Should editors be our moral arbiters?

Abstract: Are TV news editors really qualified to determine what we watch?

On 20th October 2011 Muammar Gaddafi was captured by rebel soldiers, taunted, beaten and shot. His body was then publicly displayed and abused. You will remember it because it was shown on TV. It savaged some of the fundamental moral guidelines of broadcasting, but was considered justified for reasons that are dubious. It deserves re-examining now because South Africa is, unfortunately, being increasingly riddled with such ‘Gaddafi’ moments.

Shortly after the murder of Gaddafi I had the opportunity to challenge a professor of journalism and one of the UK’s most respected authorities on issues around morality in the media why the local TV stations aired footage of his capture. I asked him who makes the decision whether or not I, as a viewer, should witness Gaddafi’s obvious distress. He missed the broader philosophical context of my question, and simply answered ‘The editor on duty’.

He did answer my question, but missed an opportunity to encourage a debate on the matter; so I’m presenting it here for reasons included in my introduction.

In the UK, TV stations have to adhere to the Ofcom Broadcasting Code, which is very clear about showing scenes of people in distress or being humiliated. It advocates that ‘exceptional justification’ is required for any broadcaster to show footage of people who are severely injured or about to die. This is not only to protect the sentiments of the viewer, but also to preserve the dignity of the person being filmed.

In South Africa, the conduct of TV stations is regulated by the Code of the Broadcast Complaints Commission. However, unlike Ofcom, it makes no specific reference to coverage of persons in distress or who are seriously injured, instead relying on the assumption that it may be incorporated into the broader definition of ‘privacy’.

The reality is that at the time of his capture Gaddafi was unrecognisable as the former iron-fisted, brutal dictator. He was essentially a man in his late 60s, frail, dishevelled – imagine someone’s grandfather – and clearly petrified of the mob that had surrounded him. Footage shows him begging with his captors not to hurt him. In blatant disregard for his pleas he is shown being assaulted. Later footage showed a fighter brutally sodomising him with what looks like a bayonet.

And yet global news stations carried the footage, justifying the sidelining of his right to dignity with the claim that it was ‘in the public interest’, their subtle subtext being ‘hey, he was a bad guy, remember?’

When an editorial team makes such a judgment they do so on the behalf of the viewers. When they broadcast such footage they’re sending a clear message that they think we have the right to see it. But they’re also sending a subtler, arguably more insidious, message that we want to see it. The question I’m proposing is: do we, and if so, why?

It’s an important question, and an uncomfortable one. If we wish to see such footage because we need to conduct an informed analysis of news events and their consequences, or to contribute to a critical discussion thereof, that’s one thing. If, however, we are mesmerised by such events and attracted to the ghoulish spectre of crime and violence and the tragic misfortune of others, then that’s another thing entirely – and one that is more worrying.

Before answering that, let’s draw the context a little closer to get some perspective. Think of what else is prevalent on our TV screens, and which falls under the category ‘entertainment’; i.e. what we watch for enjoyment: police and crime series showing acts of violence, graphic hospital dramas, music videos glamourising ‘gangsta’ protagonists, and reality shows that draw on schadenfreude – the pleasure of witnessing the misfortune of others. Hardly a healthy repertoire.

True South African reality is, unfortunately, violent and brutal. People are killed, raped and seriously injured for real, and the events and outcomes are often projected onto our TV screens during news coverage. Why? Is it because we need to see it, or is it because we want to see it?

The persons making that call are the news editors. I would like to believe their reasons are noble and guided by the continued balancing of the journalist’s respect for privacy and what is really ‘in the public interest’.

However, the age-old editor’s mantra ‘if it bleeds, it leads’ is today buoyed by the demands of an increasingly voyeuristic viewer, empowered by social media, with no such capacity for balance; who has blurred any boundaries between what is factual and what is entertaining, and in the process has become inured to the brutalities of real crime and violence.

They think that sticking a camera in the face of the sobbing mother at the funeral of her murdered daughter is totally acceptable; that watching a suspected thief being bludgeoned by a mob is justified; and that chasing a car carrying a high-profile personality released from jail is warranted.

This would normally be a concern; but because broadcasters chase numbers, it’s now become a problem. It means that what is being projected onto our TV screens is driven by rabid popular sentiment instead of guided by the rational prudence of those protecting the shrinking boundaries of what is ethical.

So, are the editors of such content any longer qualified to be our moral arbiters?

Originally published in the April edition of Leadership magazine.