Yesterday I wrote a piece dealing with the privacy issues arising out of the Shoreham air disaster on this side of the Pond. With eerie timing, on the same day, America unintentionally watched live on TV the murder of two journalists, shot dead by a disgruntled former colleague at ABC News.
Ensuring maximum publicity for the awful event, the killer filmed his shooting so viewers saw the camera being held by one of the victims fall to the ground, as shots rang out and screams were heard. The footage was then tweeted by the killer and posted on Facebook, although it has subsequently been removed. He subsequently faxed a “suicide note” to ABC News.
Describing himself as a “human powder keg… waiting to go BOOM!!!!” the killer was clearly deeply disturbed. But calculating in the manner in which he used the tools of his trade, a camera, TV and social media, to maximise the audience for his horrific crime. Of course, this is big news in the US and across the world, precisely as he had presumably intended it to be.
Do we want to see the footage? No. Do we need to see the footage to understand the news story? No. Do we view the footage? Yes. Many people will have watched it on the Internet. Many people will have shared it on social media. Newspapers have published the story, of course they have, and with various degrees of illustration; some with pictures of the reporters in happier times, some showing the moments just before the shooting. Can we blame them for having done so, when the public – or a section of the public – apparently wants to see them?
The question for the media-absorbed public today is this: does the public get what the public wants; or does the public want what the public gets? Perhaps, when images can speed around the world in a millisecond, is it difficult to differentiate today, between the two.
I wanted to be informed before I wrote for Inforrm. But I checked with a colleague first that there was nothing extremely graphic on the BBC site before reading its articles and viewing its footage. I didn’t do this out of any personal sensibility, but because I did not want to give in to the murderer’s desire to force me to watch what he might have thought of as a moment of glory. Similarly, I have never sought out images of the beheadings of other reporters and hostages that I know exist; and I didn’t watch images of Saddam Hussein’s hanging. I didn’t need to, to know that he was dead and I don’t need to see these reporters being shot, to know that there are disturbed people in this world, that gun crime is illegal and that it is personally tragic for the victims and their families.
In this most extreme of cases, this is reality TV in reality. And it is a reality of which we should be ashamed. Maybe the shocking images will shock us into action to prevent similar occurrences in future. Or maybe, just maybe, we should be shocked enough at the black and white fact, without it being fed to us in Technicolor, to do something about it.
Amber Melville-Brown is Head of Media & Reputation Management at Withers LLP.