Hacked Off, 27 August 2014
Not long ago, a British jihadist posted a photograph of himself on Twitter, apparently holding up a severed head in his left hand. The same man is now one of the chief suspects in the murder of the American journalist, James Foley, who was beheaded in Syria last week after being forced to take part in a propaganda video.
Since Mr Foley’s murder, many British newspapers have published still photographs from the propaganda video on their front pages, showing the journalist kneeling in the sand while his killer rants beside him. Some have also published the earlier picture from Abdel-Majed Abdel Bary’s Twitter account (now closed), with the severed head pixilated out. In a testament to the psychotic mind-set of men fighting for the terrorist group which calls itself the Islamic State, Abdel Bary even wrote a jokey caption to accompany the horrifying photograph.
When pictures of murder victims are re-published by the UK press, it is clearly right to obscure their features, not least to avoid the possibility that they might be seen by friends or relatives. Many Syrians live in Britain and have friends and family members in the country, where they may find themselves at the mercy of torturers and murderers from the Islamic State. But these images, which are as horrifying in their own way as photographs of Nazi concentration camps, create significant ethical dilemmas for editors and newspapers. Repeated use of still photos from the video of Mr Foley, and references (probably over-hyped) to his killer supposedly being nick-named after one of The Beatles (http://www.express.co.uk/news/uk/501795/British-jihadist-said-to-lead-The-Beatles-terror-gang), suggest that the ethical questions raised by publication have barely been addressed.
At one level, this may be explained by the adrenaline rush that accompanies such a huge breaking story. On such occasions, the impulse is to get the news out, and one of the justifications for publication of shocking pictures is that they are “already on the internet”. Even so, the Editors’ Code of Conduct still applies, and newspapers claim to hold themselves to higher standards than individuals or social networking sites, as we pointed out in a post last week. The point of drawing up such a code, even though it is often ignored or breached, is that editors agree to abide by it knowing they will have to make lightning-fast editorial decisions – and that ‘the internet’ is not signed up to any such standards.
In this instance, Mr Foley’s killers posted the video on YouTube; this is killing as spectacle, turning a moment of individual agony into a propaganda weapon. As far as I know, no British newspaper published still pictures of the moment of Mr Foley’s apparent murder, but some did publish links to the video. That was an error of judgement and the links were later taken down, but editors continued to use photographs of Mr Foley, moments before his death, to illustrate front-page follow-ups.
To me, this is problematic. Unlike most of the pictures I’ve seen from Nazi death camps, they have been taken not by horrified outsiders – photographers accompanying the soldiers who liberated the camps, for instance – but by the actual perpetrators of terrible crimes. Their aim is to shock and instil fear in most of their imagined audience, but also to recruit other disaffected young men to the organisation. They are glorifying their crimes, and no doubt many thousands of words could be written about the brutalised mental state of the young men behaving in this way.
At the same time, the pictures raise questions about our duty towards victims of atrocities, whether they are anonymous – which is often the case when the victims are Syrian, Iraqi or Kurdish – or clearly identifiable like Mr Foley. My reaction to the pictures of him kneeling with his hands secured behind his back is that this is an image of someone undergoing extreme mental torture. He may have hoped that his captors were putting him through a mock execution, which is in itself a form of torture, but his state of fear and horror is almost unimaginable.
I don’t want to see such pictures on the front pages of newspapers, any more than I would want to see images of a woman who is about to be raped. I doubt whether Mr Foley’s relatives and colleagues had any choice in the matter, given how widely they were used in the press. His parents made available photographs of him doing his job and asked media outlets to use them rather than stills from the video, and that is how many people would have wanted to remember him.
The Editor’s Code does not directly cover matters of taste and decency (which are rightly deemed matters of editorial judgement or wrongly deemed slaves to the market-place), but it does contain clauses which bear on this issue. Privacy may seem an odd word to use in this context, but it is absolutely clear that Mr Foley did not consent to be filmed in these circumstances. The Editors’ Code says that ‘everyone is entitled to respect for his or her privacy’ while another clause deals specifically with ‘intrusion into grief or shock’, pointing out that publication should be handled ‘sensitively’. Such prominent use of still photos from the video is a prima facie breach of both these clauses, and there is an additional question about unintentional collusion with murderers. Part of the purpose of the video was humiliation, showing a Western journalist as a helpless victim, and the casual re-use of images from it performs exactly that function.
All of these questions will arise again. The Islamic State is a horrible organisation, which shows neither compassion nor respect for human beings. It will commit more atrocities, both against people who live in the areas under its control in Syria and Iraq and against Western hostages. How the press should do its job of informing the public, when some of the images available are not just horrific but produced by the perpetrators of terrible crimes, is a subject that editors urgently need to consider.