THE attack in Westminster has, like many such incidents before it, produced a number of distressing images and has been the subject of some complaint, especially on social media.
The newspaper front pages included pictures of the police officer who suffered fatal injuries in the attack receiving treatment from medical personnel and, notably, by the MP Tobias Ellwood who was one of the first on the scene and who tried, in vain, to save the officer’s life.
There were images of the attacker receiving treatment, and also pictures from Westminster Bridge of a number of people who had been hit by a vehicle driven at speed across the bridge, striking dozens of pedestrians, killing and injuring many.
One piece of video footage shown by a number of outlets, including the BBC, and posted to social media showed, from some distance, the attacker’s vehicle driving across Westminster Bridge, and then a woman could be seen jumping, or being knocked off the bridge and landing in the Thames. She was rescued and was later being treated for serious injuries she received.
Many of the pictures emerged first on social media where they were widely shared. Social media has few ethical constrains and we can only rely on the conscience of those posting.
Subsequently though, this social media imagery as well as pictures produced by their own staff and freelances was used by newspapers and broadcasters on their various channels, social media feeds, online and in print. Here it is subject to the ethical codes to which they must adhere.
The most relevant codes are the BBC Editorial Guidelines, the Ofcom Code and the Editors’ Code of Practice.
The BBC Editorial Guidelines say this: We will respect human dignity without sanitising the realities of war, terror, emergencies and similar events. There must be clear editorial justification for the use of very graphic pictures.
The Ofcom Code says:
Suffering and distress
Broadcasters should not take or broadcast footage or audio of people caught up in emergencies, victims of accidents or those suffering a personal tragedy, even in a public place, where that results in an infringement of privacy, unless it is warranted or the people concerned have given consent.
People in a state of distress should not be put under pressure to take part in a programme or provide interviews, unless it is warranted.
Broadcasters should take care not to reveal the identity of a person who has died or of victims of accidents or violent crimes, unless and until it is clear that the next of kin have been informed of the event or unless it is warranted.
The Editors’ Code of Practice, enforced and adjudicated by the Independent Press Standards Organisation, says:
Intrusion into grief or shock
In cases involving personal grief or shock, enquiries and approaches must be made with sympathy and discretion and publication handled sensitively. These provisions should not restrict the right to report legal proceedings.
I did see some people arguing that no pictures should be used of the scene, even where the dead and injured could not be reasonably recognised. This, I think, is not realistic, or desirable. Of course as a journalist or broadcaster, one can describe the scene in words alone, however, a picture or moving image conveys so much that words cannot. It informs us of the human impact of such an event. People skate over words, pictures halt them in their tracks and increase their understanding of an event.
The question then is did the imagery used contravene any of these codes?
With regard to the pictures of the police officer, PC Keith Palmer, in all the pictures I have seen, the officer’s face is not visible in any of them. No-one seeing them could realistically identify him from them. Of course those close to him might have feared it was him, but then so, I am sure, did the families of many other officers who serve in and around Parliament.
If an individual at the scene posted to social media an image from which he could be identified, that is a matter for their conscience.
The video footage of the woman who fell into the Thames was shot from a long distance. She could not be recognised in any way, nor could any of the victims on the bridge be identified from this footage. What it showed was the speed with which the car was driven across the bridge. I do understand that it would distress the family of the woman might feel, once they know it was her they were seeing fall. But surely the source of their distress is the fact she was one of the victims of the attack, not that she was included in the media coverage of it?
The images used of victims on the bridge, as far as I have seen, are not identifiable. Faces have been pixelated by the media using them, or else they have chosen images where the person’s face is not visible. Of course people whose friends and family were in the area will be distressed and anxious knowing they were there, but we cannot stop reporting because of this. If anything there is an even greater need to put out as much accurate information as we can. From what I saw of coverage, that is what newspapers and broadcasters tried to do, and in a confused, frightening and shocking situation, they did their job well.
Because of social media, it is perhaps easy to see this as a new moral dilemma for those covering incidents like this, but it is far from it. We have had to confront the ethics of using distressing imagery for many years now, probably since the camera was invented.
Many will remember the image of the ‘falling man’ tumbling from the burning World Trade Centre on 9/11. When terrorists attacked a school in Beslan, the siege and subsequent deaths of 385 people, including children was played out on live TV. When Kim Phuk ran screaming, burned by napalm, from her villlage in Vietnam, was photographer Nick Ut right to take her picture, given that many credit it with hastening the end of that war?
There are no easy answers, and journalists will always have to balance the public interest against a gratuitous use of imagery that is distressing. Now they have to make those decisions in the knowledge that someone else might have taken the same picture, but have no compunction about posting it on social media.