Media pundit Peter Preston reckons that the grim images of the bloody death of Libyan tyrant Muammar Gaddafi has set new boundaries for the media.
In his column in The Observer yesterday, Preston, who was editor of The Guardian editor for 20 years, declares: “Publishing graphic pictures of the dead and dying has become less taboo over the years; but the tone of vengeance Fleet Street adopted for this death was new.
“Television warned of ‘distressing images’ in much the same genteel way that it mentions flash photography. It meant loads of gruesome Gaddafi gore pending. Flinch away now.”
However, Preston points out: “… newspapers had no such easy get-out. What readers – from old to very young – inescapably saw was how (in the Times’ terms) "a tyrant met his end".
“Or, as the Metro put it, ‘a mad dog in life became a cowering rat in his last brutal moments’.
“Are there ephemeral benchmarks of media good taste that passing time turns to bad? Probably. Twenty years ago, pictures of the carnage dealt out to Saddam Hussein's army in retreat from Kuwait were often deemed too grisly to show.
“Five years ago, the execution of Saddam Hussein (via a little grainy video) caused a stir of public unease.
“But Muammar Gaddafi was quite, quite different. Only the bitter taste of exultant revenge seemed to matter here.
"’That's for Lockerbie … And for Yvonne Fletcher’, cried The Sun, whose editor was only 14 when WPC Fletcher died.
"’Don't Shoot, Don't Shoot’, pleaded the Mirror and Mail in rare unison. Bang!
“The Daily Star – predictable followers of canine cliché – duly put this ‘mad dog down’.
“The Guardian's ‘Death of a dictator’ produced Gaddafi with bullet hole in forehead; The Times had him seconds before, still alive; The Independent and i contrived a kind of montage, showing him before, during and after.
“When a secondary Indy headline went on to explain how Libya's rebels had ‘executed the dictator in front of a baying mob’, you could be forgiven for wondering how many of that mob might have strayed from Sirte onto the sub-editorial desks of Fleet Street – or quite where the shock of what the BBC called ‘these shocking pictures’ began and ended.”
Preston admits that there were good reasons for running them, of course. He agrees that if Libya is to move on, it needed to know that Gaddafi wasn't coming back.
If international lawyers were worried about the due processes of justice, he points out, they needed to know that no such rules featured here. So this was evidence as well as sensational footage.
“More, it also paid homage to those twin gods of modern journalism: the scoop and the citizen-reporter-cum-camera-operator waving a mobile phone.
“Indeed, a great deal of the debate, before Gaddafi's body was even cold, centred on who got the story first.
“It was us, said al-Jazeera …’our Tony Birtley had been going back and forth to Sirte for 13 days: he got to know various people who took him into their confidence’.
“It was our Philippe Desmazes, countered Agence France-Presse. He took the crucial photos from a rebel fighter's mobile phone and transmitted them only ‘a few minutes’ later.
“Did Sky beat the BBC again? Who won the global tweeting race (organised by the Columbia Journalism Review)?
“The true answer, now, is that this is a race beyond winning. It's all-embracing, all-consuming, utterly unavoidable; the defining taste of failure or success.
“You can't, as an editor, sit piously on the sidelines any longer. You're doomed to compete, because not doing so is a kind of censorship – and a shot in the foot, not the head.”