The painful politics of a violent video
The graphic video footage of the murder of photo-journalist James Foley has created a dilemma for newspaper editors, and they have responded in a variety of ways. The Times goes with a picture of Foley’s grieving parents, which isn’t gory but might be seen as intrusive. (Their home, we should remember, is besieged by a dense crowd of journalists and photographers, so they are currently doubly-violated.) The Scotsman and The Independent have gone with pre-existing portraits of James Foley. The Mail and The Guardian use close-up pictures of the masked executioner, but have cropped out the picture of his victim. The Sun, The Standard, The Telegraph and The Mirror show the terrorist brandishing a knife beside his kneeling victim. The New York Post went further than any UK paper, showing an image of Foley at the point of death.
These front pages don’t happen by accident. They are the result of detailed discussions between editors and picture editors. Similar discussions took place in broadcast newsrooms yesterday, as journalists played and replayed the footage, deciding what to broadcast. How close-up should the images be shown? At what point should the video end, and at what point should the audio be cut? Can you show more on the 10 o’clock news than you would on the 6? Is there a public interest in hearing Foley’s last words? If the statement by the murderer is played, might that lead to his identification and arrest? Or will it simply give him unwarranted publicity, and possibly endanger the other 18 journalists currently missing in Sudan? And if one broadcaster doesn’t show the images, won’t a competitor do it anyway? These are complex judgements, and they are usually made with care by people who have thought deeply about the ethics of their craft.
In the meantime, the raw footage is available on the internet to the 3 billion of us who now have access to the internet. This is a relatively new and game-changing factor. It first arose with the judicial execution of Saddam Hussein in 2006. The state-run Iraqi news station Al Iraqiya released limited “official” footage of the hanging (in video only, with no sound.) But whilst picture editors discussed what they would or would not show, the whole procedure had been filmed by an individual with a mobile phone and released via the internet. If you want to see someone die a violent death, you can. There are countless images and videos available on the internet. And there are many reasons why people choose to access them; from morbid curiosity to political triumphalism to sexual gratification. Nevertheless the images of James Foley have had a different treatment.
One reason is that Foley’s family put out a statement asking that people should not view or share the material out of respect for Foley, and numerous Twitter-users have reiterated the plea. In an age where Twitter is a primary source of news, fine editorial judgements about what is or is not appropriate to publish are being crowd-sourced. Does this represent a welcome democratisation of the role of picture editor, or a surrender to the lowest common denominator of human nature?
Of course, the power of the crowd of social media-users is somewhat illusory. Dick Costolo the CEO of Twitter has said that the company will be “actively suspending” the accounts of people who link to the footage. And the Metropolitan Police have warned that anyone viewing or sharing the footage could be liable to prosecution under terrorism legislation. Perhaps they were using this threat to defend the dignity of the Foley family. But if the police were serious we should be alarmed. It’s not clear how viewing the footage could constitute taking part in or preparing for an act of terror, and the idea that the Police can choose what we do or don’t watch, even – or perhaps especially – if the content is someone else’s propaganda, is a worrying erosion of civil liberties.
With the deepest respect for James Foley and his grieving family we have to ask why this particular instance of video violence been treated with such circumspection by editors, police and public. After all, Foley spent much of his career using his skills as a photo-journalist to show the world the horrors of terrorism in the Middle East in a graphic way. He was all about representing the victims of violence, and the rights of people living under oppressive regimes.
Perhaps this imagery is so gruesome that it crosses a line. And yet the footage of Foley’s death (which I have chosen not to watch) can’t be more extreme than the truly horrendous images in a video game that a teenager was cheerfully playing in the corner of the lounge last weekend, as we adults sat and talked about the weather. Perhaps we take a different view because this particular incident brings many viewers rather too close to home? James Foley looks like your average work colleague. He is young, Western and good-looking. What if the participants were different? What if the victim was an anonymous child killed for political reasons in Israel or Gaza or Syria. What if it were a young black man executed by police in Fergusson? Supposing the police or social media executives stepped in to forbid us to view raw footage. Surely we must be allowed, or even encouraged to look that violence in the face.
Images are powerful, as both James Foley and his murderer knew very well. They are also political. We cannot escape the complex choices that are involved in making, publishing and viewing them. Many images are painful to see, but sometimes it’s wrong to look away.
There are fine examples of James Foley’s journalism at GlobalPost.