“Humankind cannot bear very much reality,” T S Eliot wrote in the Four Quartets, but how much is very much?
The BBC’s award-winning Middle East correspondent Jeremy Bowen describes in The Independent today his long battle against what he calls the “Hollywoodisation” of television news, his anger at editors in London removing pictures of children gassed to death in Damascus, and the “constant rows” he had with them over their reluctance to show images of casualties of the war in Bosnia.
Television’s war correspondents are understandably upset when the cruelty and vileness of what they witness is, as they see it, bowdlerised out of an exaggerated regard for viewers’ sensibilities. Today, when the horrific event happens close to home and is stunningly anomalous, the old inhibitions are sometimes over-ruled: the murder of Fusilier Lee Rigby and the killing of an autistic man with a single punch during a row over cycling on the pavement are two recent examples where the Corporation has been prepared to bend its own rules.
But there is still a strong case for thinking long and hard before making a wholesale change to the criteria for exposing viewers to extreme violence. Every intelligent adult knows that a civil war such as Syria’s involves innumerable acts of bestial horror. He or she knows that a bomb in a crowded place will dismember many of its victims. To make a habit of ramming this knowledge home with graphic footage risks dividing the audience between the sensitive – who will often prefer to turn off – and those for whom the sight of sanguinary horror has an unhealthily prurient appeal.
To get the balance right is never easy, and the immortality bestowed by the internet makes it harder than ever. The deciding factor – as in the Lee Rigby case – must be that the event in question should be not just horrific but so exceptional as to portend a change in the national or international mood. The children gassed in Damascus was a clear example of that – one where the BBC should have got the better of its timidity. But such cases must, by definition, be rare.