After all the noise late last year about the conduct of journalists – and the public humiliation of some (now former) representatives of the profession – you would have thought that editors would tread sensitively around ethical issues. Not so, as we saw when editors chose to name a South African judge accused of rape in India, writes Anton Harber.

All the rules, all the conventions, all the promises that we would behave better went out through the window at the whiff of a spicy celebrity scandal.

Some, such as Business Day and SABC radio, held back from naming the judge on day one (Monday morning). Others – like Beeld and The Daily Sun – plunged in with names, pictures and all the sordid details. Faced with the fact that their rivals had outed the judge, most of the remaining media followed suit, and joined in the ethical free-for-all.

By late Tuesday, the sole media I found that was still trying to play by the rules and withhold the judge’s identity, was eTV. But if the media behaved badly, it was nothing compared to the husband of the woman who said she had been raped. Bizarrely, his first action was to phone a talk radio station and in four conversations over the next hour, he proceeded to name his both his wife and the judge and tell all the details of his conversations with both of them.

The next day, he posed for the media with his children, while complaining that they could not go to school because of the publicity attention. This highlighted one burning issue: how live talk broadcasting operates without the normal gatekeepers, allowing allegations on air without filter, control or any attention to the rules of the game. What are the rules? Rape victims should be protected and not named – that is simple and straightforward. In this case, however, her own husband is responsible for her identification, and the media can hardly take blame for following his fine example.

Rape accused in South Africa should not be named until they have been charged and have pleaded in court – which had still not happened in this case by the end of the week. The purpose of this rule is to avoid maliciously false accusations, by ensuring that there is enough prime face evidence to merit a prosecution before naming the accused. But there are two complications here. The one is that the incident occurred in India, and so our own legal rules do not apply. The ethical rules, however, would still be very clear for journalists.

The second is the question of what one does in this situation when the name of the person is already in the public arena. The argument that if one media publishes it, there is no point in the others holding back is not a strong one, just as one media defaming someone does not allow others to do it. However, there does come a point when the name becomes so widely known that those who refuse to use it just look silly. Judging when this moment arrives is not easy.

But it was clear this week that the media did not hesitate to grab at the excuse that others had run the name to jump on the bandwagon. By the end of the week, the women who made the charges had suddenly withdrawn them – driving home the point that the judge had been unfairly treated. He will now live with a stain on his reputation – and one that is almost impossible to remove. Editors should be feeling a bit skaam by now. And a bit worried. For the good judge may well have defamation cases against a number of media. And if such a case came to court, I have little doubt where the sympathies of the bench would lie.

*Harber is Caxton Professor of Journalism and Media Studies, Wits University.