Like many others, I hoped that when Gaddafi was eventually captured he would be made to stand trial for the crimes he committed against the people of his country. It would have been a powerful symbol of the birth of a new democracy for it to judge him guilty by the rule of law and the due process that he denied to others under his regime. Instead, those that captured him chose to drag him, badly injured and bleeding, through the streets – the shocking images of which were subsequently spread across the internet and thence onto our TV news bulletins and the newspaper front pages. Justice, perhaps, but not of the sort many would have been hoping for.
Two broad criticisms surrounding the images were identifiable in the hours after the event, but both miss what for me what was unique about that day. First, as Mark Lawson argued in The Guardian, everybody – no matter what they have done – deserves dignity in death and the media’s reporting of Thursday’s events violated some basic tenets of human decency. While I agree with Lawson on his first point, blaming it on the media conflates the actual act of Gaddafi being beaten and dragged through the streets with the media representation of the event. The freedom fighters were the ones that robbed Gaddafi of his dignity by treating him that way and by photographing it and videoing it on their phones. Once the media then started broadcasting those images, the deed had been done: whether the events had been seen by only a few hundred people in Sirte or by billions around the world, the effect on Gaddaffi is the same.
The second main criticism of the media for the way they exposed the public to what was effectively a live murder in the way that it had never done before. The backlash against the decision to display the images was swift: the BBC was soon challenged for its decision to broadcast them, and complaints about the press coverage the next day flooded in when people couldn’t walk into a newsagent’s without seeing the grim pictures on most of the front pages. Whether people had the right to see those images is arguable, but they certainly had the right not to see them, and that the reasonable middle way – to print the images but not on the front page – didn’t occur to any of national newspaper editors says a lot about their priorities.
There is no doubt there was some fierce debate going on in newsrooms on Thursday afternoon surrounding the decision whether to broadcast and to print the images. I’m sure most producers and editors would have thought twice about where the line was between giving their audiences a sense for what was going on in Sirte and being deliberately shocking. All this, however, again misses the point of what was significant about that day in terms of how news is now created and disseminated. The fact that it was the rebels themselves and not TV camera crews that recorded the video of Gaddafi being dragged through the streets is significant, as is the fact that the scenes were almost instantly available through social media.
Genuine though I’m sure many of those newsroom debates would have been, they would have discussed the ethics of distributing or distributing those images knowing full well that audiences could have been able to access hem regardless of whatever decision they themselves made, and that inevitably would have influenced the decision of most of them to go ahead and show the pictures. Editors would not have taken the unprecedented step and considerable risk in displaying those disturbing images if they had not already had been so greedily consumed and so eagerly exchanged elsewhere.
Thursday was a supreme demonstration of the fact that the power to create and then spread a representation of a critical event now lies much more in the hands of every one of us than has been the case in the past. Millions of people retweeted, e-mailed and Facebooked links to websites containing the images and in doing so played their part in the way they radiated out so quickly and so uncontrollably from just a few battered mobiles to the screens of billions around the world. With so many of us shaping the news via social networks, we are no longer just consumers of media, but creators of it; and not just witnesses to events, but independent and increasingly powerful actors in shaping them.
With that power, though, must come responsibility. We need to live up to the fact that we have an increasingly powerful influence on what gets reported and how, and as such we should exercise an according amount of restraint in the way we participate in sharing the emerging news of events like the capture of Gaddafi. All professional journalists go through formal instruction in journalistic ethics (though, given a number of events this year, one wonders how much weight is given to it) and given that there has been such a merging of the formal and social media spheres, it is time that those who share media subject themselves to a similar ethic of responsible journalism. Before we decide to pass on this type of news, we need to consider much more carefully what effect it has on others and what we are saying about the circumstances in which it was created when we do so.
It is no longer adequate, as many did on Thursday and Friday, to simply blame editors, producers and regulators for failing to stem the flow of disturbing images: it is much less in their hands and much more in our than in the past, and we must start acting – or rather, tweeting, Facebooking and blogging – like it.