It should surprise nobody that the furore over the bungled execution of Saddam Hussein has, in part, been directed at TV’s use of the images. And yet on this occasion we were – mercifully – freed from the dilemma of being in a position to show the point of death. It’s a basic premise of TV news that actually showing the point of death of a human being is not, in almost all circumstances, acceptable.
Even so, at least one irate viewer emailed us to protest that we didn’t show Saddam’s body drop through the trapdoor because, he said, it was widely available on the internet.
Well, available or not, we chose to stick with what were the officially released images: the video of him calmly discussing the niceties of having his neck broken with the hooded men about to effect it.
After that, all that reached us through official feeds were the mobile phone stills of his body.
The next day the mobile phone footage arrived in full. But still we avoided point of death itself, favouring description of what happened, together with the clearly audible insults.
It all can and should provoke troubling questions. Should you show even the noose going on, when children must be assumed to be watching? In the end we plumped not to show any noose images in our headlines where people are pretty much hit with no-warning images.
The noose being put round his head was left to the VT reporter package with what we felt to be appropriate ‘health warnings’in the intro.
Such matters are scarcely definable – we’re arbitrating on taste, not applying laws of physics. Take that point of death. You cannot usually show somebody being shot for example.
But you can show an American bomb blowing away a crowd of Iraqis on the streets of Fallujah. We did so, repeatedly, to make a specific point about what might or might not have been a war crime.
It fell to me that day to compile an obituary package for Saddam Hussein’s life and here I was struck by the same dilemma, but from a different angle.
For those so inclined to view it, in the bazaars of Baghdad and Basrah and online, there is any amount of extreme, graphic, unedited violence from the Saddam years of butchery.
What’s often struck me is now little of this ever gets shown – not how much.
You’d be astonished how many video reports have been made of his life without this kind of material.
Let’s just say we had a few ‘frank exchanges of opinion’in our newsroom on the day. In the end we did use some material of Saddam-era prison officers laying into near naked, defenceless prisoners with boots and sticks.
We also used an image of explosives being stuffed into the breast pockets of blindfolded prisoners out in the desert.
What we did not use was either the point of detonation or the aftermath – even though all you saw was a puff of dust and smoke and a body, filmed from about 20 yards distance, with no discernible injuries at all.
But you take my point – the personalised exploration of torture and murder under the man was endemic, sanctioned, encouraged. It was the essence of Saddam Terror. It had to been seen in some measure.
Yet little of the above will concern people in Iraq. Their concerns lie not so much in the arena of human rights, rather in fears that such imagery will do nothing but pour petrol on the flames of the Sunni-Shia civil war already threatening to engulf Iraq.