James Foley beheading: Mainstream news outlets won't show these vile images, and social media shouldn't either
How should the media treat stories that feature graphic human suffering, particularly those used as a propaganda tool?
It's an age-old debate, but one that has come into sharper focus in recent years.
Should the full horror of war and violent crime be shown, or should the public be shielded from graphic violence?
Some journalists feel strongly that the media should not be in the business of sanitising conflict, that doing so encourages young dreamers to head off to war zones.
But most editors and publishers refuse to do the terrorists' dirty work for them. I have no doubt the public agrees.
Editors around the world were confronted with that decision yesterday. Almost all in the western mainstream media will have chosen not to show any part of this video that depicts the murder. Indeed, some reversed earlier decisions to screen less graphic parts of it, choosing not to run any moving images at all, including the ‘speech' Mr Foley was forced to give.
This newspaper agrees, and believes that to do so is to play the terrorists' game for them. Still images and non-explicit descriptions are more than adequate to portray the barbarity.
The Editor sought to preserve what's left of Mr Foley's dignity and also to deny extremists the impact of the terror they so desire to spread around the world.
For, make no mistake, this brutality is not the behaviour of men simply consumed by hatred — it is a deliberate and publicly-documented strategy to destroy enemy morale and to force Sunni Muslims to take sides in its war with its enemies, including the Shia, moderate Sunnis and the West.
To an extent, the media can rely on a simple rule: that if an incident happens a great distance away there is more tolerance in the depiction of acts of violence, within certain limits.
The famous photograph of a Vietnamese girl maimed by Napalm would never have been published these days if it had happened in the UK.
Clause 5 of the Editor's Code of Practice covers ‘Intrusion into Grief and Shock’ and prohibits not just insensitive enquiries and approaches to people or relatives, but also directs that the publication must be handled sensitively. Ofcom has similar rules for broadcasters.
These rules can, of course, be tested by case law, but the boundaries are pretty clear.
Editors across the UK found themselves in the firing line when soldier Lee Rigby was murdered in an attempted decapitation outside Woolwich Barracks in 2013. As a whole, with one or two exceptions, the media refused to show very graphic images of that incident. Some initial images were withdrawn. The mainstream images that did appear were shocking enough in themselves.
Social media and the rise of the smartphone camera has forced this matter into the public arena in a way not possible ten years ago. The mainstream media is regulated and editors rarely cross the line. Social media, of course, is not. Many young people become radicalised by images of graphic violence.
It is, in my opinion, time for public and political action to force social media companies to act more ethically. YouTube, Twitter and Facebook (which had its fingers burned previously by Mexican drug gang beheadings) are all open to pressure.
Twitter in particular needs to be forced by public pressure — not by law — to behave responsibly. And when the people behind this video and other monstrosities move to smaller social media companies like Friendica and Quitter, as it appears they are doing, the campaign should be taken there, too. Crowdfunders of social media enterprises should insist on ethically-responsible clauses to keep the beheaders off the mainstream internet. It's time that new media learnt a lesson in responsibility from the so-called old media.
- Paul Connolly is the Belfast Telegraph Readers' Editor