I received a strange call on Monday. As a journalist, I’m used to strange calls, but this one made me think not only about my role as a journalist but also how we treat our neighbours.
Are we kind enough?
Journalists are ethically bound to “do no harm” and to exercise care in balancing the public’s right to know against the individual’s right to privacy. The woman I spoke to over the phone on Monday had me contemplating both of those principles.
The reason for her call was an “unsightly wall” on Kommetjie Road which the owner “refuses to fix”.
“Every time I come down the road and stop to turn onto Kommetjie Road I have to look at the wall with its big black cracks. All the other pavements in this area are manicured,” she said.
I said the only solution was to talk to the homeowner as it was not something the paper could report on.
She then asked me if it was out of the question for the Echo to take a picture of the wall and publish it in order to force the owner to repair it.
My answer, of course, was yes, it is out of the question.
She wanted to invade the privacy of another resident by publishing a picture of his house in the newspaper.
While I could not expect the caller to think about the fundamentals of journalism, I did expect her to have some empathy for the owner with the unsightly wall as she did not know his circumstances. I was surprised at the lengths she was willing to go to to force him to repair his wall.
I explained that our purpose as a newspaper is to inform the community, not name and shame them.
I then asked: “What if the homeowner can’t afford to repair his wall?”
We are, after all, still in the middle of a pandemic where thousands of South Africans lost their jobs and homes and thousands still go hungry.
She hesitated for a moment and then said that the residents in her street would then have to do it.
Well then, problem solved, I thought. There you go, do something nice for your neighbour.
However, this was not the end of our conversation. She then wanted to know if the City could be held liable as Kommetjie Road is in a “major tourist area and tourists pass this wall en route to the beach”.
Nope, I said again. While the pavement is the property of the City, the wall is the property of the owner and the owner’s responsibility.
I suggested she contact her ward councillor for an explanation of how it works and urged her not to name and shame the owner and his wall on social media as she might find herself in a legal battle.
While I have no idea how many times she tried to contact the owner and what his response was, I thought about the owner with the “unsightly” wall after the call ended.
While homeowners around him might have recovered from the pandemic and are now focusing on beautifying their properties, was he in the same position?
Maybe he had much more to worry about than his wall.
Was there enough food in his house? Was he sick? Was he mobile and did he survive the lockdown? Maybe the house with the unsightly wall is empty.
Of course, I could be wrong, and the owner could be wealthy and just doesn’t care about what his wall looks like, but, either way, does he deserve to be shamed for it?
2020 has been a difficult year. Let’s be kind to one another.
Mayoral committee member for transport Felicity Purchase notes that if the wall is structurally unsafe, it needs to be tended to as soon as possible but otherwise “beauty is in the eye of the beholder”.
She urges residents to get to know their neighbours and members of the community and to see where they can lend a helping hand, especially during the pandemic.