On Thursday morning, we had a front page that set the agenda and went viral online. Because it mainly consisted of a shocking and, to some, offensive picture, its publication goes right to the heart of what journalism is, and ought to be.
At around midday on Wednesday, images of three-year-old Aylan al-Kurdi appeared on the wires and social media, sending shock waves through news organisations everywhere.
As Yasmin Alibhai-Brown wrote in a beautiful piece for us, everything about the picture was horrifying: its composition, with a figure of authority standing over a dead child; the plump body with bright clothing that lay prostrate; and, yes, the faintly discernible expression on the little boy’s face.
The instinct many other publications had was: we can’t show that. It would be an act of transgression. There is sound logic to this. Some people argue you simply never publish pictures of dead children, no ifs or buts. Others say think about the family. Would you want your dead son pictured on the front page? Then there is the fact that, being on the front page, it is more likely to be seen by children everywhere. Finally, wouldn’t we effectively be trying to make money from this tragedy, by selling more copies of our newspaper?
We went through all these arguments in the office – including, since some people have asked, with fathers and mothers. Ultimately, we felt – and still do – that the power to shock is a vital instrument of journalism, and therefore democracy. Our motivation wasn’t avaricious; it was to shock the world into action, to improve refugee policy – which is why the accompanying editorial and petition had clear policy recommendations – and to put pressure on a Prime Minister whose behaviour in this crisis has been embarrassing. We hoped some good may yet be salvaged from the appalling fate of poor Aylan, and thousands like him.
Two days on, there has been a massive national and international response, with #refugeeswelcome trending on social media, and protests planned for today. Despite that, Cameron has been slow to react, although he did move slightly yesterday in saying more refugees would be let in.
Until then, I think he had one of the most morally bankrupt weeks of his career. His heartless, calculating initial response to this humanitarian crisis betrays Britain’s proud tradition on asylum. Frankly I found his awful piety (“as a father, I do understand”, etc) hard to watch.
There is more to be done. You can sign our petition at ind.pn/refugeeswelcome. It won’t bring back the thousands who have perished. But Britain has a duty to save as many others as possible, whether little boys or their families.
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