Belfast Telegraph

Shocking images: where should we draw the line?

The publication of the photographs of Michaela McAreavey's lifeless body begs the question: how much human suffering should the media show? Henry McDonald reports

Taste and decency (or perhaps of the lack of it) come to mind when considering the decision by the Sunday Times of Mauritius to print pictures of the Michaela McAreavey murder-scene, including shocking images of the murdered newly-wed.

Ireland, north and south, has united in its disgust over the publication of the pictures. The grieving McAreavey and Harte families have labelled the paper's actions as adding insult to injury.

The controversy has become a diplomatic issue, with the Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, demanding action by the government of Mauritius over how the paper obtained the pictures and who within the country's legal, or policing, system leaked them.

It is beyond debate to say that under no circumstances would the publication of these pictures be likely anywhere in these islands.

There is no defence and no excuse for them. They are, as Kenny so rightly said, a "gross affront to human dignity''.

Moreover, they are bound to compound the already unimaginable anguish of John McAreavey, in particular, who had to sit through a gruelling two-month trial and yet ended up with no justice for his young wife of just 12 days.

Presumably, some journalist from this Mauritian newspaper was in court and must have seen the agony John McAreavey and his family were going through.

Possibly the only avenue of protest against this latest outrage to visit the McAreavey and Harte families is for all of Ireland to urge the people of Mauritius, in turn, to boycott this newspaper.

However, the outcry over this shameful act of irresponsible journalism does not impose an absolute ban on the use of the graphic and disturbing image, because hard cases often do not make good law.

It certainly raises the question of how much the media should show in terms of human suffering - though clearly not in this instance.

Unlike in the Michaela McAreavey case, there are, one could argue, other scenarios where it may be right for the greater good to publish images of human savagery and cruelty.

For while it was not justified, say, to show Princess Diana's body lying broken in the car inside that Parisian tunnel, there may be wider issues, of a global political dimension that do require the media to show and tell exactly as it is - no matter how shocking, or macabre.

Images of JKF's post-mortem examination can been seen on the internet and it seems possible that the same could be true if unscrupulous individuals were to do the same in Mauritius (mercifully, at time of writing, this had not happened).

The internet does pose the danger of de-sensitising individuals downloading images of human suffering; that is why media organisations, if they are going to use graphic images, should do so carefully and sparingly.

The tide of public opinion was turned against US involvement in Vietnam, in part by the televisual and photographic images emanating from the war during the 1960s.

The same logic applied to Bosnia (although far too late to stop the genocide in eastern Bosnia) when images such as the massacre at the Sarajevo market were beamed around the world.

Closer to home, a recent re-reading of Martin Dillon's seminal account of the Shankill Butchers remains a profoundly disturbing experience - even now, decades after the majority of the killers were caught and their leader, Lenny Murphy, shot dead by the IRA.

Yet you wonder if, at the time, the local and international media were fully doing their job when it came to publicising this most notorious cabal of murderers.

A year before the Shankill Butchers' trial, the RUC attempted shock-and-awe tactics over one of the worst atrocities in the Troubles. On February 17, 1978 the IRA detonated a firebomb that incinerated 12 diners at the La Mon House Hotel and injured 30 others.

In its aftermath, the RUC printed posters of a charred human torso, all that was left of one of the victims, as part of its appeal for information.

The reason the disturbing and graphic imagery of that La Mon victim sticks in the memory is not just because of its horrific nature; it is because such images were so rare.

By and large, the domestic audience and readership of the electronic and print media were spared the real images of the Troubles.

The justification for such reticence was on the grounds of taste and decency; that most people did not want to see the suffering up close.

Moreover, the argument went that the families of the victims, most of all, should be spared the details. No one is suggesting that the media, local or foreign, should have engaged in a free-for-all when it came to images of death and destruction.

Northern Ireland is a small entity, with tight-knit communities and where, paradoxically, respect for individual and family feels are high. But were we, perhaps, too censorious in terms of conveying to the public what we - journalists, reporters, photographers and camera operators - got to see with our own eyes?

Maybe the place to start could have been the families themselves; to ask them if they thought it was a good to show exactly what we had seen to the wider world.

And would there then have been less romantic myopia about 'armed struggle' on either side if we had been more graphic in our portrayals of what went on here.


From Belfast Telegraph