Man covered in blood

This is a picture of a man covered in blood. The man is in the process of being killed. He is in pain. He is about to die. Don’t worry, though, he is a fictional character, Sonny Corleone, played by the actor James Caan, being made to look as if he is covered in blood and being killed using special effects in a film, The Godfather. This week, specifically Friday, the front page of every major national newspaper bore a picture, or pictures, of a man covered in blood. The man was in the process of being killed. He was in pain. He was about to die. He was factual and not played by an actor; he was Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, deposed leader of Libya, who was finally, and perhaps inevitably, captured and killed by rebel troops in his home city of Sirte on Thursday. The video footage from which the ubiquitous screen grabs were taken was shown on BBC News in the afternoon, over and over again. I don’t know if the footage was shown on Sky News, but I suspect it was.

This was a newsworthy image, from newsworthy footage, and its newsworthiness was never in doubt. Gaddafi was a dictator and he was killed by his own people (with a bit of bombing help from NATO) after 42 years in power. The uprising against him, and the sanctioned NATO assistance, tell us a lot about the so-called Arab Spring, which continues to rage across the Middle East and North Africa, and I’m not debating the need for the world media to cover this story in detail. It’s front page news in any year, in any decade, in any country, in any language.

What I question is the decision to run these gory pictures, in many cases blown up to large size for maximum impact. When I went to pick up my paper on Friday morning I was pretty offended by the sweep of bloody faces at my feet in the garage. Gaddafi is dead. Gaddafi was killed. Gaddafi was beaten to a pulp before being shot. We get the picture. But did we actually need to see the picture, without warning? I’m really only talking about the impact of the front cover images here, the ones that were on display in newsagents and garages up and down the land, where tiny children – and, hey, the adult squeamish – were likely to see them.

Clearly, none were more offensively framed than this one, but it’s no more or less than we’ve come to expect from The Sun:

I know, I know, the argument runs thus: this image of a bloodied, pre-death dictator was all over the internet within seconds of the footage being released by the National Transitional Council (they don’t sound much like a death squad with that name, do they?), so it would be a dereliction of journalistic duty for the mainstream news media not to follow suit and publish/run it. It is, after all, proof of a man’s death. And hey, it’s already out there. But there is still a difference between the internet, where many unpleasant images are just a click away from the eyes of users of all ages, and stacks of newspapers in a newsagent. It felt a bit like Snuff Day.

It felt to me as if it was OK to run pictures of this particular man in pain and about to die because he was a bad man. I’m not saying he wasn’t. But although the Sun went mad with vengeful bloodlust, it was no more exploitative than the other, more “respectable” papers really. (You had to admire the Express and Times, and I think the Star, who at least ran the picture small.) As Billy Bragg stated on Question Time the other week, human rights apply to all humans, and not exclusively to those humans that other humans have deemed worthy. Was there no dignity available for Gaddafi? Had he actually forfeited that human right? You might say yes. After all, when the body of Mussolini was hung on a meat hook from the roof of a petrol station in Milan in 1945, I expect these photos were sent around the world (albeit perhaps with a little less velocity).

As with my recent whine about animal rights, some of you may think me wasting my energy worrying about the dignity of a dead dictator. But it does coarsen our view of the world if men covered in blood, moments before death, are displayed across our newspaper covers. When I was at the NME, we debated long and hard about whether we could print the photograph of Richey Manic after his self-inflicted “4 REAL”. If memory serves, we decided against running it as the cover image, and only ran it in black and white on the news pages. It appeared, in full colour, inside the paper. But he was not dead. He was fine. This was 20 years ago, when competition with other media was less stiff, and newspapers were in a less of a panic about copy sales. I guess it took a brave newspaper editor not to run the bloody Gaddafi pic full splash on the front cover.

I’m not sure I always approve of the world I live in.


15 thoughts on “Man covered in blood

  1. In a similar vein, BBC news channel repeatedly showed the footage of the 2 year old Chinese girl being run over all day on Friday. As a father myself I was sickened to see this as I had specifically avoided actually watching the video alongside the story on the BBC website.
    The part where you see the truck rise as it runs over her is truly horrible and there was no need to labour this all day. I could have accepted maybe once with a warning.
    We all enjoy a bit of sensationalism but there is a line…

    • He may or may not have deserved it.That’s not for me to say, but to put pictures of a human being’s last moments of life, regardless of their own deeds, in such a violent voyeuristic manner, I feel demeans us all.

  2. “I’m not sure I always approve of the world I live in.” You and me both. My children aren’t particularly squeamish (unlike me!), but in the local paper shop, the papers are at ankle level. It did all seem a bit grubby and made me worry that society is sliding back into a brutalistic world view.

  3. I agree absolutely. The story could be covered completely without being so graphic.
    Its not as gory but I had similar thoughts when the cause of Steve Jobs death was prominently reported even on ‘serious’ news sites like BBC and the Guardian. It seemed like an unnecessary level of detail which any person or organisation with a shred of common decency would have left unreported.

  4. And what was Lockerbie for, The Sun? Nothing we did that you supported, I expect.
    I think the images would have been printed prominently in the past. But they’d have been in black and white and there simply wouldn’t have been so many of them. And they would almost certainly have been of a dead rather than a dying man. Hardly any of these images are photos – they’re nearly all stills from low-quality videos. These days you can shoot a man just to film him die. These images mostly derive from people involved in the bringing low and – probably – the killing of the man. The images are, in a way, part of the story. I’m not sure they needed to be on the front pages, but I can understand why they were. But if they were going to be there, they should have been left to more or less speak for themselves. The idea that any of us should take pleasure or satisfaction from seeing them is what I object to.

    On a related note I was on a train yet again today. A mother and father with two kids were seated nearby. I’d have put the parents at about 22, but the older of the two kids couldn’t have been less than 14, so I don’t know. Anyway the dad had bought along a paper (The People, I think) and a copy of Nuts. He was flicking through Nuts with his wife next to him, and his kids in front of him. Then when he’d finished with it, his son – the older kid – started reading it. And this was clearly not a problem in their family. I don’t imagine photos of a dead dictator would have bothered them much either.

  5. Pictures like this run in foreign newspapers all the time where the culture is not as squeamish as the British sensibililty. We have just been shielded by the uncomforatble reality that is all.

    Personally I have no moral qualms about Gadaffi’s dignity not being upheld in his death. He was a nasty murderous tyrant and got exactly what he deserved.

    • You don’t believe in human rights, then? Fair enough. But you can’t demand them either. As long as you’re happy with that arrangement.

    • Privileges, maybe. But not rights. He deserved to be tried in a court, where, if found guilty of those crimes, he would be punished according to the statute of the country in which he was tried, as was Saddam Hussein. I don’t agree with the death penalty, but if it is used in a country that has it on the books, then all I can do is disagree with it from afar. Human rights are about dignity and abuse. There is no dignity in being killed and before and after death having your picture sprayed across news outlets worldwide. Does a man who murders one person deserve human rights? If so, how many must you kill to forfeit yours? These are, for me, rhetorical questions, as we are all human, and no human has the right to draw that line. Better if we are all afforded the same rights, then we can move on and deal instead with justice.

  6. This isn’t about human rights. I’m not going to make a moral judgement here about whether or not Gadaffi deserved it. In the context of this imagery, that’s irrelevant.

    This is about the our society’s lack of moral judgement in deciding that it’s perfectly acceptable for publications that appear in shops, supermarkets, on the mat by the front door across the country, to portray imagery this shocking.

    Was Gadaffi being killed the biggest story of the day? Of course.

    Should the story have appeared on the front page? Certainly.

    Did we need to see massive full-colour photos of a man either dying or dead? Certainly not.

    Let’s be clear – if this imagery and video had been in a feature film, the BBFC would have rated it 18. Many of the papers that were happy to publish this picture on the front page would have been fulminating at the mouth if children had been able to a fictionalised version.

    The next iteration of the Grand Theft Auto video game (or some similar title) will inevitably re-open a debate about the end of innocence of our children. But video games have age ratings. Newspapers don’t.

    And this isn’t just about the protection of children. This is about what we, as the supposedly civilised West, think is appropriate. Once upon a time entire famillies would have gathered to watch criminals hung at Tyburn – it was a day out. We probably consider ourselves a bit “above” that nowadays. But I wonder…

    I note that most of the coverage I’ve seen has been about the right and wrongs of the TV broadcasters on Thursday. I didn’t actually see any TV that night. But I did walk into a newsagent’s on Friday morning.

    • Were photographs of Diana Spencer in the back of the car run across the front pages the morning after she died? They were not. Agreed, she was not a dictator, nor had she murdered anybody, but the reason the pictures were not shown was out of respect for the dead. That respect must surely apply to all.

      • That’s only part of the reason why those particular photos weren’t printed. Any paper that printed them – even now – would probably end up having to close.

        There aren’t hard and fast rules, but “political” deaths are and always have been treated differently. We don’t print pictures of our war dead – we chastise Al Jazeera when they do – but foreign victims of war and famine and other disasters are frequently shown. That we don’t show our own dead is, I suppose, about respect for the living rather than the dead.

  7. I don’t think anybody in the Press has been making moral judgements about Gaddafi’s right to dignity. It’s just that he’s considered newsworthy. I’m sure we’ve all seen the film of JFK’s brains being blown out; and stills from that footage have adorned many a newspaper over the years. Nobody could accuse JFK of being an evil dictator, but where’s his dignity? Bobby Kennedy doesn’t get much better treatment. Political deaths seem to be treated differently to those of ordinary citizens.

    Not just political deaths, either. Look at the famous footage of the Bluebird crashing. We don’t actually see Donald Campbell dying, but we all know exactly what we’re watching. Those pictures of Gaddafi had no place spread all over the newspapers, but it’s not a modern thing. It’s certainly not about him not deserving dignity. I’m afraid it’s just news, and it always has been.

    What on earth they thought they were doing screening the CCTV footage of that poor little Chinese girl, though, I have no idea. That’s just obscene.

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