Opinion - shocking but necessary

Charles Graham
Charles Graham

ONE of those fearless journalists that the rest of our industry holds in thrall dared to stick his head above the parapet once again last week.

But on this occasion Jeremy Bowen is not dodging bullets in the war-torn Middle East, but challenging his BBC paymasters over censorship.

He believes that some of the grimmer images from conflicts around the world should be published because failure to do so risks duping the public over the horrors of reality.

Bowen, who must have witnessed the aftermath of more atrocities than almost anyone on the planet, says he has been fighting a career-long battle against the “Hollywoodisation” of television news.

He says that he has often been left disappointed by editors for failing to show viewers the consequences of conflict because of a fear of offending viewers.

Citing one example, the reporter said he was still “angry” that pictures of children gassed to death in Damascus had been removed by BBC editors in London from a package he sent from Syria last year.

I am with him on this. Not because I get some bloodlusty kick from showing gruesome images, but because the responsible public needs to know how it is. A sanitized version of events misleads it.

There still need to be checks and balances. The television watershed must come into play, and an editor would be advised to use less graphic imagery of atrocities at home than abroad in deference to families of victims (although I think this is a rule that has long been applied).

Less of a need could also be forwarded for the showing of the most painful pictures from natural disasters than those when the death and injury has been inflicted by fellow humans. But then again the terrible results of a tornado or tsunami are sometimes used as evidence to further the global warming argument.

If you see pictures from decades past you do begin to see that there was at times a greater boldness or less of a squeamishness in what was published than at present.

In fact that counts on a local level too. I remember vividly in 1991 the police asking us to publish a photograph of a murder victim’s severed head on our front page in a bid to identify her. I very much doubt that in this spin-doctored age whether that would happen now.

The heaps of emaciated bodies at the liberated concentration camps, Pol Pot’s wall of skulls and schoolgirl napalm victim Kim Phuc running naked and screaming down a street during the Vietnam War are all images that speak thousands of words. They embed themselves in a memory in such an effective way that they are impossible to forget.

Some may not want to be reminded of such abominations. But one of the main reasons we learn history in school is the avoidance of making the same awful errors again.

Vivid, shocking but necessary imagery of man’s inhumanity to man may cause upset, but they will also help us better learn our lessons.