The recent shocking murder in Woolwich has understandably taken up a lot of media attention this week, but as ever the wave of commentary after the event has started, and one piece in particular drew my attention this week. At LibDemVoice, Ewan Hoyle argued that the media had failed the public, and indeed that certain members of the public had failed the greater public, by not handing in the footage of the murderers into the police. He suggests that government ‘guidance’ is necessary, and even darkly says that if ‘guidance’ isn’t successful it may be necessary to ask if these members of the public are aiding and abetting terrorism by enabling these videos to be widely seen. It’s an argument I instinctively disagree with, being a libertarian – you could argue along lines of property rights, press freedom, free speech… Yet do video depictions of a crime count as property? Does reporting on an act of terrorism count as terrorism, or is it a duty of the state to suppress information to avoid panic? And whilst there is no obligation to give terrorists airtime, is there an obligation to censor them? To show the act, but not tell of the message?
I’m not sure of the answers to all of these, although I know my position leans towards information being spread as widely as possible in the interests of openness, that knowledge is better than ignorance. I want to discuss two interesting historical examples of depictions of death in loose relation to this, one famous, one less well-known. Neither captures the message of the murderers, but both capture the act, and the message, I would argue, is obvious – that these events occurred is in itself a message, that no-one is safe from terrorists and murderers. This is really the main argument against Hoyle’s proposal; the Woolwich murderers’ message was that no-one is safe, and to truly keep that from the public you’d have to keep the murder itself from the public. That the murderers said this, and were recorded saying this, is less important than the act itself, and preventing people from knowing about acts of terrorism in a modern age is impossible, even if it were a worthy goal.
The first example is a video recording of probably the most famous assassination of the 20th Century, the film shot by Abraham Zapruder that inadvertently captured JFK’s death. It’s a vital historical artefact, a record of a murder that chilled America and much of the world, and something that became the focal point of a legal battle between Zapruder’s heirs and the US government in later years, as this Vice magazine article describes. One quote from that especially stands out to me – Don DeLillo saying that the film “could probably fuel college courses in a dozen subjects from history to physics.” This isn’t some sordid video shot with the aim of making money (although Zapruder sold the film to Life magazine for the modern equivalent of $1m) but knowledge, part of history, and even intellectual fuel like little else. It’s also a grisly, shocking depiction of the death of a human being and of his wife’s confusion and horror, and if Hoyle’s ‘guidelines’ were followed would never have been seen. No, there was no footage of the murderer ranting as there was with Woolwich, but it was proof positive that the most powerful man on earth could be felled by criminal means, and there was certainly widespread discussion about Oswald’s motives (not least because he didn’t survive to explain them). Neither is Zapruder deserving of being tainted with the same brush as Oswald, as Hoyle’s logic suggests; the film was printed frame-by-frame in Life magazine, it was shown on television in 1975, even formed part of Oliver Stone’s JFK movie. It’s part of the American (and arguably the world’s) national consciousness. In addition, as the Vice piece states, the frame that showed the exit wound from Kennedy was withheld from publication according to Zapruder’s instructions – ‘guidelines’ just aren’t necessary in every case (similarly in the Woolwich case there have been no images released of the actual murder itself, to my knowledge). Human decency is ever underrated.
The second example is less well-known, and with a reason – it was published, then withdrawn and buried after complaints. Also detailed in a Vice article, it’s the image of a man jumping from a burning Tower on 9/11, captured by photographer Richard Drew. As the article points out, it’s a strange, eerie image, different from the horror of the Zapruder film in that the (still unidentified) man’s death is not visible but we know it to be inevitable. It’s almost artistic in a bleak way, ironically less destructive than the famous pictures of the burning towers yet rarely seen, censored by the public who widely complained to the media. As the documentary linked to states, the Falling Man represents a horror greater than that of the destruction of the buildings, as it showed the human side to 9/11 and the high numbers of deaths, a historical document of an even darker side to a horrific event. The public and the media made the decision themselves not to spread the image and make it part of the memory of the day, and to focus on other things, such as heroism, hope and bravery.
Images and videos from both of these events are part of the historical record, and even with the natural impulse of people to remove the most visually horrific parts they still exist in public knowledge and are still important historical details. Zapruder has been described as the first citizen journalist, and as technology that enables people to self-publish images and videos becomes more and more widespread, it will only happen more often. A tough but necessary question is at what point does a picture or video turn from a horrific depiction that taste and decency demands is buried away to a historical document that should be preserved? Turning back to Woolwich, those chilling seconds of footage of the murderer explaining his actions with blood-soaked weapons in his hands could (and probably will) define 2013 in the future, in a similar way to Eddie Adams’ Saigon execution photo. It could perhaps be one of the most important moments of citizen journalism in future years. After all, journalism, the reporting of events, is less and less solidly defined as technology advances – we are all potential journalists, all capable of Pulitzer Prizes for images and videos that tell a story, and this should be something that is protected and valued, even though it may offend on taste. And yes, having thought about it a lot I would argue that this applies even to the murderer’s captured words. Are we aiding terrorism by spreading fact? Was Zapruder aiding Oswald by selling his video? I don’t believe so in either case.