I’ll be discussing questions about BBC TV’s news coverage of the horrific Woolwich street murder of a young soldier on Newswatch with the head of the BBC Newsroom, Mary Hockaday on Friday May 24th. This blog post lays out some of the questions. At least 200 viewers have already complained about the coverage.
The brutality of the attack in broad daylight, with onlookers encouraged to film and photograph the cruel act, are key aspects of why this is such an important news story. The killers sought publicity at the scene. (Technically they’re “alleged”, as they’ve been arrested and criminal proceedings are underway).
So in a way broadcasting the footage is a natural default instinct of a journalist. Anything else is some form of censorship. The ITN footage is quite calm — only the bloody hands hint at the horror. It is the vocal efforts of the brave police officers to cordon off the crime scene so they can protect the body of a murdered citizen that suddenly makes the viewer feel a voyeur.
Broadcasting the footage on bulletins was what the attackers wanted. Did the pressure of having “exclusive” footage rather than editorial justification tip ITN’s decision? Could a series of stills have been shown instead? If that seems too cautious, what about running some footage with the reporter’s voice track over? This is what has happened with so-called martyrdom videos of 7/7 terrorist bombers. The question is about leaving the attackers to speak directly over the airwaves and whether the distress or upset caused is justified or could be seen to be inflammatory. The short version I saw on the ITV website seemed carefully edited, but after covering crime scenes as a reporter for 20 years is my view a reasonable one?
For other broadcasters “the footage was everywhere else” argument is not a justification. The main editorial bulletins and the front pages of newspapers still carry great significance and power. It’s interesting to compare Woolwich to the decision NOT to show topless photos of Kate Middleton, the Duchess of Cambridge. British news organisations united in refusing to publish them. You could find them easily on the internet and other international broadcasts.
Could/should broadcasters have put the footage online only with a health warning?
It’s worth asking if the situation is really any different to the US where concern about copycat gun attackers being inspired by (posthumous) fame has been debated for much longer. In April 2007 NBC News was widely criticised for running a video the Virginia Tech gunman had made and sent them in advance of his attacks. They claimed it was journalistically justified, but subsequently restricted what they broadcast.
However in the case of Woolwich, the horrific murder is the first of its kind in the UK (though you should remember a thwarted plot to kidnap and kill a soldier in Birmingham in 2008). Perhaps that means running the footage is valid on this occasion. However if a similar copycat incident happened now, would broadcasters feel it was alright to run the killers’ “justification”? If not, why not?
Did broadcasters give due consideration to the possible impact of running such footage at length and repeatedly, given that stirring up racial unrest was a goal of the attackers and that the EDL obliged?
Newspaper front pages showed the same problem, running quotes with the message the attackers wanted to send out. Only the Independent (see photo above) gave a front page which reported the atrocity with a dignified sense of disgust. It featured not a threat from the killers but a quote from Mayor Boris Johnson about the attack being “sickening, deluded and unforgivable”. Although they ran the same picture of the man with bloodied hands as every other newspaper, The Independent also gave equal prominence to a photo of the brave cub scout leader, Ingrid Loyau Kennett, talking to the knife man to try and keep him from attacking others. In that they also succeeded in picking out the one positive story that has become one of the most central aspects of the subsequent day’s reporting.
What about the charge that broadcasters showed excessively graphic content? This is in a way more straightforward. A look back through the archives of European broadcasters to news footage of terrorist atrocities in the 70s and 80s will reveal changing standards about how much should be shown of the bloody reality of murder scenes. UK TV news editors probably have among the most cautious standards when it comes to showing violence on screen. So when a decision is made to show something that is more graphic than the norm, it is more likely to cause offence.
It’s hard to argue against showing any images of the suspect with bloodstained hands. But it’s easy, too, for news journalists, used to watching unedited footage, to underestimate the distress violent images in particular can cause viewers watching at home, even with a health warning. The duration of footage can make a big difference. Again, the use of stills can be an important compromise.
Looking back at a similar row about showing footage and stills of the lynching of Colonel Gadaffi it’s important to note how inconsistent news decisions can be. I was doing the Sky News paper review that night. The broadcaster made the decision (for a discussion broadcast at 1130pm) NOT to show the Daily Mirror front page which had a photo of his clearly dead, but relatively blood free, body. But they did show other front pages which had photos with far more blood and great visible distress on his face, of him being assaulted and clearly close to death. I found them far more disturbing. Who was right?
After the Iranian fatwa was issued against Salman Rushdie in 1989 many news programmes regularly interviewed aggressive and controversial Muslim figures about a newly discovered attitudes among some British Muslims. From Kalim Siddiqi then to Anjem Choudary today (on Newsnight most recently). Do they still need to be interviewed in the same way? News editors often feel it’s essential to have them on to tell the whole story. However many viewers and some politicians (eg Baroness Warsi) believe this airtime does nothing more than feed a febrile atmosphere, legitimising extremists’ claim to speak for large numbers of people, and allowing them to disseminate their views to a mass audience with all the possible repercussions. I remember watching one such figure explaining why 9/11 was a hoax on the ITV lunchtime news after the Danish Embassy protests and feeling strongly this was not illuminating. Again, a possible solution is to think about whether to restrict such guests to pre-recorded packages or discussions. But perhaps more importantly editors need to put more effort into cultivating new voices to interview and even ask why they keep going back to the usual suspects.
My interview with Mary Hockaday about the Woolwich murder coverage will be on Newswatch on the BBC News Channel at 845pm on Friday and again on BBC1 during Breakfast at 745am on Saturday. You can also see it via i-player.