Distressing images from the Westminster terror attack

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.

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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 psosting it on social media. 

Sex, death, brass bands and libel by photograph

IF you want to find mistakes in papers look at the pictures.

The Sun on Sunday has just paid out in a libel settlement after running a story about a man discovering he was the son of Fred West – but the picture they printed on the front page was the man’s half-brother who was entirely unconnected to the serial killer. It has been reported that a five figure sum has changed hands as a result.

I’ve some sympathy for the Sun on Sunday, such things are all too easily done and let me share with you the story of one such disaster, which, sadly, I had a hand in. I’ve blogged this elsewhere on a previous occasion, but it bears repetition as it highlights the legal dangers of the photograph and its caption.

This is back in the days when I was a jobbing hack on the Daily Post and it was my turn to ‘do the calls.’

This was the round of phone calls made several times a day to the emergency services to see if there were any crimes, deaths, disasters or other human misery happening for us to report on. It was also in the days when such calls were made to human beings – usually a duty inspector in the police control room, or a desk sergeant at individual police stations. Since then these humans, who one could have a conversation with, have been replaced by pre-recorded ‘voicebanks’, which are a journalistic dead-end and should only ever be used as a starting point for a story by any reporter worth their salt.

Anyway, I digress, back to the sex and death. You see the virtue of talking to a human is that they do love a bit of gossip and so it was that morning when I made the call and was informed of a sudden death in a nearby market town, woman in custody as a result. Slowly, but surely, the story emerged.

It would seem the local brass band was a hotbed of illicit passion, and the alleged crime involved two of its members. She was 30, he was in his 60s, and after band practice they would adjourn to the local marshes in his roomy estate car where they would consummate their affair. Both were married.

The police were holding her as they believed she’d hit him in a lovers’ tiff, causing a fatal heart attack. She said he had died while they made love. The Daily Post at the time was intent on becoming the ‘Daily Mail of the North’ and for us the story had everything – sex, death, death caused by sex, and a brass band.

So, I set out hotfoot to the market town with a photographer, and crucially got to the bandmaster before word had spread of just how this bandsman had died. The family were letting people know of his death, but were, understandably, not sharing the grisly detail.

Most important, we got a photo of the band. Dead man, back row centre, and the bandmaster never queried it, but we got him to name every single band member, and there she was, in the front row – the, quite literally, femme fatale.

So, were were very happy with ourselves, we had the story, the picture, the whole lot and off to Liverpool it all went to be printed the next day in the Daily Post.

The next day, when I opened the paper, it was one of those moments as a reporter and you will all have them, when you close the paper, wanting what you see not to be true.

Because, on the front row far right there was a man in a wheelchair, and there was no-one sitting or standing behind him – what a designer would call ‘dead space’ a blank wall. So the man in the wheelchair was cropped off to neaten the pic. However, when the caption, which has already been written, reads: “Mrs X, fourth from the right,” the crop means that the identification moves along to the right. So instead of accusing the femme fatale of killing a fellow bandsman with her amorous attentions, we accused the 16-year-old schoolgirl sitting next to her.

So, I have some sympathy with the Sun on Sunday, as I said, it is easily done.

But if you do do it, then get it sorted quickly, which is precisely what the Daily Post did.

Firstly, we didn’t wait for a complaint. Eric Langton, who was on the DP newsdesk – one of the best news editors I’ve ever worked with, a real newsman, totally unflappable and a pleasure to work for – went straight round to the girl’s family with a letter of apology from the paper.

Her dad, you will understand, was not a happy man. Let’s face it, his daughter is 16 – she’s not on drugs, she’s not pregnant, not a tattooed death metal fan. She plays in a brass band for heaven’s sake, she is every dad’s vision of perfection, and here you have the Daily Post suggesting she kills elderly bandsmen with sex.

But, in typically civilised British fashion, he was polite with Eric and said that what action they took depended on how she reacted, she was at school and hadn’t seen the paper yet.

She arrived home, took one look at the Post…..and burst out laughing. She didn’t think anyone in the town would really think it was her, and didn’t think it would be taken seriously. So, they didn’t sue us. Nor did they want a correction, which they felt would just draw more attention to the story.

A close call, but a lesson that being straight with people and admitting your error, no matter how stupid it may make you look, can get you off the hook.

I’m not sure we would have been so lucky if it had happened now. Today as soon as it appeared on our website, her schoolmates would have Facebooked and Tweeted it to all and sundry, whereas we were just in print back then – chip-paper a day later – and I think that would put more pressure on the faily to take action and nail the lie of the story.

Oh, and the femme fatale? She was acquitted at trial.