The worst thing in the world has happened. Everything good and meaningful in your life has collapsed and fallen away after being taken in one grotesque act of mass murder. Details are muddy, all you know is that someone you loved, someone who not long ago was alive, is now dead in a field somewhere. As the realisation dawns, you crumple.
Presumably, then, you want this exact moment – the cracked second when you saw with piercing clarity that your life had fractured irrevocably – to be seen again and again on television having been filmed by a camera thrust into the heart of your misery.
Of course not, but after the destruction of flight MH17 and its 298 passengers and crew, BBC News showed bereaved relatives in their moments of greatest despair. It was shameful, utterly shameful. Everyone is entitled to be alone with their desolation; no one has the right to eavesdrop. The man I described above stared blankly through a bus window, the camera elbowing into his grief, before his face collapsed into tears as the realisation dawned. It was horrible and I had no business watching it.
So I had to look away at that point and I know that you did, too. Any decent human being would have done exactly the same. Anyone with even a jot of common humanity and decency can empathise with someone else’s suffering. We don’t need intrusive pictures pushed at us.
But this is the price we pay for constant, never-ending news, news, news. The need for information NOW, not later, but right now. The need for pictures at this moment. Something has to fill all those hours of air time, so let’s all have a good old gawp at people grappling to come to terms with the worst time in their lives.
As the story unfolded and it became clear that the crash site was unguarded and apparently open to everyone, not sealed off as a crime scene as it should have been, reporters were free to wander and tell it like it really, really was, sparing us no detail. Or to present highly personal reports while being horribly mawkish, using phrases so rankly meaningless they reeked like cheap perfume.
While the terrible days wore on, the need for ruthless attention to even the most macabre detail was overwhelming. One BBC reporter told us a couple of days after the crash that the dead bodies were now “bloated”. I’m sure they were, I’m sure we all already had hideous pictures in our minds. But we, and much more importantly any bereaved families who happened to be watching, did not need to be told. Later a Sky reporter had to apologise for rifling through a suitcase.
I’m a journalist and I LOVE news, I always have, it courses through my veins and fires my brain. But honestly, I want better than this from the BBC and every other professional news organisation. They aren’t staffed by that canker on modern society, so-called “citizen journalists”, those pin-brains who film other people’s tragedies on their phones for who knows what purpose.
But we quite rightly hold BBC news to higher standards because it’s ours. I don’t want BBC cameras to hover on my behalf in the hope of tears or the sight of a bulging body bag. This isn’t a soap, it’s a human tragedy of incalculable magnitude. Sometimes you just can’t show this on television, sometimes something is so big and hideous that cameras have to turn away. It’s not censorship, it’s sensitivity.
At times like the MH17 crash, rolling news can become overheated, there’s just too much of it. It needs to stand back and breathe. Audiences need to back away, too, to sit, think, stare into space. If this never happens, then we are in danger of losing something very precious, that knowledge of what it is to be human.