Is it justifiable to show footage of people being killed?


Alison Parker, left, and Adam Ward. Parker, who were killed on 26 August. Photograph: AP

Here’s a statistic to ponder:

Reportedly, more US citizens have been killed by guns since 1968 than have died on battlefields in the entire history of America.

This telling statistic featured in a useful debate this weekend – reproduced below – over the ethics of media coverage of atrocities stimulated by the recent ‘live’ shooting of two US TV journalists. (I for one elected not to watch this appalling incident, but clearly many chose the opposite path.)

See what you think for yourself.


From The Guardian, 29 August 2015

Is it justifiable to show footage of people being killed?

Last week, two TV journalists were shot and killed by an ex-colleague while they were filming.

Peter Preston, editor of the Guardian 1975–1995

This isn’t, at heart, a debate about media regulation, taste and public susceptibilities. It’s a debate about 8,500 people gunned down in the US this year alone and how to stop the slaughter. You won’t begin to turn the argument there unless you show ordinary people, ordinary voters, the horror of putting guns too easily into the hands of the wild and the deranged. If thousands upon thousands are allowed to die each year virtually unmarked and unmourned – small, routine items at the foot of page two – then the tide of opinion will never turn. Newspapers, news channels and news blogs are there to chronicle and inform. They don’t exist to sanitise life. They exist to do – and tell – what’s necessary.

It was necessary to see the charnel houses inside Auschwitz. It is necessary to understand how vile the public decapitations of Islamic State can be. It is necessary to see police officers shooting black demonstrators. It was necessary to see the twin towers collapse in smoke and blood. It is, I’m afraid, necessary at least to make Vester Lee Flanagan’s macabre video onslaught available to those who want to view it because the millions who have seen it can glimpse a new circle of hell. You can’t stop this world and get off.

Emma Graham-Harrison, international affairs correspondent, the Observer

The human instinct to look away from suffering is balanced by an equally human appetite for gore. Our job as journalists is to balance the two, so that our coverage of war, disaster and violence is neither an over-sanitised shield protecting viewers from horrible realities, nor a lurid attempt to hook their attention with gratuitous images. We cannot argue that images alone can stop the horrors of war and human cruelty, or dull the pain of natural disaster. We said “never again” after Auschwitz, but looked away as the massacres in Rwanda, Srebrenica and other killing fields unfolded. Isis is still rampaging through Syria and Iraq after publishing their gloating, macabre videos of thousands of deaths. Americans have seen many graphic images of shootings and their aftermath.

They know very well what bullets do to human bodies, both adult ones and those of children killed in Sandy Hook. That does not and will not change their national debate, and nor does the footage of the latest attack. Instead, we should try to weigh up whether news photographs or videos change our understanding of the world, of how and where and why people were robbed of their lives, the extent of devastation, the nature of what governments are doing in the names of their people. Pictures from Auschwitz, the image of the burning girl in Vietnam, the video of the chokehold that killed Eric Garner or of the boys lying dead on a Gaza beach last summer are all extremely painful, but meet that definition.

PP: But now we’re in the most difficult territory. Some major websites – BuzzFeed, Business Insider – ran the video in a trice. Some newspapers – such as the Guardian – did not, and put suitably cautious picture treatment on an inside page. The Sun looked down the barrel of Flanagan’s gun as he pulled the trigger. The Washington Post criticised those who’d been too cautious in showing us what happened.

It’s easy to say what should or shouldn’t be shown if we’re masters of the media world – but, in web-world 2015, nobody makes those calls or dictates those terms. There is no single global code of conduct – or law. Editors are free to make their own choices, and to give their audiences a choice. Look away if you’re going to be upset. This whole argument can’t be practically resolved. There is no universal umpire. But surely we’re better being able to watch if we feel we must, rather than left with disinfected despair?

EG-H: People already have a choice. Anyone with an internet connection and a basic education can watch hours of real-life snuff videos from the beheadings and burnings of Isis to this latest atrocity. So we are no longer arbiters of what people can and cannot see. Instead, our decisions shape the understanding of an event by people who have chosen to come to us to find out what happened and why. And when we make those decisions, we should be weighing up not just what the images show but who made them and why.

Publishing still images of the moment of death, or running video from the live show or the gunman’s Twitter feed shows viewers what the killer wanted us to see: himself an implacable instrument of death; his victims terrified and dishevelled. By publishing his account of the attacks, we become propagandists for the killer rather than investigators unmasking his secrets, just as we do if we share Isis videos. Isn’t it better to remember the dead as vibrant journalists, friends, children and partners and him as an unhinged madman?

PP: Yes, there is a choice. Of course there’s a choice. And that, individually, means an opportunity to choose. I probably wouldn’t have run some of the Flanagan pictures or videos in anything I was editing: a personal choice. But I can’t criticise others for making a different choice. The problem with “looking away now” by diktat is that we all need to see the world whole – and our responsibilities for making it a better place. We will never do that if we censor, or self-censor, the nasty bits out, or construct unprovable rationalisations of what an unhinged gunman was thinking as he pulled the trigger.

I found myself, this weekend, wishing I could have seen the scenes inside that mausoleum of a van parked on an Austrian road – because forgetfulness over our migrant tragedy is the enemy of action or compassion. But imposing standards of taste rules that out. Forgetfulness reigns when journalists play gatekeepers, and slam the gates shut.

EG-H: There is enough horror, misery and death in the world at any one time to fill our papers and screens with only the “nasty bits” of life, around the clock. That makes journalists gatekeepers by default. Editors decide which stories deserve time and money; reporters decide which parts of those stories should make it to screen or page. It is never a simple choice between “taste” or truth, and often our decisions shed uncomfortable light on how we value different lives. The Rohingya are still being mistreated by the government in Burma, and fleeing in thousands, but their tragedies no longer fill our websites as they did earlier this year.

Celebrities once campaigned to stop the horrors in Darfur, yet the atrocities of South Sudan pass almost unnoticed by the wider world. Why did Fox News feel it was important to post on their website the entire 22-minute video of the execution of Jordanian Lieutenant Muadh al-Kasasbeh – who was burned to death in a cage – to show “the barbarity of Isis”, but did not run videos of the killings of previous Isis hostages who came from the UK and US? Deciding that some video or images are better unseen is not the same as averting our eyes from evil, if we commit ourselves to search for other ways to describe and try to tackle it.

More Americans have died from guns in the United States since 1968 than on the battlefields of all the wars in US history, Nicholas Kristof told us this week. Isn’t a statistic like that more shocking than footage of another shooting, so cruel to the dead and their loved ones, so gruesomely familiar from films, TV and other reports, and ultimately so easy for so many to forget?

Europe’s life-jacket capital

Currently there are so many eye-watering stories of the desperate plight of refugees from chronic instabilty and conflict in North Africa, the Middle East and beyond attempting to reach ‘Fortress Europe’ by any and every means possible. This one, a BBC News report on Syrian and Iraqi refugees attempting – and often failing – to reach Greece by boat from the Turkish coastal city of Izmir, is particularly poignant: not least for anyone who’s ever used a life-jacket for themselves, or their loved ones.



The city of Izmir on Turkey’s Mediterranean coast has long been known as a tourist destination. But now people fleeing Syria’s civil war are using it as a staging post on their journey to Europe and providing shopkeepers with an unmissable business opportunity, reports the BBC’s Manveen Rana.

Tourists have always flocked to Izmir, drawn by the ancient ruins and the beauty of the Aegean coast. But now the city is attracting hordes of people for a very different reason: it is fast becoming one of the largest hubs for smuggling people into Europe. In the historic centre of the city, the streets are teeming with families from Syria and Iraq, all waiting for boats to Europe. They live on pavements, railway platforms and roundabouts – anywhere where they can find space. Many of the hotels won’t give them rooms even if they can afford them.


Children and babies sleep on mounds of luggage as their families gather their worldly belongings around them. Everything is wrapped up in black plastic bin bags to keep it dry on the boat journey to Greece. Nobody knows if they will leave tonight or next week. Everyone here is waiting.

The residents of Izmir worry about the effect this will have on tourism, but the shops along one of the main streets have adapted fast. Whether they used to sell souvenirs, shoes, clothes or electrical goods, now they all do a roaring trade selling life jackets and buoyancy aids. The demand is huge. Not only is the journey to Greek islands in overcrowded rubber dinghies inherently risky, but most of the Syrians and Iraqis I’ve met here can’t swim.

In one of the shops, I meet Mahmoud, a student from Aleppo. He escaped Syria a year ago and is now employed by a Turkish trader to help sell life jackets to his countrymen. “We sell between 100 and 150 a day, and more and more people are coming every day [to buy them],” he tells me. They have even started selling a new line of life jackets for babies and children.

“We were really scared for the little children when the boat started to sink,” a Syrian man tells me among the crowds on the platform of Basmane station. The previous night, he had tried and failed to get to Greece. “We swam 7km (four miles) back to Turkey and we pushed the children in front of us all the way back to the shore. They were holding on to a rubber ring and that’s how they survived.”

A rapt audience of Syrians listens eagerly. The people smugglers themselves never mention the possibility of accidents. “This man,” he says, turning to his friend, “he jumped out to make the children in the boat have a chance at another life. He thought without his weight the boat might not sink.”

He points at another friend and laughs. “This man can’t even swim but he came on this journey. He is really very brave.” They slap each other on the back with the heady exhilaration that comes from looking death in the eye and living to tell the tale.


The group had escaped from Raqqa in northern Syria, where so-called Islamic State has its headquarters, four days earlier. Even if they die, they tell me, it is better to attempt a life of freedom than to live under IS. “In Raqqa, your life is not your own – it’s theirs. You have to obey their rules or you will be killed. You feel like death is near you all the time.”

It soon becomes apparent that the crowd can be separated into two groups – those who have already tried and failed to make the journey, and those who are still hoping to board a boat for the first time. The uninitiated still hoard bundles of black bin bags, whereas the seasoned travellers have either lost or shed the bulk of their possessions and cling only to the things they really need.

It seems life can be whittled down to a few essentials – mobile phones, passports and cash. But how do you protect them if you’re faced with the prospect of swimming for hours in the sea? The answer is surprisingly simple. On the pavement outside the station, several men are selling brightly coloured balloons that haven’t been blown up.

These, they assure me, will expand to hold even the largest of smart phones, and they’re completely waterproof, ensuring your phone is ready to use when you arrive in Greece. “You want yellow, red or pink?” the salesman asks me, holding out the specially modified balloons in a dazzling array of lurid colours. This makes them easier to spot if you become separated from them at sea.

A few days later, I’m in Greece running to catch a ferry and almost trip on something by the water’s edge. Looking down, I find the remnants of a torn and battered, but oddly familiar, bright pink balloon.


Rengin Arslan from BBC Turkish also spoke to Syrian refugees in Izmir, preparing to make the trip to nearby Greek islands.

Listen to Manveen Rana’s report from Izmir for the World at One

I’ll speak on behalf of Sri Lanka: Tony Blair


Not content with denying any responsibility for the continuing carnage in Iraq and beyond, and still dogged by acusations – notably from Desmond Tutu – of responsibility for war crimes, Tony Blair is now going the whole hog: he’s offering his services to the new Sri Lankan government.

And exactly what are the ‘misconceptions about the country’ he’s offering to help the Sri Lankan authorities negate?

Yes, like me you’ve probably guessed it folks: it’ll be all about war crimes allegations, chiefly those stemming from the final stages of the country’s civil war in 2009. Well at least our former Prime Minister knows plentry about the subject – especially how to face down and in particular avoid your critics (Chilcott Enquiry etc).

Breathtakingly cynical – even by Blair’s own elevated standards in this department.


Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who is in Sri Lanka on a private visit, met President Maithripala Sirisena today and assured he would speak on behalf of Sri Lanka to help negate the misconceptions being spread about the country.
He praised the President’s efforts at holding a peaceful parliamentary election and the work being done towards reconciliation.

Roadmap to reconciliation: 4 challenges for Sri Lanka


Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe

I have an op article assessing the post-electoral political landscape in Sri Lanka  in today’s Hindustan Times. It’s written jointly with Erik Solheim, lead Norwegian peace negotiator in Sri Lanka and a key interview source for my forthcoming book To End A Civil War: Norway’s Peace Engagement in Sri Lanka. The piece is below, and you’ll find it online here.

Roadmap to reconciliation: 4 challenges for Sri Lanka after polls

  • Erik Solheim and Mark Salter
  • 20 August 2015

These are critical times for Sri Lanka. This week the country completed its second round of elections this year. A coalition led by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe scored a narrow victory. By contrast, presidential elections held in January ended in a surprise victory for Maithripala Sirisena, a veteran government minister who broke ranks with Mahinda Rajapaksa.

A notable feature of the latest election was Sirisena’s decision effectively to back the opposition coalition running against his own party, while also refusing to countenance Rajapaksa’s return to power under any circumstances. In many ways the campaign was a referendum on continued Rajapaksa rule. He lost, however, and Sri Lanka can now look to its future rather than its past.

While the Sirisena-Rajapaksa standoff may become less prominent, in another sense it will remain a critical factor. The muscular nationalism Rajapaksa cultivated among majority Sinhalese still poses a potentially serious challenge to reforming ambitions. It will be hard, for example, to achieve political reforms to address the legacy of conflict with minority Tamils without securing majority – Sinhalese – support for them.

Nor is this the story’s end. In September the UN Human Rights Council will consider a report into war crimes committed during the final years (and beyond) of the country’s civil war. Colombo won a deferral of the UN report’s release after it asked for more time to establish a domestic accountability mechanism. This means putting the legacy of the Tamil Tigers as well as Rajapaksa and his coterie on the spot. And it forces difficult choices on Wickremesinghe and Sirisena.

Almost six months on, they have pushed the real decisions forward, preferring to avoid moves that will upset parts of their support base. The real obstacles to movement – from Rajapaksa, from sections of the military – should not be underestimated. With its new majority, and with the UN soon to hand over its report, however, the government needs to begin providing clear indications of plans for addressing wartime accountability and, in the longer term, reconciliation.

The challenges confronting the new government are considerable. They include:

Corruption and restoring rule of law

Crony capitalism, mega-corruption, family fiefdom: many terms are used to describe the system Mahinda Rajapaksa put in place and – with help from brothers Basil and Gotabhaya – used to run the country for a decade. There’s no doubt, moreover, that much of the legacy of that misrule remains either still in place, uninvestigated – or both. As the recent election campaign made equally clear, however, corruption, impunity and good governance are very high on the public agenda.

Over the last half year the interim government has taken a number of important initiatives, notably establishing a Financial Crimes Investigation Division (FCID). At the same time, efforts to clean up corruption have been stymied by its past beneficiaries’ continued hold on power. That said, there is often talk of the billions the Rajapaksas are supposed to have stashed away abroad. Exposure of this abuse would undoubtedly assist in stabilizing the new government.


Beyond accountability issues there is a vital need to address reconciliation. One consequence of the triumphalist nationalism trumpeted by Rajapaksa is that relations between Sinhalese and Tamil communities have not been given the needed space – or support – to heal. On a raft of other aspects of the war’s legacy, too, there is likewise a pressing need for action. A few months ago a reconciliation office headed by former President Kumaratunga was established. That can potentially play an important role.

Security sector reform

One of the first things ordinary Sri Lankans noticed following Rajapaksa’s ouster was a new atmosphere of public freedom. The result of Sirisena’s dismantling of security apparatus elements responsible for controlling and – all too often – terrorizing the public, it is unquestionably the most important reform to date. At the same time the use of forcible abduction, torture, rape and other forms of physical abuse appears to continue among sections of the military. While uprooting this culture, and more broadly restructuring civil-military relations will be assisted by Rajapakasa’s latest electoral loss, it will still not be an easy task. Ultimately, however, the success of attempts to build new relations between communities may depend on it.

Constitutional reform

The legislative success of the past half-year has been the 19th Amendment, fulfilling Sirisena’s campaign promise to abolish executive presidential powers installed by Rajapaksa in 2010. Beyond that, parliamentary gridlock has kept reforming aspirations in check. In a new legislature containing a government majority, however, now is the time to return to the constitutional reform agenda.

Add the need for rapid growth and inclusive development to unleash the Island’s true potential, and a recipe for challenging, but exciting times presents itself. All with Sri Lanka’s best interests at heart will be wishing the new government every success in charting the way forward.

Erik Solheim is former Norwegian Minister of International Development and Environment and currently Chair of the OECD Development Assistance Committee. Solheim led Norwegian peace mediation efforts in Sri Lanka from 1999 onwards. Mark Salter is author of To End A Civil War: Norway’s Peace Engagement in Sri Lanka (Hurst, 2015).

Election Day in Sri Lanka

Today, 17 August 2015 is parliamentary election day in Sri Lanka. As I write in fact, the polls have just closed (16.00 Colombo time)  and we will probvably have the first results by around midnight local time (c. 18.30 CET). Plenty more to say on the subject later, but for now here are two thought-provoking offerings:

The first, the aptly titled ‘No Way, Mr. Rajapaksa’, which is the best of the eve-of-elections local media commentaries I’ve seen – not least for managing to corral T.S. Elliot into the service of a passionate argument for why the Mahinda Rajapaksa worldview belongs, quite literally, to history.

The second, a set of photos from its Colombo operations centre today posted by the Centre for Monitoring Election Violence. A Colombo based NGO consortium that over the last near 20 years has played a critical role in monitoring, documenting and – where it can – preventing electoral violence. Among other things, great to see evidence of enthusiastic youth political participation here as well!

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