The recently revised South African Press Code confirms that the role of the press remains – at least from the point of view of the Code – pretty much what we’ve always understood it to be. To summarise, the press serves society by allowing us to make informed judgements regarding events of the day. In doing so, they should refrain from violating the dignity or privacy of others unless justified in doing so by a legitimate public interest.
A friend alerted me to this front-page spread in Friday’s Cape Argus regarding William Creasey. For those unfamiliar with Creasey’s history, he was arrested in 2003 and later convicted for indecently assaulting minors. Following his release on parole in 2009, nothing (that I know of) has been heard of him – at least in relation to this sort of crime. What’s interesting about Friday’s story is that it details what essentially consists of a sting operation, exposing the fact that Creasey is using a pseudonym and expressed an interest in offering art classes to children. The police response was ‘that there was nothing they could do until they had proof that Creasey had committed an offence against a child’.
Why does the Argus feel that it has the responsibility to do more, and that their attempts to do so are front-page news? Of course sex with unwilling participants is illegal and immoral, and of course children often require a measure of paternalism to protect them against threats they might not fully understand. But one point of view would be that Creasey had done wrong, had served his time, and was currently doing nothing illegal – and nothing that justified this violation of his privacy and rights to trade his skills as an art teacher for money.
Those arguing in favour of exposing a man who is (to our knowledge) not guilty of any current crimes might argue as Paul Hoffman does,saying that the public does not need to wait for harm to be done and that we “are entitled to seek a suitable interdict if there is a reasonable apprehension of harm”. But my concern here is that any (or many) people are potential threats to some interest or other, and any subjective ranking of those threats or interests is open to abuse. So in principle, it seems preferable that we punish actual criminals rather than potential ones. Here, Creasey has been punished for actual crimes, and is now being further punished for potential crimes.
He did himself no favours by posting the Gumtree ad described in the story, and you can read his editing of that ad either as an acknowledgement that it was inappropriate for his to be teaching children, or as an attempt to not draw attention to the fact that he wanted to teach children. Likewise, the fact that he was using a pseudonym could be suspicious or not, depending on whether you believe him in saying that it’s a pseudonym he’s always used for his artistic endeavours. On the least sympathetic reading, he was engaging in what’s known as “grooming” – a term describing attempts by a sex offender to target and prepare children for sexual abuse. Or, he could simply be trying to get his life back on track, and doing what he loves (I mean teaching art, of course).
While South Africa does have a registry of sex offenders, it only went live last year and at this point only lists current convictions rather than historical ones. So Creasey would not appear on it, making it impossible for parents of children he might teach to check whether he (or anyone else) is on the registry. From what I can gather, the registry itself and the process for having a name checked on it is cumbersome and dysfunctional enough to make it pretty difficult to do so in any case.
But the larger question remains, despite these issues: Should our newspapers engage in this sort of pre-emptive strike against a possibly innocent man? Should your past always be available as a means by which to smear your reputation and limit your freedoms? It’s a sensitive and tricky subject, but we should guard against the tendency to allow ourselves to justify anything “for the children”. While sexual abuse is undoubtedly a threat to them (and to others), there are also threats for us all when the media becomes a vigilante.
Edit: Some people can’t read past their instinctive outrage, it seems. I’m addressing how complicated this balancing act is – I’m not coming down on the side of Creasey’s privacy. In general, though, I would defend someone against a known violation of their rights as opposed to protecting people from possible harms. If it’s true that paedophiles are irredeemable, as Mr Simpkins seems to believe, the balance shifts in favour of the exposure in the Argus.
Just how much should radio stations, newspapers and magazines pander to the ignorance of some of their audiences? There is surely some merit to the notion that if you have a platform, where it could well be the case that the opinions of listeners and readers are shaped by what you air or print, you have some responsibility to not mislead them?