An old media debate that some thought, erroneously, had been laid to rest has resurfaced in Europe over the past week. It arises over issues of sensitivity and respect, over what may or may not be decent to show publicly by way of images linked particularly to death or deep personal distress.
That old cavalier journalistic mode of showing “as is" by way of hardened professionalism was captured in that iconic line: “Anyone here been raped and speaks English?" That line has hardly had a respectful recall. But recent weeks have thrown up images that suggest we haven’t got past such brutal professionalism, if professionalism at any level this is. Worse, we may have only got past it selectively.
Cable car tragedy
The Italian TV channel Rai has come under fire for broadcasting security camera images of the cable car crash in which 14 people died, and just one survived. The clip shows the cable car nearing its destination, and then slipping back and crashing down. Members of five families were on board, including two children, who both died.
This was hardly the kind of footage that deserved to be aired, out of respect primarily to the families who lost so many of their own. Public prosecutor Olimpia Bossi said the suffering of families “cannot and must not be exacerbated by actions such as this”. The head of Rai TV said he was “deeply shocked” by the decision to broadcast the footage.
Heart-stopping football moment
BBC broadcast footage of a footballer who collapsed during a European championship match. Following a wave of protest over bringing cameras bearing down for such a public exhibition of personal misery, BBC said it is reviewing its “staggering decision”.
The Danish footballer Christian Eriksen had to be given emergency treatment on the field. Details of all this were broadcast at length. Denmark was playing Finland in the match.
BBC said: “We apologise to anyone who was upset by the images broadcast.” Several broadcasters switched viewing back to studios or other subjects, but BBC continued to flash those images provided by the European Football Association.
Covid deaths in India
Far more brutal images and far more of them were broadcast by BBC over the Covid deaths in India. On these there is no apology from the organisation – there is not quite a firm demand for one either. There appears to be one standard of sensitivity over moments of deep personal distress over European individuals; quite another over the scenes in India.
BBC paid to get images of dying Indians in hospitals, with commentaries overlaying the images saying such and such a person is nearly dead, and died later. The faces were shown, close-ups taken and broadcast remorselessly one after another to present images of deep distress by way of bold and insightful journalism. Relatives were shown grieving, breaking down in grief over the death of a loved one made good television.
Or so the BBC thought, and there is no indication that it is thinking otherwise. The Covid situation is not one that should warrant comparing tragedies. But Britain itself had a heavy wave of deaths last year, and particularly in care homes. Thousands died, and it was widely reported then because it was wisely seen that many thousands could have been saved by better government policy.
But it was accepted that cameras should not follow the dead to their graves, or the loved ones to their graves to mourn them. The scenes of thousands of deaths in British care homes never did make it to television, and rightly so.
The India story of distress became an investigative story of “inside the world’s worst second wave". That surely is a story for BBC and anyone to investigate and report. The difference lies in the way BBC reported it. That ‘inside’ report had a close-up of a man breaking down in tears and comforting a child. Why is it right to apologise for showing a footballer in deep distress, and not apologise similarly for showing that deeply distressing moment of the Indian man?
This is bold journalism of a style long-discredited and acknowledged to be so even by the BBC apology and introspection over showing something thankfully far less severe. When done in India, this sort of thing is not seen as a lapse.