Witches, angels and the media

Journalists are the self-appointed custodians of the pot of public sympathy and they guard its apportionment jealously.

To the good and virtuous they dole out rich, nourishing platefuls of comfort; to the undeserving, a grudging and watery dilution of feeling. Whether one feasts or starves depends not only upon looking the part of the hapless victim, but also on the circumstances surrounding one’s victimisation.
Consider the very different treatment meted out by the media to Leigh Matthews and Annemarie Engelbrecht.

Matthews was kidnapped in July last year and murdered three days later. Engelbrecht’s circumstances are more complex. For 10 years the victim of pervasive, all-encompassing domestic violence, she killed her abusive husband in June 2002 following a day of torment.

Matthews is in every way an “innocent” and “blameless” victim. Many articles have emphasised her close family relationships, the conjunction of the kidnapping with her 21st birthday and her goodness. Once the Sunday Times described her as an angel, it was clear that she was no longer a real person but a symbol of purity.

Because of her fair hair Matthews radiates the goodness we associate with figures of light. Dark-haired Engelbrecht evokes a different set of associations: witches and other dark ladies who lead men to their doom. Her actions are dark too.

A woman who killed her mate, she is the latest in a long line of black widows. Even more damning is her perceived lack of conventional beauty. Her glass eye places her firmly in the company of one-eyed villains, peg-leg pirates and mutant wrongdoers whose moral deformity is signalled by their physical deformity.

Rough and indelicate, Engelbrecht does not look like a victim. The Saturday Star‘s recent front-page photograph was careful to maintain this image, using a picture taken at just the right angle to capture her toothless, grinning delight as she left the court for the last time.

When Matthews was found murdered, the story became every parent’s worst nightmare. So her story is also about ordinary, decent (read: idyllic) families under attack.

But if Matthews represents families as we wish them to be, then Engelbrecht shows us families as they brutally are. Domestic violence affects as many as one in two South African women and ill-treatment is daily and predictable. Because so much of it is quotidian and mundane, a threshold of bizarre horror must be reached before it captures public attention.

Kidnappings, by contrast, are novel and urgent. They are dramatic, as was the manner in which Matthews was abducted: in daylight, in public and in fortress Sandton — not some back alley in Hillbrow.

When no such sudden explosions leapt from Engelbrecht’s testimony, journalists seemed to lose interest. The consequence was meagre and threadbare reporting of the trial. Of the five days of her testimony, only two were covered by the press. Twenty-two witnesses described different aspects of the abuse they had observed being inflicted upon Engelbrecht; the testimony of just six was reported.

Not even Engelbrecht’s sexual degradation was good enough for some sections of the press, which described it trivially and insultingly as “kinky sex”.

In a cartoon universe comprised only of the righteous and unrighteous, Matthews’s terrible fate can be made emblematic of innocence destroyed, virtue lost, youth stolen. But this sort of thinking represents a troubling and simplistic way of looking at the world that allows no space for complexity.

All it achieves is to turn Matthews’s suffering into spectacle, while dismissing Engelbrecht’s as negligible and insignificant. We are all poorer in understanding as a result.

Lisa Vetten is gender programme manager at the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation

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