PSNI leaving drunk woman in Derry bus lane: A picture tells the truth but context is also important
Published 28/03/2014 | 02:30
A picture never tells a lie. Facts are sacred. An image is worth a thousand words.
All of the above are, in their ways, true, or contain elements of truth. But the key missing ingredient in those phrases is, of course, context.
The context of images and even facts can make, or break, them. It can change, in an instant, a sure thing into something deeply uncertain; it can undermine a shibboleth or, alternatively, prove a conspiracy.
It can turn black and white into shades of grey; blood red dissolves into pale pink, midnight blue to hesitant lavender.
In these days of instant communications, 24-hour news and always-on news feeds, context can sometimes take a back seat.
Especially – but not always – on Twitter, Facebook and other arenas, where public events get shared, mocked, praised, copied and often commented upon ad nauseam.
Take, for example, last week's video of the two officers dealing with the intoxicated woman on St Patrick's Day in Derry.
At first blush, the video seemed deeply shocking.
First of all, the officers lifted Bridget Mongan from the middle of the road and set her down in a bus lane.
The officers then get back into their patrol car and drive off, according to the view from the limited-view smartphone video images that recorded the incident. Cue outrage from the Twitterati, amid jokes about doughnuts and cold pizzas.
But then the facts eventually start to drip out and, what do you know, along comes the context.
The officers had, in fact, broken up an altercation and sought to protect a drink-sodden Bridget.
Her partner was taken from the scene in the back of the police car, but she objected physically and verbally, lying on the road, leading to the incident caught on the original smartphone.
Now, at this stage I still believe the officers have serious questions to answer about why Bridget was left in a bus lane and not placed on the footpath.
There were parked vehicles in the inner lane that would potentially have blocked the view of a bus driver, or indeed a car driver, who pulled in there to drop off a passenger. It could have ended tragically.
But it does not appear to be the outrageously uncaring act that was initially suggested by the video and a stream of instant Facebook experts.
Incidentally, almost as questionable was the behaviour of all those citizens who walked on by and did nothing to assist Bridget as she lay in the bus lane. What's happening? Do we not care any more?
Bridget is a street drinker who leads, well, an unconventional life.
But that's no reason for us to walk on by. And it underlines the difficult choices faced by police and 999 crews.
The Belfast Telegraph's coverage recorded concern about the events and was followed the following day by a plea from Gregory Campbell for people not to rush to judgment and that there were mitigating circumstances in the affair.
It was appropriate for the newspaper to raise key questions about the behaviour of the police. Classically, however, in an information vacuum, speculation will replace facts.
At the end of the day, and particularly since the dawn of social media, the Bridget Mongan video underlines the dangers of snap judgments formed on sparse information. There's very often a pattern to these things and it usually has four stages.
First, the images, or video, appears. Then the rush to judgment. Then the facts start to emerge. Finally, the full context becomes clear.
For my money, the smart thing to do is refrain from outspoken comment until stage four.
That way, you won't risk traducing the blameless... and won't end up with egg on your own face.