Yulin dog meat festival: When is publishing a photograph too far?

The Only Way is Ethics: An image can bring home the horror in a way that is important

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The Independent Online

That the British are a nation of animal lovers is regularly held as a truism, except, of course, when we feel cheated by stand-in dogs on TV talent shows.

But images of animal cruelty are bound to be upsetting and, when newspapers publish them, complaints invariably follow. Often, the central question of such complaints is whether we would take a different view if the subject of the photograph was a person, not an animal.

I have always found that a slightly specious line of argument, rather like the “I bet you wouldn’t have said that if X was black/Jewish/gay/white/female, etc” line, which I have taken issue with before. The considerations that determine publication are not as simple as whether, for instance, the victim is a cat or a child.

There are a number of factors to be taken into account. The first is whether the subject of a photograph ought to be protected against identification. That, I’m afraid to say, applies only to people, not animals. Second, even if privacy requirements can be surmounted, is there something about the image which will so upset our readership that we ought not to go ahead? Finally, we must consider whether, in spite of all of the above, the picture tells us something sufficiently important that its publication is ultimately in the public interest. Balancing these considerations is the key.

The annual Yulin “dog-meat festival” in China has excited particular levels of outrage this year. For anybody who believes that dogs ought be kept off the menu, it is abhorrent. Even if you take the view that eating dog is no worse than eating a mutton chop, I think we can all agree that the conditions in which Yulin’s dogs are kept – and killed – are shocking.

Accompanying The Independent’s report of the event last Thursday was an unsettling photograph of a meat-seller holding aloft a live dog, clamped by its neck, at the end of a pole. One reader argued that it was a step too far, that it would sicken all bar those who get a kick from being cruel to animals. But that is rather the point: we felt the image brought home the horror in a way that was important, and legitimate, in exposing a controversial trade.

Another story that did the rounds last week was about an incident at an alligator farm in Peru, where one sick individual threw a cat into a gator-filled pond, with inevitable consequences.

This being 2015, the incident was filmed and uploaded to YouTube: not by a shocked passer-by wishing to highlight the cruelty, but by a friend of the cat-thrower, capturing the “fun” for posterity. Animal rights groups, and thousands of individuals, deplored the episode. A report on The Independent’s website described the horrified reaction alongside a grainy image.

So far, so OK. But, initially, the footage itself was also embedded in our coverage. That was the point at which, having tiptoed to the edge of acceptability, we slid over it, before sliding back with the video’s removal.

There is, after all, a qualitative difference between a still image and film: the public interest may be served by showing a picture, but might not require footage which will cause significantly more distress to those who see it. Moreover, in these two cases, while the Yulin dog-meat seller plies his trade for economic reasons, the Peruvian cat-hurler was simply killing for a laugh. Publishing an image of the former may discourage a questionable practice. Giving wider coverage to a film of the latter probably makes no difference to anything, aside from encouraging a grisly voyeurism.

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