Media: Viewers, look away now

TV news has a duty to show us what armed conflict is really like, however distressing it may be.
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The Independent Culture
They were images of war's horror filmed close up, the kind of televised images that we rarely see in our newsrooms these days: soldiers firing wildly around the streets; crowds of terrified people cowering as the battle raged around them; a man running and begging for his life and then shot dead; and, in the final image, a boy of about 10 years old screaming for his life as Nigerian soldiers beat him and stripped him of his clothes.

The cameraman who filmed these images, Sorious Samura, has been covering the battle for Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone, for several days. To do so he risked his life on an hourly basis. When I met him in Freetown he mentioned that he had some film. Would I like to see it? The following morning I sat and watched his video account of the battle. I soon realised that there was a great deal of material that simply could not be used - the vultures feasting on corpses outside the main hospital, the bodies set alight and burning in the streets, a man with his arms half hacked away.

But there were three images which I asked my cameraman to copy for me from the original tape: the man being executed, the child soldier being beaten and stripped and footage of a group of rebels setting fire to a house in which a family was hiding. At that point I had no idea how much of the material I would be able or want to use.

But as graphic illustrations of the brutality of the war in Sierra Leone they were without parallel: something told me these were images that deserved wider circulation.

Back in London and editing my first report for the Nine O'clock News I watched those images again and again. I showed them to as many of my colleagues as I could find. The editor and deputy editor of the Nine came into the edit suite repeatedly as we all tried to find a way of using some of the footage without offending good taste or alienating the audience. There were elements of what Sorious had filmed that simply could not be shown: the man being executed, the continual beating of the boy, Moses, by the Nigerians, the way he was hurled naked on the road in preparation for execution (he was saved in the nick of time by a Nigerian general and Sierra Leone's information minister).

But we decided to use some of the material. My own logic was clear enough; this was a war that had claimed 5,000 lives in a few weeks, a war in which Britain was involved through its support for the Nigerian-led forces of Ecomog and the government of President Kabbah. It was also a war in which thousands of children were being forced to fight as soldiers, mostly by the rebels.

I knew from my own conversations with Save the Children that the issue of child soldiers was escalating into a major international problem - there are at least 300,000 children fighting in adult wars around the world. The crisis has become so acute that Save the Children is launching a major campaign to have the recruitment of child soldiers declared a war crime.

And it also occurred to me that to describe a war as "brutal" and "savage" without illustrating the truth of its brutality was pointless.

But we kept returning to a simple question: how much of this misery could we show without offending the audience or alienating them from the subject at hand?

And so we tried to edit and script as judiciously as possible, deciding against using the images of the prisoner as he was executed. With Moses, it was more difficult. Whatever we showed of his interrogation was bound to prove traumatic for some members of the audience. Throughout the day we debated among ourselves and with the editors. At the end a consensus was achieved: we would show Moses being questioned, the initial blows being struck and the soldiers manhandling him on to the truck.

The imagery of the troops repeatedly beating Moses and the child lying naked on the road we would not show; we all took the view that they represented a horror too far. The critical point - that this war brutalised children in terrible ways - was clearly made by the images we finally decided to use.

We were of course careful to tell the audience that Moses had survived his ordeal and, indeed, we filmed him recovering at a special camp for war children. I believed then and I believe now that we were right to transmit the story as we did. A number of viewers did not agree. Too graphic, too horrible, unfit for television, some said.

It was the image of the child being brutalised by the Nigerians to which they objected. I was taken aback by the complaints. Surely what mattered was the brutal abuse being inflicted on children, not the fact that a news organisation had chosen to show what was happening.

I was happy to see that some of the callers on the overnight telephone log felt we had done the right thing. Many said they had no idea such things were happening in Sierra Leone, a country with which Britain has close links. The reaction from organisations dealing with children in crisis was especially heartening - there was unanimous approval for what we had done.

But if some people felt strongly that we should not have broadcast the images then I, as a public service broadcaster, am obliged to take their concerns seriously. I read through the telephone log of complaints and the e-mails; I also read a powerfully written, intelligent letter from a woman in Lancashire who wrote that showing such images changed nothing. After the Holocaust, Bosnia and Rwanda what was the point?

I disagree but that is a debate for another day. I am one of those who believes we should be judicious in our use of war imagery. I don't believe people should have horror forced down their throat every night. I have a three-year-old son and I don't want him going to bed with nightmares because of what he has seen on television.

That of course is why we have a 9pm watershed and why we warn audiences when we are about to transmit potentially upsetting material. But the fact is that there are times - the Rwandan genocide, the war in the former Yugoslavia and now Sierra Leone - when we need to show exactly what is happening, what is being done. Of course this should only happen after the watershed when the majority of those watching are adults.

However, I was surprised by the level of complaints from some members of the public. Of course they have a right to their point of view, and, as a public service broadcaster, I always make a point of listening carefully. But would there have been the same level of anxiety if a gruesome horror movie had been shown or a film with explicit sex scenes. I may be wrong but I rather doubt it.

We live in a world that seems worryingly comfortable with the idea of horror as fantasy: we can watch Bruce Willis and his equals blow their enemies to kingdom come and our children can watch it and imagine that all of this televised violence is safe. But war and violence are not safe. They kill children and adults, they maim and destroy innocence. Every so often we need to be reminded of this.

The writer is a BBC special correspondent