Wednesday evening’s horror was like a Black Mirror story. Footage from Woolwich, shot on a bystander’s phone: a man who’s now a murder suspect, blood on his fingers, a knife and a cleaver in his left hand, explaining his beliefs direct to the camera. A dead body was in shot, yards away.
When this video was hosted by ITV News (“EXCLUSIVE”) and it began to rampage around social media, the question was asked: how can the guy with the smartphone be so calm? Why hasn’t he run? The answer must be that filming unusual events is now such a strong impulse, it survives even when those events are so scary, most of us wouldn’t be able to look.
More worrying was the idea that killers with a political agenda might know this and make use of it, asking to be filmed at the scene, in the expectation that someone would oblige and the footage would quickly reach TV news. Never mind ringing a newspaper to claim responsibility, or releasing a crappy VHS the following week; if the message can be disseminated across national news channels later the same day, that feels like a watershed. We’re through the black mirror.
The only thing that could break the cycle would be if TV opted not to provide a platform – if someone in charge, somewhere, on even one news channel, said: “You know what? I don’t think our viewers need to see this. It might encourage people to kill for notoriety, or to publicise their cause. The criticism often made of TV coverage of school shootings, that it can make impressionable people think killers can become icons, could apply here too. Let’s leave it out.”
This does not appear to have been much of a consideration. The suggestion that TV news – particularly evening bulletins on the main terrestrial channels, which viewers who are not glued to Twitter and Sky News rely on for a digest of the day’s events – might ever consciously put a brake on the spread of information is seen as quaint and ridiculous. If another channel has run it, we have to run it – and if people are rushing to see it online anyway (“The ITV News website is currently down due to the volume of traffic. It should be back up shortly. Apologies for any inconvenience caused”), what’s the difference? When it emerged that every newspaper would have the bloodied hands on its front page in the morning, this was cited by media commentators as proof that TV was “right” to run the video. This is a self-fulfilling race to the bottom.
Of the three obvious reasons why the film might be deemed unbroadcastable – giving a platform to people who shouldn’t have one, respect for the then-unidentified victim’s family, and upsetting viewers generally with a disturbing image – it was the last and least important of those that made TV news pause. With the exception of Sky News, who thought the video was “unnecessarily distressing”, everyone decided to bung a warning on the front and go for it.
And so to Newswatch (Fridays BBC News, iPlayer), a funny little show on the BBC’s rolling channel, made by the self-flagellating arm of the Corporation. Newswatch was grilling senior Beeb execs long before director-generals started firing themselves after a bad gig on the Today programme.
Friday’s edition was all about Woolwich. Presenter Samira Ahmed and an erudite viewer called Rowan Coleman asked BBC newsroom boss Mary Hockaday what the hell she’d been playing at. To begin with, the conversation was one familiar to Newswatch viewers, as Hockaday seemed not even to understand what the main objection was. Ignoring some flannel about watersheds and thinking carefully and events unfolding quickly. Coleman pressed the point: showing the suspect talking was not just upsetting but potentially harmful. Hockaday’s second reply was long – it’s worth watching the debate in full – but it boiled down to the video statement being part of the story, a fact that was out there. So despite taking disturbing news footage to a new level, on it went.
Hockaday’s view is important because the BBC is, or should be, free of the commercial considerations that say hey, that “shocking footage” dollar is a pretty big dollar. The Beeb also, I suspect, has the largest percentage of regular viewers who would sometimes prefer a dry statement of the basic facts to be read out, simply and unsensationally, with macho scoop-chasing forgotten. This was a new opportunity to listen to those voices, be brave, and exercise discretion. It was an opportunity missed.
A new Panorama documentary, Hillsborough – How They Buried the Truth (Monday; iPlayer) didn’t add swathes of new information to what the families have been saying since 15 April 1989, or to the findings of the Hillsborough Independent Panel back in September, which finally said that the 96 football fans who were crushed in an overcrowded stand at the FA Cup semi-final were not to blame. It didn’t need to. The story still needs to be told and re-told; the families still need to be listened to. Seeing their faces as they relayed the pain of each setback moved us an inch closer, although we will always be miles away, to understanding how it felt to be coldly dismissed for more than two decades.
It helped to see some of the things the Panel had written about. Powerful images included a chillingly immediate reconstruction of the disaster itself, using Match of the Day’s footage and the insights of reporter Peter Marshall, who had been present at the match and, throughout the programme, brilliantly kept a balance between caring deeply and investigating objectively. It felt right to be able to see the faces of some of the politicians, police officers and judges who kept the truth at bay for such an agonisingly long time. The sight of thousands of Liverpool fans at the 20th anniversary, responding to culture secretary Andy Burnham’s platitudes by proudly chanting “Justice for the 96” – Burnham then became instrumental in setting up the Panel – brought tingles to the spine.
As part of a long, long process that is still ongoing, this Panorama was appropriately diligent, sober, and steely when it needed to be. It was another tiny triumph. Perhaps above all else it was a tribute to Anne Williams, who tirelessly campaigned on behalf of her late son Kevin, and gave Marshall an interview not long before she died last month. “They used to say: you’re right, Anne, but you’ll not beat the system. They’re wearing you down. I used to say, I’ll wear them down before they wear me down.”