On Wednesday, Beeld ran a story about a police reservist who was shot three times by a robber at his Pretoria home, and claimed he had phoned the 10111 police emergency number three times without getting help. Turned out the real reason why the man couldn’t get help was that his girlfriend had phoned the wrong number – not once, but three times, as Beeld somewhat lamely revealed in its follow-up story today. Instead of dialling 10111, she dialled 082 911 and got through to the emergency call centre of her cell phone company.
The initial story made the police look very bad indeed:
De Jager described on Tuesday how he and his girlfriend, Karen Victor, had told their story about eight times on Friday night to operators at the 10111 call centre – without success.
“They once asked if Murrayfield was in Johannesburg.”
“Another time they said they didn’t understand the (priority) code (which denoted the priority of a complaint) which I gave them. Additionally, they couldn’t understand English or speak it properly… Situations like these would have a more positive result if the person at 10111 understood the information and could pass it on. It could mean a difference of 30 seconds which could lead to a suspect being apprehended or not.”
In fact, police established, the first call about the incident was received some time after the robbery, and police arrived at the scene within three minutes.
Is Beeld to blame for getting it wrong? The newspaper did ask for comment from the police for its first story, and received an assurance that the incident would be investigated. Perhaps the newspaper should have waited for the outcome of that investigation, but in the competitive news business this wasn’t really an option. (UPDATE: And of course, Beeld wanted to link the story to National Police Day, when a third of the force were on parade in Bloemfontein instead of on crimie-fighting duty.)
The story is revealing, though, about the attitude of the newspaper (and, by implication, of many of its readers) towards the police. They were prepared to accept, almost without question, a story of gross police incompetence. This is understandable, to a point: there is enough evidence of police incompetence to fuel such preconceptions. But as it turned out, the story revealed gross private sector incompetence – but that fact is nowhere highlighted in Beeld‘s follow-up. Why not question the ability of the Cell C emergency centre to cope with an emergency? The coverage fits neatly into the meta-narrative of state – bad; private sector – good.
PS. The linked stories are English translations of Beeld’s original Afrikaans, as published on News24.com.