Home videos of public tragedy

MERE SECONDS after the bomb exploded in Omagh, there were people on hand with video-cameras filming the scenes of devastation. Graphic images of people, shocked and bleeding as they fled the scene of the blast, were soon on the television news.

One video, being shown repeatedly at the weekend, captured the injured lying in the street before the emergency services could get to them. In one scene, a video-camera user films another video-camera user as he films the devastation.

Increasingly, eyewitness footage is captured by members of the public who neither help nor escape scenes of tragedy, but simply switch on their video-cameras.

Some are motivated by money, although most channels claim to pay only a token amount.

Michael Wilson, news editor of Sky, which showed amateur footage in the aftermath of the Omagh bomb, said: "We are offered a lot more material than we actually use, but when there is a really big story, it helps to be able to show the first moments after the incident.

"We pay good money for good pictures but sometimes we don't pay at all. I'm fairly sure that we didn't pay for the footage of Omagh."

A spokesman for the BBC said there were strict guidelines governing the use of amateur footage.

"We are very careful how we use it but it does mean you can show things that you would not normally get.

"Some people are motivated by money but others just want to share the film that they have got. We have no standard rates of payment but it would certainly remain in three figures rather than four."

While news editors are coy about what they pay for pictures, there is money to be made in having a video-camera handy. One young woman, who filmed a hi-jacked Boeing 767 crashing into the sea, later sold the footage for pounds 40,000.

Given the high-speed nature of electronic news media, once video footage is available, it starts to be used by news media all over the world. Wire services buy it and distribute it, newspapers take video grabs off the television screen and the value of a tape can quickly mount up. Whatever the owner of the tape was originally paid, it is likely that it is the news organisation which buys it from them that knows how to make real money from it.

Such "witness films" can make up an entire, voyeuristic programme and real money can be made from these "footage shows".

In America, the Fox network has made the genre its own by taking the funny home video show to its logical extreme. It airs programmes such as When Animals Attack (Parts I and II), When Disaster Strikes, and Cheating Death: Real Near Death Encounters.

These shows are filled with video-camera footage of people falling off buildings, getting run over by cars, burning, drowning, and, of course, getting partially devoured by animals.

Fox airs these programmes at 9pm on Monday nights, right in its peak viewing schedule, so the genre is not just late-night cheap fillers. The network pays well, and given that it uses the film months after the disaster, the owner of the footage is usually by then more interested in money than just getting the news out.