The Hyenas are Loose

June 8, 2008 • Ethics and Quality • by

St. Galler Tagblatt, 09.05.2008

Around 1.6 million Swiss francs to be paid for a picture of a woman who, in 24 years, has never seen daylight.

For some, the “House of Horrors” in Amstetten (Austria) has become a genuine tourist attraction. Thanks to the media, which have made the location famous and much more. At present, the newspapers are competing with each other to present the public yet another gruesome detail.

It’s the Truth that’s at Stake Here.

After having been freed from their dungeon in Amstetten, a small town in Austria, the grandmother and the mother plus five of her six children born out of a forced incestuous relationship are living in a flat on the grounds of a clinic, where they are to be prepared for another life.

For 24 years, we haven’t had the slightest idea of their ordeal. Now, no detail shall escape us.

No Time for Mercy

On the trees in the area, photographers are sitting on the branches like giant birds. Broadcast units congest the streets, manned with cameramen on the lookout. One photographer dressed up as a police officer, another as a doctor, a third one as the member of a cleaning crew, while others sneaked into the house through the basement. Hyenas can surely smell the blood: around 1.6 million Swiss francs would be paid for the first “live photo” of the woman who, in 24 years, has never seen daylight, locked up by her father and raped by him an innumerable amount of times. Nevertheless, there is no time for mercy – neither for the abuser nor the abused. Everything has to be dragged out in the open, exposed to a flurry of camera flashes.

In one of its issues, daily newspaper Österreich (“Austria”) filled no less than 8 pages with conjectures, pictures and reports, while Kronen-Zeitung, the country’s largest tabloid, managed only half that many. We encounter F., the perpetrator, in his swimming trunks, we get to know Mrs. F., while finding our own, secret doubts expressed by the caption next to her photograph: “Allegedly, she has noticed nothing at all.” Next we stare into the faces of the children – those who lived in the dungeon, and those who stayed “upstairs”, not knowing what was going on. Now everybody knows, and tabloids such as News are obviously intent on saving every last detail from falling into oblivion. The paper, founded by Österreich chief editor Wolfgang Fellner who has recently sold it to German buyers, illustrated the “drama of a woman who bore her father seven children” by showing “only” a picture of the mother, taken in her youth. To which Österreich lent a helping hand by using computer software to make the woman on the photo “age”, combining the result with the hypocritical caption, “This is what Elisabeth F. may look like today. To protect her identity, deliberate changes to the photograph have been made.”

Truth and Foreigners…

How nice of them! Like this, everybody feels intimately acquainted with that family and will be ready, should they ever bump into them, to express their heart-felt sympathy and their help! Österreich has launched a nation-wide donation campaign for the victims, endorsed by Austria’s top celebrities, which also serves to polish the image of the newspaper carrying the country’s name – as well as the image of that country itself. Its Chancellor, Dr. Alfred Gusenbauer, recently proclaimed that “the reputation of our country” had to be protected against the invasion of those terrible foreign correspondents who kept writing about the “Monster of Amstetten”. “We will not tolerate anybody who comes along and gives our youth the false impression that they are cursed with a new kind of original sin”, he told newspaper Standard. A statement which even tabloid Kronen-Zeitung considered a bit off the mark.

Truth and Ethics…

If we choose to ignore Gusenbauer’s diversion, which is designed to put the blame on the rest of the world, we might discover that the hyena hunt that is acted out on the pages of the Austrian yellow press in reality only is a sort of camera pan – from Natascha Kampusch to the F.s. Only a few days before the Amstetten story made the headlines, freesheet Heute published details from Kampusch’s police file and her medical consultations, speculating about a possible sex affair between the former hostage and her captor, even hinting at a pregnancy… The truth cannot be unethical, the reporter behind the story defended himself, stressing that he had only made public what the official investigation had failed to uncover.

Actually, something like this isn’t supposed to happen. There are laws against it, but all limits have been pushed and ignored, by almost all the media. Even those who deliberately commit such infractions are facing a comparatively mild sanction, given the potentially huge gains in circulation which such disclosures can produce: 32,000 Swiss francs is the maximum fine payable by a publisher or journalist who violates a victim’s right to privacy.

This type of “hyena journalism” is always looking for an easy prey. This is why no words, but only actions will change the situation: no attention, no advertising, self-regulation. The tabloids thrive on public awareness – so much so that any topic that is greeted with indifference is bound to disappear immediately. Another sensitive issue is advertising. In situations such as this, advertising clients should ask themselves whether they can really accept moral responsibility, for themselves as well as their products, for running an ad in a medium to which human dignity seems to be of no concern.

You object that this is do-gooders’ talk? Well, you’re right. Free media and free citizens are the backbone of democracy. Hence, self-regulation is the key. Sometimes, you only appreciate what you had once you have lost it. Unlike Switzerland, Austria doesn’t have a Press Council anymore, which was abolished in 2002. At that time, publishers and unions quarrelled about the institution, while tabloid Kronen-Zeitung adamantly opposed such an arbitrating body anyway. Since then, a number of attempts at revitalising the institution have been made, so far without success. Although, with severe consequences, however. In newspapers as well as on television, the number of sloppily investigated or ethically questionable reports has increased steadily.

… more Truths

One day after the liberation of the incest victims, the police released the perpetrator’s name. Which made it almost impossible to protect the victims – and turned the “House of Horrors” into a genuine travel destination for rubbernecks and thrill-seekers. They want to imagine, live and on site, how it must have felt to be captured there, so they drive off the motorways and park their cars as close to the grey building as they can. For everybody knows on what street it is. They’ve all seen it on the news…

Translation: Oliver Heinemann

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