2012

Lance Witten: a tweet too far?

Three radio and TV presenters have been in trouble for comments they made and tweets they sent. Is this fair, or do we just have double standards, asks Susan Erasmus.


Three radio and TV presenters have been in trouble for comments they made and tweets they sent. Is this fair, or do we just have double standards, asks Susan Erasmus.

If you have never made an insensitive joke, called someone a name, or insinuated that another person has criminal tendencies, well done. You are in a moral majority of one.

So who are these three?

Robbie Kruse earned Jacaranda FM a fine of R25 000 by making remarks about Francois Greeff, who had stabbed a dog in self-defence, and by implying on air that Greeff was someone who would do this again, even when unprovoked.

In June Rian van Heerden, also from Jacaranda FM, faced a defamation complaint for referring to a rugby team, supposedly from Alberton as 'gomgatte'. (For those from foreign shores, 'gomgat' roughly means 'lout'.) The complaint was dismissed.

And now Lance Witten, sports reporter from eNCA, was suspended due to a tweet he sent about the death of a Linkin Park concertgoer "Linkin Park is so badass, people are dying to see 'em".

Yes, we all do stupid and insensitive things. Sometimes daily. But if I make a silly comment to a friend over a glass of wine, it will disappear into the ether. I am not famous, and have no desire ever to be. I have a private life – and it's just that. Private.

Public figures are public
Celebrities, public figures are in the public eye – and not just when it suits them. When in the public eye, they don't have the luxury of being themselves. They're being paid to play a role. Even shock jocks are paid to be provocative, controversial and to encourage debate. The moment they start expressing their own opinions, they've crossed the line.

If you're well-known, the spotlight is a dangerous place as your every move is scrutinised. Both good and bad. The lack of anonymity is a high price to pay for fame, and when people make this choice, they seldom know what they're letting themselves in for. There's no going back: it's a bit like parenthood in that respect.

 If you play your game right, the media will help you get to the top. But in a world governed by page impressions and circulation figures, they will merrily crucify you on the way down. Live by the sword, die by the sword, and all that.

So, think twice before you open your mouth or send that tweet, or put that pic on your Facebook page.

New technology to blame?
But new technology has caused a blur between the private and the public.

And this is where these presenters came unstuck. There's something intimate about tweeting – it feels like you're sending a message to a friend. But it is a public space. So are the radio and the TV studios. OK, these have a certain beguiling and solitary atmosphere, especially if you're there late at night in a sound-proof room with only one or two other silent sound technicians and/or cameramen lurking about. But it couldn't be more public if you were addressing a stadium full of people.

So am I advocating double standards? Yes, I am.

Should presenters not be able to say what they really think without constraints? No, they should not.

Double standards
Sorry guys, life is about double standards. In language, it's called 'register'. You are going to speak differently to your boss than you will to your five-year-old. Get this differentiation wrong, and you could be in trouble. That's what has happened to these presenters.

Chatting to your brother or friend is just not the same as addressing the nation. On air, you're on a public platform, where a certain decorum and judgment are required. Informality is one thing, insensitive remarks quite another. You are also not both judge and jury when it comes to people who have allegedly crossed the line. You are there to encourage discussion, keep things under control and not to play to the crowd by targeting those who cannot defend themselves. In short, play the ball, not the man. Not even if it sends up your ratings. I know it's tempting.

But never forget you're being watched all the time. You chose a public platform in which to earn a living. And even at two in the morning, someone is out there watching, waiting and listening. Watch your step.

(Susan Erasmus,, November 2012) 


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