The Media Column: When else would an editor consider using close-ups of bloodied corpses?

Vincent Graff
Thursday 24 May 2012 10:30

Before they settled on the name Drop The Dead Donkey</i>, the producers of the Channel 4 show were going to call it Dead Belgians Don't Count</i>, giving a nod to the truism that British TV viewers are less moved by dead people when they come from Somewhere Foreign.</p>It is not just on television that such opinions hold sway. In newspapers the phenomenon is perhaps even more acute, most noticeable in the manic tabloid searches for "holiday Brits" whenever there is a natural disaster or political upheaval in an obscure country. It takes some worried British tourists stranded in their hotel to bring a foreign coup or earthquake to life for readers back home.</p>But there is another way in which dead Belgians don't count: news organisations seem to be far less squeamish about showing dead bodies if those bodies are not British.</p>This week TV viewers and newspaper readers have been treated to the sight of close-up pictures of the battered heads of Uday and Qusay Hussein, following the decision of the US military authorities to issue news organisations with pictures of their war trophies. If the blood-soaked images were not to your taste, a day later the US issued pictures of the men after they had been cleaned up, shaved and beautified by US morticians.</p>There were justifiable reasons for the Americans publicising the pictures, certainly within Iraq, whose population needed convincing that the men killed in Mosul were those who, with their father, had terrorised the nation.</p>But were editors right to reproduce them over here? And on the front page - so that the images were very difficult to avoid, even if you do not buy a newspaper?</p>It was a difficult decision. The release of the pictures was</i> the story - the images were not just incidental illustration. Newspapers are not generally in the business of withholding the news from readers. But on what other occasions would an editor even consider publishing close-up pictures of the bloodied heads of two corpses?</p>In the end, editors jumped in different directions. The first set was reproduced on the front pages of The Daily Telegraph, The Guardian</i> and, most graphically, The Daily Mirror</i> ("The Evil Dead"). The Sun</i> had them inside, on pages four and five. The Daily Mail</i>, in the way only that paper can, ran a splash headlined "Barbaric", criticising the US decision to release the pictures - and then displayed them in colour inside.</p>Charles Moore, the editor of The Daily Telegraph</i>, says it was a "very unpleasant" decision to have to make, but that he "couldn't see any way round it".</p>Two papers took a more inventive approach. The Times</i>'s front page offered a delicate "taster" in the form of a strip across the top featuring Uday's eyes, and carried a warning, in capital letters, that the full pictures were on page 15 and that "readers may find them disturbing".</p>Here at The Independent</i>, the pictures were run, but at first glance you may have missed them - they were bleached out against a red backdrop; superimposed on them were the words of Robert Fisk, analysing the response their release would get on the streets of Iraq. Initially, the editor-in-chief Simon Kelner had not wanted even to go this far. "I was pretty much alone among senior executives in not wanting to run them," he says. "We had a very robust discussion about it."</p>The paper carried a leader on Friday headlined "Even these corpses should be treated with some respect". The Americans were justified in publishing the pictures, but, it argued, "that does not mean the media has to do the US authorities' work for them".</p>Were we wimping out? Not if our letters page yesterday was representative of the views of our readers.</p>There was a similar debate at Wapping. Robert Thomson, the editor of The Times</i>, says some of his staff argued that since they were already being shown on the TV news channels, The Times</i> should not be squeamish about following suit.</p>"Like any editor, you have an aversion to - if not a policy over - the use of images of dead bodies, particularly close-ups, but in this case there was obviously a political and historical significance that went beyond the ordinary. But that does not make them any less grotesque for a significant proportion of our audience," he says. "In the end, we felt that not to run them at all was not to capture the full story." But the pictures inside were deliberately presented in black-and-white. Of the way the pictures were used in other papers, Thomson adds: "One can't help but think that some of those images were a tad pornographic."</p>So how shocked were newspaper readers? By yesterday lunchtime, the Press Complaints Commission had received 25 complaints.</p>And at The Telegraph</i>, Charles Moore says that though readers have been in touch to express their distaste, other editorial decisions have brought in far more complaints. Such as? "The time we published a picture of the Queen appearing to grimace at a young girl giving her a posy of flowers." </p>

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments