The Only Way is Ethics: Being witness to a global air tragedy is not the same as goggling at a bereaved rock star

There are times when it is justifiable to publish pictures of grieving relatives
  • @willjgore

A week ago I wrote about the coverage of L’Wren Scott’s tragic death. Unlike some other papers, The Independent chose not to use an image of Mick Jagger taken immediately after he had learned of his partner’s suicide. It was, I thought, the right decision.

When it comes to reporting on the Malaysian air crash, however, there has not been the same reluctance over the use of images of grieving relatives (including on last Tuesday’s front page). One question it raises is whether we take a different approach to British people – or people living here – than we do to those on far-flung shores.

To some extent the answer is probably yes, for the simple reason that we measure potential intrusion by the likely impact on those concerned, which seems a reasonable equation on which to base a judgment about publication. In the not so olden days this was easy enough: The Independent was unlikely to be seen by many people abroad so, aside from in the rarest cases, published pictures of, say, disaster zones would have no impact on those they featured. (The issue of whether the act of taking photographs is intrusive must wait for another column.)

Things are somewhat different in the internet age. The Independent now has a global audience via its website, so separate judgments are required on whether material that would cause no intrusion in the print edition might do so if used online.

But in the particular cases of Mick Jagger and the relatives of those lost on flight MH370, there are other key points of divergence.

First, there is the nature of the event. In Malaysia, the interaction between the generally hapless authorities and the relatives has been a key part of the story. If the news media is to hold those in authority to account, showing the impact of their actions on ordinary folk (even in an extraordinary situation) has a genuine public interest.

Second, it is important to consider the response of the viewing audience. The MH370 disaster is hideous to each of us primarily because we have all travelled on aeroplanes. Seeing the anger, confusion and grief of people we don’t know, but whose relatives have died, underscores the horror we feel for them and for our potential selves. As for that haunting image of Jagger, its use seemed to me largely prurient. The audience was not being asked to consider how it would feel to lose a loved one; it was being nudged to goggle at the distress of one famous man.

New rules for TV? No problem

For a media regulation nerd, there is a particular fascination with the different rules governing television and newspapers. It has been a hallmark of the Leveson debate that the areas where the two regulatory environments diverge have been highlighted more frequently than their shared aspects.

There are, of course, some obvious deviations between what is permissible on TV and what is allowed in newspapers, though the reasons for that variance are arguably anachronistic. But in relation to many key questions, the rules are similar and are frankly based on common sense.

So, with The Independent’s new sister television channel, London Live, launching tomorrow at 6.30pm (Freeview channel 8 in London and online nationwide, #bepartofit!), we will soon see at first-hand how a multi-faceted media group responds to being beholden to two distinct regulatory regimes. My guess is that we will encounter fewer major difficulties than some have predicted. Eek, that’s fate tempted then.

Will Gore is Deputy Managing Editor of The Independent, i, Independent on Sunday and the Evening Standard Twitter: @willjgore