So The Herald report on Gayle van Heerden’s death got you hot under the collar

Big Deal. Or is it?

The lines between privacy and publicity have blurred completely. These days one can at will see; a Royal Burning Bush, despicable violence, snuff movies, naked humans doing the most strange things, unspeakable cruelty to animals, the list goes on.

I received a chain e-mail this Saturday past, sent under the hand of Dave and Elisabeth Russell and dealing with the “Misrepresentation of Gayle van Heerden’s death” – via a ‘report’ by Gareth Wilson that was published on 22 August 2012 on the front page of The Herald. This e-mail was in the form of a complaint to be sent to the Press Ombudsman today.

The fact of the matter is that the deed is done. The Herald has only one overriding objective – to make money. In a declining print economy, declining sales environment, increasing BEE pressure and declining ad sales it is understandable that standards will slip and that the sensationalist tabloid journalism style, introduced by Rick Wilson many years ago, will come to the fore.

Sadly, I think that The Herald has lost focus and is failing dismally to actually connect with their readership. The number of people that I know who are determined to not renew their subscriptions is worrying. Lets face it – The Herald is an icon that carries a lot of solid history and goodwill. To loose such a contributor to our society will be an immense tragedy.

The temptation to publish stories and images that you know will reverberate around the world is GREAT. In my archive I have images that I know will go viral but refrain from publishing. Luckily for me I only have to report to one boss – myself. So, I have it easy. Pity the journalist that has gained his or her job as a result of his or her skin colour or family connection – the pressure on that person to perform must be immense and, obviously, that journalist is going to take chances and stretch the truth a bit in a misguided attempt to thank his superior/editor.

The real problem in our society is that we have no moral compass – we are bombarded with false ideals and the promise that money/sex/drugs/’insert vice here’ will make us happy. Couple that with the massive drive to ‘get a scoop’ and we have a recipe for disaster.

Some of the comments attached to the Russel’s e-mail were:

  • I feel it really is time the Herald was taken to task for the shabby tabloid journalism they have engaged in lately. We have been personally close to a few situations that they reported on and have been in the position to see at first hand what sloppy and sensationalist reporting they publish.
  • The attached article was by the same reporter, Gareth Wilson, who did such a one sided and ill informed hatchet job on Alan Mounter and the Richmond Hill crime forum. The impression we get is that has a hot line to the cops and just publishes what they feed to him without bothering to follow up and find out any personal details that would give a balanced and accurate (but presumably, less sensational) story. In this case he published a front page story about Gayle van Heerden’s suicide without checking all the facts i.e. that she was terminally ill, and not alone. In both these instances, when complaints have been made to The Herald, the editor Heather Robertson defended him, so it appears that lazy regurgitation of a few unsubstantiated ‘facts’ is acceptable to her editorial policy.
  • We won’t be able to undo any of the pain the van Heerden family has been caused, but we might prevent someone else from being subjected to this sort of abuse.
  • My initial reaction to the Herald report was that Gail had committed suicide as a result of the court case. One had to come to that conclusion as Gareth (and his editor) forget the WHY in the ‘Who, What, When, Where, Why’ mantra that is journalism 101. Of course conveniently forgetting the WHY is tabloid journalism’s best friend!

The letter to the Press Ombudsman appears below:

From a concerned Port Elizabeth community

The Press Ombudsman’s Office
P O Box 47221

22nd August 2012

The Press Ombudsman

With reference to the scanned article enclosed – front page of The Herald 22 August 2012, we would like to inform you of the facts and lodge a complaint against The Herald, reporter Gareth Wilson ([email protected]) and the editor, Heather Robertson ([email protected]).

Gayle van Heerden’s death was not a shock to those who knew her. It was very sad. She was in the terminal phase of cancer, having been diagnosed in 2002, and had come home to die. For a few months she had been unable to eat and was fed via a drip. She was constantly in pain and was administered morphine via the drip and via morphine patches.

What was a shock, was the inaccurate, insensitive reporting of her death, on the front page of The Herald.

These are the facts (not reported by The Herald) as given by friends and care-givers:

Gayle van Heerden was NOT alone in the house when she died. Her son Daven, was in his room, working on his computer. Her daughter Cherin was asleep on her bed because she was not feeling well. The maid, Angelina was with Gayle most of the early morning. Gayle then asked her to hang things on the wash-line outside. Gayle then managed to get out of bed and get to the dressing room. She shut the door, took the firearm out of the safe and shot herself – so ending months of misery. Angelina found her when she came back into the main bedroom. Angelina immediately called Daven, who phoned his father (Dr Marcus van Heerden). Marcus then called the police.

Soon after the police arrived, a reporter, Gareth Wilson from The Herald, phoned Marcus and left a message on his cell phone, saying that he would call back later. (Obviously there is a hot-line between the police and The Herald.) Gareth Wilson never phoned back and Marcus saw the message only at 22h00 that night – 21 August.

At 8am on 22 August, Marcus phoned Gareth Wilson and left a message with a person named Lynn, asking Gareth to phone him back so that he could ‘put the record straight’. By 14.00 on 22 August Marcus had heard nothing from Gareth Wilson.

When phoned on the 22 August the editor of The Herald, Heather Robertson, was continually “unavailable.”

In the light of this article, and viewing the facts above, we have to record our sense of outrage and dismay at:

  • the injustice and lack of integrity in not presenting all the facts, not making an effort to establish the facts or allowing a grieving man time to comment
  • the lack of insight into the anguish caused to professionals and their families when they are exposed in this manner – the majority of doctors choose their profession out of a sense of compassion.
  • the linking of a past court case, from three years ago, where Marcus was exonerated, to this sad event. The past events are hardly ‘current news’ and there was overemphasis on accusations rather than exoneration
  • the lack of compassion in not allowing this family to grieve in private

As reasonable people we have always recognised the importance of press freedom. However, reporting and editorial choice of this nature, does not augur well in the fight for continued “freedom” of the media.

An apology will not undo the harm caused in this instance. How would these people feel if their picture was on the front page under similar circumstances? Those culpable need to be held accountable. The press should “think twice” and check their facts thoroughly, before cruelly and incorrectly reporting sad, personal events that are irrelevant to the general public. How did this article “inform” the public?

Gayle van Herden Herald Article 22 August 2012

The Herald Article: Shock death of well-known Port Elizabeth doctor’s wife