Belfast Telegraph

Tower tragedy showed that, against nobler instincts, we are fascinated by awfulness

Saturation coverage of Grenfell and other recent disasters is now normal in the 24/7 news era, writes Gail Walker

Sometimes we see too much, read too much, know too much. Those images of that inferno at London's Grenfell Tower will stay with most of us forever, etched into our memories. Those silhouetted faces at the window, the woman who Facebooked live from inside her flat as the flames came ever nearer to take her, the mother, who was to die in the blaze, dropping her child from the fifth floor to a man below who miraculously caught the toddler.

From dozens of mobile phones, photos of the tower enveloped in flames, the blackening walls and the billowing smoke ... for all the world like a Seventies disaster movie.

And now we are getting our first real look at the charred interior, everyday items of furniture turned into ghastly fossils, as rescue teams begin the grim task of finding the bodies of the missing.

Are we not seeing a bit too much of the horror? Yes, the vast majority of those glued to their TV and tablet screens are moved by compassion for the victims. But are we not in danger of compassion blending into a ghoulish morbid voyeurism?

The sad truth is that there is a part of us fascinated - against our better selves, our nobler instincts - by awfulness. Whether it is 9/11, terror attacks in Manchester or London or a mass shooting in America, a part of us is inexorably drawn to watch and experience the cruelty and senselessness of life - and death.

And yet that isn't the whole story.

We no longer live in an age of reserve and stiff upper lip. We may lament the passing of stoicism but, in its place, there is a rough kind of democracy. We hear an increasing, bewildering and - sometimes - downright scary number of voices. We find it hard to identify the important from the inconsequential, the truly insightful from the sensationalist, the authoritative from the merely opinionated.

We have changed. Much of it is down to social media.

Everything now is recorded, filmed and shared instantaneously. In the old days, the media and the logistics of filming acted as a gatekeeper.

Film crews would have to get to the story, film it and edit it. More importantly it needed to be made sense, to be shaped into coherence. Not today - instead we get immediate visuals and 'reports' and, instead of shape, we get shapelessness - rumour, innuendo, surmise, speculation, uncertainty and contradiction.

Of course, the change is influencing our 24/7 rolling news and digital era. Thirty years ago, though the images were available, it would have been simply inconceivable to print or broadcast anything similar to some of those scenes witnessed at Grenfell Tower. War and famine maybe, but not terrible things happening in our own cities close to home. Those in charge of such matters simply wouldn't have allowed it. It would have been deemed scandalous, insensitive and exploitative.

Now, it is every one for themselves, trying to make sense of the senseless, the arbitrary and the seemingly unthinkable.

In spite of all the controversies over recent years about the Press, there are in fact protocols to which they - we - adhere.

It's why, for instance, you won't see identifiable faces of dead bodies in your newspapers. Or see the bodies of dead people in locations where they may be identified. Or read explicit accounts of sex attacks in a court report.

Copy is routinely edited so as not to offend or shock, so that it meets the 'taste' test. That is called 'curation' and it is why journalists, usually, those in established, recognised media outlets, spend years being trained in the nuances of press coverage. It's not enough to be able to write - not even necessary, some might say! - it is important that the other skills of the journalist are learned and understood. Such as tact, listening, diplomacy, accuracy, timeliness and verifiability.

Of course, once you think about it, it is obvious that there are these protocols. It is also obvious that they are not always followed to the letter, but when that happens there are investigations and a means of calling to account.

So, newspaper archives are filled with photographs that will never see the light of day.

Not just because they might be intrusive or subject to legal action, but because they are in bad taste, are offensive, capture moments of stupidity or lapses of judgement, can be misleading on their own, or can be disturbing, nasty, hurtful.

I say this because increasingly there is a sense that anything we are not told or anything we do not know yet is something we have a 'right' to know.

There are things, it seems, we have a 'right' to be told; things we have a 'right' to see and hear.

Well, no we don't. None of those are rights. Other people's lives belong solely to them, not to us, no matter how dramatic their lives or their deaths become, or how famous they are.

We employ police, health professionals, legal experts and first responders to treat us with respect and with dignity. That includes how our details are handled after injury or death, no matter the circumstances.

We also expect the Press to respect those protocols and, by and large, they do. But we shouldn't expect the Press to publish details, even if accurate, simply because they are known to be 'true', any more than we would expect firefighters to enter burning occupied buildings with helmet-cameras and broadcast that on Facebook Live or Periscope.

Scenes such as were witnessed in Kensington were not just of despair and hellishness.

As in the case of 9/11, we listened to the messages to loved ones, the final words, those reminders that we are part of something larger.

We eagerly watched the stories of fortitude and heroism almost beyond understanding: the tenants who ran into the inferno to rescue children, the neighbours who defied death to wake their neighbours, the incredible courage of the fire and rescue services.

We will remember the tears of those firefighters during the minute's silence for the victims. The riot police who used their shields to protect firemen from the falling debris.

And, of course, those 'lesser heroes' who opened up their doors, schools and community centres, who ferried the injured, who attempted to comfort and console.

The restaurant owner who closed down his premises to make food for those in makeshift halls and treatment rooms. Years from now we will recall Sunday's service of remembrance and the crowd's uplifting rendition of Labi Siffre's Something Inside So Strong.

We also watch those images - and wonder. While there is justifiable anger at the tragedy, there were also reminders that we are capable of greatness, compassion and profound acts of kindness.

Even the visit of the Queen - simple, human and apolitical - served as a reminder that not only do we watch but we also feel.

And that is no bad thing.

Belfast Telegraph


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