BBC journalists debate the use of disturbing footage in the news
edits the College of Journalism blog and produces documentaries for BBC History and Business. Twitter: @chblm
Spanish train crash, from CCTV footage
How much can audiences take when shown disturbing footage in the news? The BBC is “probably just slightly too much on the cautious side”, according to Peter Horrocks, the BBC’s director of Global News. A greater “sophistication of storytelling”, with carefully thought out warnings and footage put in context, could make stronger material acceptable.
Horrocks was speaking in a panel discussion for BBC staff about the level of violent images in television news: is the BBC too robust or too timid in its use of graphic or disturbing footage, or does it get the balance right?
The group of senior editors on the panel took their cue from an earlier session with audience members which some had attended. There, a dozen ‘ordinary viewers’ had been shown a variety of clips and asked whether the footage should have been shown.
On the whole the feeling amongst the group was that disturbing footage should be included even if it makes for uncomfortable viewing. As one woman said after watching a report on the recent Spanish train crash which included CCTV footage of the train coming off the rails, “It distressed me… but it had to be shown.”
To Simon Waldman, BBC News Channel editor, that kind of comment was “music to my ears”. With the right warnings, he said, he’d be ready to ‘go a bit further’ when deciding what to include: “We can move 5% towards more robust.” He was conscious that most footage would be instantly available online anyway.
But interestingly Waldman had been cautious in his own treatment of that CCTV footage of the Spanish train crash. When he had to make the call about how it would be shown on the BBC News Channel, he opted to cut out the shot before the train hit the camera that was filming it. It only meant cutting the shot by a second or so but Waldman said the visceral reaction he felt when he first saw the complete shot, together with the context at the time - when it was still not clear how many people had died in the crash - made him decide on the early out point.
Waldman’s decision on that clip put him at odds with other panel members. Horrocks said he’d have shown it all because the last seconds weren’t more distressing than the rest. David Jordan, the BBC’s director of editorial policy, thought it could have been shown in full but acknowledged that members of his team disagreed. Louise Kerslake, assistant editor at the BBC’s Newswire, admitted “The image is so compelling that I want to see more of it.”
When the footage appeared on the BBC’s main evening news programmes it was still cut short and there were two warnings: one by the newsreader when introducing the package from Spain and a second within the report itself ahead of the crash footage. There were only 21 complaints, suggesting the way it was handled was broadly acceptable to the audience.
In addition to the question of the acceptability of violent footage, Maxine Mawhinney, chairing the panel, said they would try to tease out the principles behind such decisions. This turned out to be harder than responding to individual clips.
Nigel Baker, chief executive of the Thomson Foundation, said it was a question of trying to find “the line between uncomfortable and revulsion”. It was suggested that if you go too far you’ll communicate less because the audience will turn away or turn off. If it’s a critical event we can “give ourselves permission” to go further, said Jordan, but we mustn’t raise the bar so often we make the audience desensitised.
The subjectivity of such judgements was illustrated in relation to Jeremy Bowen’s report in August of the aftermath of chemical attacks in Syria, especially on children. Baker said it was right to show the distressing images of children on the News at Ten because they could have an impact on world opinion. He also said you could assume the victims wouldn’t want the attack to go unmarked.
But Kerslake noted that Newsnight - shown later than the Ten - blurred the images. She said the editor had decided he didn’t want to show his audience the images of those children suffering.
If political importance was one principle that might be invoked to decide on the use of footage, another more awkward factor was the question of ‘how foreign’ it is. When members of the audience were asked if they’d have a different view of the acceptability of the Spanish train crash footage if it had been in Britain they were clear that they wouldn’t. Even if he knew someone involved, one man said “I absolutely wouldn’t watch it but you can’t cater for a minority” and you’d still have to show it.
The professionals were more ready to admit that being ‘close to home’ was a consideration. We do apply different standards between the UK and foreign stories, said Horrocks, and that creates “a lack of moral equivalence that we’re uncomfortable about”. He said such judgements also had to take into account the widely different circumstances under which individuals are filmed for different stories. So for instance, while the community of the victims in Syria may want the aftermath of a chemical attack to be seen, footage from an A&E department in the UK after an accident would be treated quite differently.
Horrocks’s view on the difference between UK and overseas footage was echoed by Jordan: “We do apply different yardsticks… if we’re being honest with ourselves.” He agreed about the importance of the chance of recognition in such judgements: had it been about an event in Britain, for instance, Bowen’s Syria report would have been “a gross intrusion into the privacy of those who were suffering”. Jordan said that that level of detail about the victims had not been used in reports of the 7/7 attacks in London.
If the audience was generally robust on disturbing footage they were more hesitant about the use of footage recorded by members of the public. Supposing there had been footage recorded of the Spanish train crash by passengers, should that be used, they were asked. No, that would be “too far”, “too intimate” and “not necessary”. They had the same kind of response when asked about UGC (user-generated content) that might have existed of the Woolwich murder. That would be “too bad”, “I wouldn’t like to see that at all”, and “I don’t think you need to go more graphic”.
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These were both hypothetic questions and perhaps the authority of the BBC behind the programme clips as transmitted made them seem right. But I also detected a sense that the use of footage captured by individuals who find themselves on the scene of a big story comes with an element of intrusion - that we’re looking at something that’s essentially private material.
The context of transmission was also seen as critical in deciding what’s acceptable. Kerslake pointed out that footage of a disaster that’s been used without controversy when it’s new can later all too easily be used offensively as a kind of visual shorthand. So the Challenger explosion or the 9/11 attack footage shouldn’t be used as ‘floats’ - all purpose ‘wallpaper’ to illustrate an interview or a two-way with a reporter.
Another kind of context, to do with how disturbing material is used within a report, came up in the audience group when they were shown two versions of a story about a baby in China who was rescued from a pipe where it had been pushed in order to get rid of it. The two versions had been chosen to see whether the audience found the video footage of the incident used in one report more graphic than still frames that were used in another. But what they picked up on was the difference in the way the story was told. Martin Patience’s script was commended in one of the two versions because he had explained at the top of the story that the baby was now fine. This made the later distressing images more palatable. Nobody found a difference between stills and moving images.
The professionals emphasised that words were often as powerful as images in judging the impact of a report. So eyewitness testimony about the Hyde Park IRA bombing from a 1982 news report was as upsetting as the footage of the aftermath of the attacks.
But drawing general principles from examples is complex: the Hyde Park report was notable for the power of the images of dead horses being removed from the scene. Although 11 military personnel were killed, it was shots of the seven dead horses that made an impact on viewers.
The complexity of judgements about words and images was highlighted during the audience’s discussion of the Chinese baby story. How disturbing were those images of the injured baby in the pipe? Well, one member of the BBC audience had complained - but they’d been listening to the story on Radio 4.