Sunday, 20 November 2011

Death on the front page: Right or wrong?

My comments on the pictures of Gaddafi's death on the front pages led to some differing views on the ethics and taste of splattering a bloodied corpse all over the news-stands.
I argued that the pictures were brutal but justified. If newspapers had photographs of the death of Hitler, would they have used them? Of course they would.
Simon Ricketts
One esteemed journalist who disagreed with me, and the position of his paper, was Guardian backbencher Simon Ricketts (@SimonNRicketts). He subbed the Gaddafi story that night but batted against the use of the picture. He tweeted: "I would have gone for a symbolic picture. Not a generic 'rebels celebrating' but an 'empty chair' type thing. Something smart."
My old Evening Despatch colleague John Lewis (@Johndlewis54) was even more incensed. He wrote: "Fleet Street showing that killing people is OK so long as you kill the right ones. SICK!"
My argument was that the pictures were irresistible, that they captured a crucial moment in history, that they told the story. Simon on the other hand felt a line had been crossed. This led us to other deaths that had been used explicitly on Page 1. Most memorable for me was the picture of the people crushed against the fences in the Hillsborough disaster in 1989. I was on The Northern Echo and we used it across Page 1 under the headline Never Forget. It was a shocking image and one I can't justify using here. The Daily Mail, though, still uses it on its website here. Be warned ... it is a disturbing picture.
The photograph arrived on the wire on the Sunday afternoon, 24 hours after the deaths. The people were dead or dying and that was clearly shocking. The story had been all over the Sundays but this photograph was new. We gave a print to each head of department and asked them for a view. They were split 50-50 as to whether we should use it. The parents among them, including the features editor who was an ex-Sun man, were against.
In the end the journalistic instincts to publish took over. For me the picture told the story and identified perfectly what the problem was. As a result football fans are not allowed to be caged in - and if anyone thinks they should be, just show them this picture. The headline, Never Forget, tried to justify its use.
There were 75 complaints (considerably fewer than when I moved the BMDs from Page 4).
Simon was shocked when I showed him the Hillsborough picture, which he had not seen before.
He said: "I would have been on the 'no' side of the camp but I cannot say I would not have run it if I was editor. I completely understand why you did."
It was certainly a tough call.
The Daily Sketch shows the moment Jack Ruby
shot John Kennedy's killer Lee Harvey Oswald
There are many other examples of dead bodies used in newspapers. Lee Harvey Oswald shot dead by Jack Ruby, the charred body of an Iraqi soldier on the road to Basra, Che Guevara's body displayed to prove he was dead, the Vietcong soldier being executed and others. They all feature in Harold Evans's Pictures on a Page where he argues the case for the power of the single photograph. Of the picture of the charred body on the road to Basra, which I also used in The Echo,
Evans wrote this: "The photograph shocked in the first instance for this very reason. It was a solitary individual in the transfixion of a hideous death. In the absence of a photograph of this power, it had been possible to enjoy the lethal felicity of designer bombs as some kind of video game."
The true horror of war: Kenneth Jarecke's
shocking road to Basra picture
And for me that was the point. We had lots of gung ho pictures of Tornado jets and brightly lit skies, but this was the true horror of what was going on. We had a duty to show that to our readers.
As Evans went on to say: "Anyone who saw that still photograph will never forget it."
Execution of a Vietcong prisoner by
 Eddie Adams, Associated Press 
Here's Simon's view:
"I think there are two parts to this. 1) The image of a dead or dying person 2) The front page.
"On the first issue, yes, there are images of dead or dying people used. "Sometimes because it captures the news in such an immediate way that nothing else will do. Other times it's symbolic of the wider issue. (I think the Vietcong picture is an example of that).
"Does it matter if it's a recognisable person? I think it does. The picture of an anonymous burnt Iraqi on the road to Basra captures the news, without the added horror of seeing a person's expression.
Che Guevara's body on display
"Another factor - if the person's well-known. Oswald comes into that category. So does Guevara. However, the Oswald picture is not horrific in its nature. The Guevara one came at a time when identification WAS important and mainstream news outlets were the only way to spread the news.
"2) The front page. We still live in a world where front pages are powerful. And when every single front page of the newspapers had a bloodied picture of Gaddafi, the news-stands looked more like a butcher's shop.
"My point was that we could tell people Gaddafi was dead on the front page - but they didn't have to SEE it. By all means have a smaller picture on the inside. "A picture of a dead Gaddafi has a strong message for all across Libya and the Middle East - and identification was a small issue. But not on the front.
"For me, a "smart" front page, with an empty chair, or a graphic of Gaddafi's face, or a poster of him riddled with bullet holes, would have told the story equally instantly, and the inside page could have a smaller picture of him dead.
"I was astounded that the Indy used a picture of him dead on the slab TWO days afterwards. That was baffling.
"I think - and I may just be getting old - that the rush of online pressure to publish/be first and the fact that media can be spread quicker and wider than ever before, leads people to sometime publish things because they CAN and not because they SHOULD.
"That's my tuppence - and I had to think hard about it."
So, were the papers right to use the Gaddafi pictures? I reckon they were, Simon, John Lewis and many others disagree. But, as I have said so many times before, when all journalists agree on what is right and wrong, when all front pages look the same, it will be time for me to pack it in and run a bar in the South of France. What do you think? All views, as always, are welcome.

1 comment:

  1. Peter - Great to see the Jack Ruby photo on your blog. This has to be the ultimate in being in the right place at the right time.
    Some 20 years ago I was visiting The Bonham Daily Favourite, a tiny paper in rural north Texas.
    They had a pile of old papers gathering dust at the back of the office, which I rifled through - and found The Dallas Times Herald from 25.11.63 - the very day's paper for which staff photographer Bob Jackson took this photo - and subsequently won the Pullitzer Prize for.
    (Not surprisingly they used it full width of the front page).
    To my amazement, my hosts very kindly asked me if I wanted to keep the paper, as a gift. It has been on the wall of my study ever since:
    Here's a picture of it -

    Over the years I've been fascinated by this photo, given it looks down on me every day.
    I've even taped and watched the film footage of Ruby being transferred in that Dallas garage frame by frame - you can see the exact frame in which Jackson's flash gun goes off as the bullet is fired. Astonishing.
    The Dallas Times Herald, by the way won three Pullitzer Prizes, all for photography. It survived as an afternoon paper for 103 years before it was bought out by a competitor in 1991 - and closed the next day.
    If I ever hit the skids, expect to see my (famous) copy on e-bay.