Like lots of other people, I imagine, we eat our evening meal in front of the news. Usually Channel 4+1, by the time the children are settled and we’ve slumped onto the sofa with a plate of something which can be mechanically shovelled into our mouths with a minimum of thought.
Actually, I get most of my news from Twitter these days, and annoy my husband senseless, beating Jon Snow or Krishnan Guru-Murthy to the punchline like a heckler who’s seen the gig before. Or talking over them and laying out instead the narrative I’ve woven together from all I’ve read over the day. Or chipping in when guests are being interviewed, demolishing their arguments with a deadly parry and counter-thrust of my own version of events.
I think, on balance, he’d rather watch it in peace. but I feel compelled to explain, challenge, elucidate. Because, of course, I have my own agenda, just as the news editors do. “The News” is no more a concept capable of comprehensive coverage than “The Weather”. There’s a choice, all the time, of what to tell and how to tell it; shaping a hierarchy in our heads of which events are the most important and worthy of attention.
I saw the horrific events in Woolwich unfold on Wednesday on Twitter, keeping the radio in the kitchen turned off as it became apparent that this wasn’t something I could handle explaining to my children, who are only seven, five and two. Long before official confirmation, a version of events was becoming rapidly accepted as true; and shortly thereafter mainstream media outlets were linking to and embedding within their reports the graphic images and footage of the attackers.
That they were being shown, in full, without (in many cases) prior warning of their nature, is something I feel deeply uncomfortable with. Along with a deep sense of horror and sadness at the murder itself, I’ve struggled with this ever since. I don’t want to see such things, and I certainly don’t want any children to see them, but that in itself isn’t necessarily a good reason for them not to be seen. There are too many places in the world where there is scant consideration for such sensibilities. Were, then, the news outlets wrong? Is it censorship not to show, but only to describe? There must have been horrific images of other crimes edited out for broadcast or print since time immemorial. Why this; why now?
A man has been murdered in the most appalling of circumstances; a family has to learn of devastating loss and grief in the midst of blanket coverage – in unprecedented detail – of his death. In my opinion, stories should always be told, but there is no need to see the aftermath to comprehend the horror entailed in hearing that someone has been beheaded and his body hacked with machetes. Furthermore, if the story of what happened in Woolwich is correct, then the attackers surely have achieved their aim of maximum publicity by having their words and actions broadcast around the world, as well as fuelling anger, debate and unrest closer to home.
In the welter of tweets about Woolwich, I saw one linking to an article about another apparently racially motivated machete attack, this time in Birmingham, the victim an elderly Muslim man. Perhaps I missed it, but I don’t think it was widely reported. I think I would have found the Woolwich coverage disturbing in any circumstances, but the contrast in the way the two murders were covered in the media leaves me deeply uneasy. Many factors make the attack in Woolwich horrifying and grotesque beyond measure. To brutally murder a stranger and then deliberately create a stage from which to reach a maximum audience is incomprehensible. But breaking all previously existing codes about what is deemed acceptable to be shown creates a subliminal message that this is something which is uniquely evil; reinforcing an idea that this is ground-breaking too in what it means for us as a country – and that is a message which worries me just as much as the terror the killers sought to cause.