Don't spare us the bloodshed

When TV news editors choose not to broadcast disturbing images, are they protecting viewers or encouraging their apathy?
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The Independent Online
I am a London desk journalist with one of the international television news agencies. Our names are not well known; we serve the hundreds of television channels across the globe that select our pictures to show to their own viewers.

Part of my job is to "log" pictures - pictures such as the ones shot by camera crews in Qana last month when the Israeli shells landed. The swelling numbers in the south Lebanon camp meant that when the carpet of bombs rolled, there was room in the air-raid shelters for only UN personnel, aid workers, medics, the media and a minority of terrified civilians.

Our crews rush such pictures to the nearest satellite point. They are "fed" to London, where our technicians record them for our producers, who edit and script them. In between, someone tunes into a TV monitor, plugs in a set of earphones, starts a stopwatch and gets busy on the keyboard, typing an accurate list of the incoming pictures. I logged Qana.

I'd had warning. The newswires were alive with images of death - a baby decapitated, people bleeding to death because casualties outnumbered helpers, weeping soldiers. But after 25 years in mainstream journalism, you almost get used to terrible sights. And you have to log them whether you have gotten used to them or not.

As a newcomer to television journalism in 1981, I had been shocked by pictures of troops in El Salvador playing soccer with the head of a rebel. The 1990s has been no different. Bosnia and Chechnya have provided a regular diet of disgusting death. But this was worse. The Qana crews were already at the scene and simply turned their cameras on those who caught the full impact.

I stuck in a VHS. At first, it was just smoking ruins of part of the compound and a heap of dead and dying, from enough of a distance to provide me with professional detachment, and the awareness that our clients would be using "good" pictures. Then they went in close. The open-air survivors were so traumatised, and the shelter- seekers emerging into the mid-afternoon nightmare so angry (and guilty?), that they began tearing at the terrible mess in front of them, yelling as they waved a dismembered leg aloft, screaming as they uncovered pieces of a loved one.

One man found the baby and held it up. It was in a spotless romper suit, its body and arms completely unmarked. Its chin, mouth and part of the nose were there; the top half of the head was gone. I panicked, but kept typing. My desk faces a window into a back yard, so there was nobody else in the newsroom in my line of vision. Nor could I hear anything other than Qana. More bits were flourished, more victims perished in full-colour close-up.

After several long minutes of the dead, dying and maimed, the coverage cut to the nearest hospital. It was overwhelmed. Bleeding men and women were being carried back out to cars, to be taken to Tyre because this place was full, overflowing with disaster. Inside, a few doctors ran from one shattered body to another. One minute, the camera was zooming in on the sickening pain of a blackened, burnt woman, the next soaring away to a worse case nearby.

I lost the battle when the picture settled on a toddler lying on his back in a corner of the room, screaming in agony, his little face disfigured. He began twitching as his life ebbed away. Slowly, the camera pulled out to show a woman lying lifeless nearby. Perhaps his mother.

I saw all of this. You saw some of it. Is that censorship? Or is it common sense?

British viewers rarely see the gore in detail. BBC and ITN news editors have written guidelines - and traditions - about what can be aired. Does that make them wrong, in that they decide for others? Are their "civilised" standards welcome, in that they save our society from dehumanising images, or do they over-protect, filter and dilute reality to the extent of encouraging impotence, apathy and a racist view of much of the rest of the world as bloodthirsty?

The Arab world saw it all. The Israelis didn't. They all saw something; all viewers see something, whatever channel in whichever country they are watching. It is not politics that decrees what goes out and what doesn't. Or it is not just politics.

Jerusalem and Tel Aviv sitting-rooms saw much the same as London and Glasgow (and Washington and New York). Doubtless, all recoiled at the few specific shots of suffering children. Viewers in the UK would have seen more "adult" coverage later in the evening (lunchtime bulletins do not screen anything vaguely disturbing for fear of upsetting the elderly). But there was certainly nothing on any channel of the sights I logged.

Only a relatively small number of Israelis protested at the shelling of Qana. It may be significant that the Jewish nation's programme editors broadcast the sanitised version of the result of their army's activities. Arab studios showed the detail. It is not surprising that people are driven to distraction by such scenes. The "mad mullahs" depicted in much of our press have been enraged by years of pictures that our tabloid editors have not seen.

Personally, I have never had a strong view on what to cut. I edit out grisly bits for the United States because they just won't show them. I will leave a few in for Japan because they will. When your customers are hundreds of television stations, you pass some of the buck to them in deciding who sees what. You are always aware that technology makes all pictures available to all your clients on request anyway. So what determines how far each goes?

I said it wasn't just politics, though it plays a major part. The blood of Qana spilled on to Saudi as well as Syrian sets, but it is not hard to envisage a situation that sees the scrapping of Middle East peace efforts and the growth of the threat of militant anti-Zionist Islamic fighters destabilising the whole region. The sheikhs of the Arab kingdoms who own their media presumably would censor any further coverage helpful to any revolutionary cause.

There are other considerations. Lack of technology (money) in much of the Third World results in plenty of African and Asian neighbours seeing the same pictures, whatever their politics. There are variations in what is acceptable to different societies, on ethnic, religious or cultural grounds. White (and black) people at one time were fond of saying that life was cheap in Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, ignoring the blatant fact that generations of "foreign" war in Indo-China had bled out some of the fear of death.

Japanese barbarism during conflict (Korea, China, the Second World War) is not unique. What is unusual is the apparent demand of their viewers to see the aftermath of disasters in graphic detail. But the criteria is not racial. The same people who showed none of this when they were the Soviet Union are relishing it as Russians. Is airing it all now regarded as a freedom?

Many in the news agencies believe that the White House only got serious about "doing something" about Bosnia due to a single television transmission - women and children queuing for bread in Sarajevo were blown to bits by a shell burst. American viewers saw little of the butchery, but their political leaders did. Like the deskbound newspaper leader writers, US senators and European politicians can write and say what they like about these incidents without watching them. Visual experience apparently prompts (more) action.

It is almost the old debate about television violence and whether it creates it elsewhere. Are television news editors across the world meeting the needs of a market by showing more, or less, trauma? By showing their selection, are they whetting or dampening appetites? The Qana carnage was not censored in the rest of Lebanon and one result was that more people were enraged. Presumably, some of them have joined Hizbollah.

Would that happen to us? Would more of the sensational (in the true sense of that word) detail of filmed tragedy have people demanding an end to it all? Or would they sink into their sofas and flicker between helplessness and secret excitement?

In the UK, we are already watching car chases, crashes and assorted accidents in the guise of road safety. Robbery, rape and countless crimes masquerade in the name of helping the police with their inquiries. There is a growing demand for video titles such as Hooligan - the real and the raw stuff, straight from the streets and terraces.

It is a difficult dilemma. I ended up in tears at the news for the first time in 30 years and came away convinced of only two things: everyone should have seen what really happened at Qana; and nobody should ever, ever have to watch anything like that.