The CNN, BBC corpse show

IN Media Practice | 30/12/2004
Can CNN, BBC get away with this corpse show in ‘sensitive’ Manhattan?


Reprinted from the Indian Express, Dec 30, 2004





Ashok Malik



NEW DELHI, DECEMBER 29: Six months after 9/11, a CBS documentary on the attack on the Twin Towers censored visuals of a woman burning to death. ‘‘The image was so terrible,’’ a programme producer at the US channel explained, ‘‘I made a decision not to film it. It’s not something anybody should see, or want to see.’’


In the aftermath of the worst terrorist attack on American soil, the networks were remarkably correct. ‘‘Sensitive coverage’’, ‘‘respectful of victims’’, ‘‘no violation of privacy’’: the buzzphrases flew thick and fast.


Until last week, they even seemed believable. Unlike the aftermath of 9/11 — when not one dead body was shown on screen, not one ghastly image recorded for posterity, and about the only objectionable visual was of a man jumping to his death — Asia’s tsunami is open season.


Take the shots from CNN’s 10.00 pm bulletin last night. From Tamil Nadu, we see rows of dead bodies, a man carrying his dead child and, perhaps as primetime stomach churner, people reaching out to hold a child’s corpse.


From Banda Aceh, Indonesia, come pictures of rescue workers carrying victims, all arms and legs really, not quite the composure and dignity they may have wanted to put on for a TV shoot. The rows and rows of bodies continue — southern Sri Lanka one second, Thailand the next.


BBC, the other international bigwig seen in India, was a little better, but only a little.


Here’s a short guide to the Beeb’s 10.30 pm bulletin: in Indonesia, a broken couple carrying their dead children — none of that nonsense about allowing relatives to ‘‘grieve in privacy’’; an aerial view of devastation; a body randomly lying around in a hospital; a quick visit to a makeshift mortuary in Thailand. Oops, don’t miss the corpses.


So what happened to those solemn platitudes of three years ago? How come no channel-surfer got to see Diana and Dodi up close and dead in September 1997? Why has southeast Asia’s biggest tragedy become every American network’s ghoulish Disneyland party? Has disaster finally found its paparazzi?


When contacted, Chris Cramer, managing director, CNN International, said: ‘‘What is happening in your part of the world is quite awful, the final numbers may be close to 1,00,000. It is a natural disaster of great enormity and we will be remiss as a news organisation if we don’t report it comprehensively.’’


When asked about its display of bodies now, in sharp contrast with 9/11, Cramer said: ‘‘On 9/11, if we showed no images of bodies, it was because they were no images to show. The bodies had been incinerated.’’


When told that after 9/11, CNN respected the privacy of grieving families, something it is not doing now, he said: ‘‘We’re not perfect, but we always seek to be respectful of privacy and of the dignity of death—it’s a tightrope walk between gratuitous pictures and, if you may, obscuring pictures.’’


BBC has its point of view. Says Paul Danahar, BBC’s south Asia bureau head, ‘‘We don’t show bodies to sensationalise stories. In this case, some bodies have to be shown to convey the scale of disaster.’’


Danahar insists BBC has a ‘‘strict editorial policy’’ when it comes to showing bodies, ‘‘whether in Britain or Ireland or India or anywhere’’. Alluding to clips of a man jumping off one of the Twin Towers on 9/11, he says, ‘‘We show bodies when it’s part of the news. We don’t use them as library shots or repeat them, say, a month later. In a car accident, we don’t show mangled bodies, no graphic pictures. We don’t show images of dead children.’’


Danahar, in fact, has a counter-complaint. ‘‘The Indian media,’’ he says, ‘‘particularly print, is far more gratuitous in its use of bodies than the Western media.’’


A less extreme and more disinterested assessment comes from Ed Luce, south Asia bureau chief for Financial Times, who confesses he’s watched ‘‘only a bit of television in the past few days and most of it NDTV’’. One sight shocked him: ‘‘TV crew in helicopters just above the sea, off the eastern coast of Sri Lanka, and Indonesia, filming victims below. It was voyeuristic.’’


Comparing the deluge of bodies this time to the sanctity post-9/11, Luce shrugs, ‘‘I don’t think I’m qualified to answer this ... I suppose there are different standards, even if not specifically articulated.’’


Meanwhile, let the networks take you on the Maniacal Grisly Tour.
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