Sunday, 22 May 2011

Journalism in Der Spiegel #1: The school teacher in Penthouse

The first of two articles complaining about journalistic standards in Der Spiegel.
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This week, the German weekly Der Spiegel published an article entitled 'Not fit for school: Why a teacher is fighting for her right to undress' (my translation). Unfortunately, it isn't available on the Spiegel website, so I can't provide a link; the week before did contain a summary of the news, without commentary.

The story is this: Rachel Whitwell, a New Zealand school teacher, and girlfriend of one of the country's biggest porn kings, decided to pose nude in the Australian edition of Penthouse. The New Zealand educational authority found out, decided to investigate, and ultimately revoked her license to teach. The original photos caused a minor scandal two years ago; then she posed again a year later; and the educational authority's recent verdict is now causing a much bigger scandal. As the title of the Spiegel article indicates, it isn't really about a teacher who strips before the camera, it's about one woman's fight for freedom.

Or not. Der Spiegel goes out of its way to tell us a story about a young woman who wants to be a good mother and spend more time with her daughter, so decides to supplement her teaching job with better-paying nude modelling. Which is such a shame, as she's clearly an exemplary teacher:

She taught five and six year-old children from socially disadvantaged families. She taught them reading, writing and arithmetic, and tried to encourage them. She says she wanted to bring them up to be free thinkers.
As a teacher myself, I'm not convinced that's such a big deal. She taught the kids The Three R's. She did her job. Incredible.

Worse, Spiegel seems to have got its facts wrong concerning the original motivation for her to strip. Just to prove how lame Der Spiegel's research is in this article, here's how I found out.

The summary article I linked to above refers to a publication called the 'Sunday Times', in which the Ms Whitwell said she saw no reason why posing nude should affect her job as a teacher. Curious about what such an august publication as that had to say about this topic, I googled 'Sunday Times Rachel Whitwell'. In fact, the publication is actually called the Sunday Star Times and refers to itself as 'Sunday News' (article here). Excellent use of sources, Spiegel. Anyway, right above the google link to that article is another from the New Zealand Daily Telegraph in 2009 which contains a little more information from around the time of the original photo shoot. And it turns out that she originally posed nude, not spend time with her daughter, but to get back at her pornographer boyfriend. Half his age, she had decided to test him by anonymously flirting with him on facebook; he organised a rendezvous; she confronted him and sent the photos to Penthouse in revenge.

See any mention of the caring mother in there? Nor me. Sounds more like a retcon.

The latest Spiegel article also fails to mention, as the summary one admittedly does, that Ms Whitwell had previously had erotic stories published in adult magazines, and has her own table-dance studio. I suppose such omissions are understandable when you're trying to make the case for a struggling single mother who accidentally becomes embroiled in a fight for truth. Oh wait, that was Erin Brockovich.

Indeed, the Spiegel article reads as if its attempting to answer the call of another article by the Sunday Star Times which bemoans that, with regard to this case, no feminists are coming forward to demand that a woman's body is her own. Let's think for a moment why that might be.

First of all, no one has said that she isn't allowed to strip before the camera if she wants. She's not being prohibited from posing in Penthouse. The NZ education authority has just decided that she's not allowed to do that and teach children. That may or may not have to do with the conservatism of the authority; but given the erotic stories, the table-dancing, the pornographer boyfriend, and then the photos and subsequent interviews, you can't exactly say that she's making it easy for them to be open-minded. Challenging them at every opportunity, more like.

Secondly, Ms Whitwell hardly went out of her way to be anonymous. Claiming, as she does here, that she had no idea that anyone in New Zealand would see the original photos is naive beyond belief. There's this thing called the internet, see? And Australia? It happens to be this huge mass of land not far (relatively speaking) from New Zealand. Penthouse? That's hardly an obscure magazine. And actually posing as a teacher in the photos and on the cover of the magazine? Very tasteful.

Thirdly, this isn't about women's rights, because a male teacher would be treated no differently, and probably worse. Indeed, that fact that Ms Whitwell is a woman probably made the whole posing in Penthouse thing more acceptable, despite the authority's verdict. I'm quite sure they would have come down on a male teacher posing in Penthouse like a tonne of bricks, and I can easily imagine suspicions of paedophilia flying around too.

Finally, the key question, and one which Spiegel conspicuously fails to ask, is whether you would want such a woman (or man) teaching your children. For most people, the answer is surely, 'No'. Spiegel almost suggests that this is hypocrisy, since no-one bats an eyelid about a fireman posing in a nude calendar. But firemen and women aren't responsible for children in the same way that a teacher is. And as I said before, Ms Whitwell hasn't exactly been discreet about this whole issue.

What I'm really getting at, though, is Spiegel's botched attempt to make this about freedom and women's rights. It isn't at all: it's about responsibility. If Ms Whitwell wants to pose nude, let her. But she should take responsibility for the consequences. If she taught at a university, she would have to deal with students and teachers who are capable of googling her name; if she worked in an office, she'd have to deal with colleagues and customers who do so; as a primary school teacher, she has to deal with parents. That's part and parcel of the choice she made by posing nude in the first place.

The women's rights movement was always about choice and equality: the right to choose the same things as men. It was never about freedom to do anything you want without concern for the consequences. That's a form of anarchy. The fact that Spiegel, which is supposed to be 'good' journalism, can't tell the difference, is disappointing.

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