Instant news doesn’t de-sensitize us, it forces us to face reality

From cameraphone footage of the Grenfell Tower fire to helmet cams on soldiers in Afghanistan – David Butcher explores the rise of in-the-moment broadcasting

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On the day after the Grenfell Tower fire, Sky News aired grainy cameraphone footage that had been filmed the night before by a woman trapped in her flat. With remarkable presence of mind – or unaware of the full seriousness of what was happening – she had live-streamed her ordeal via Facebook.

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She and a neighbour were shown trying to escape via their smoke-filled landing, then calling for help from their balcony. While the woman with the phone prayed, the neighbour shouted, “We’re stuck on the 23rd floor. Hello? There’s too many people stuck upstairs!”

The report then cut to news footage viewed from the ground, showing fire spreading up the tower at around the same time. It left us to draw our own conclusions as to what became of those poor women, along with scores of other residents, and the result for viewers was shattering, a sense of the subjective horror of the fire being not an “unimaginable tragedy” (as the cliché often puts it) but very imaginable, painfully so.

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We’re now used to the fact that the awfulness of what television news brings us keeps escalating. The immediacy of coverage means we’re brought up against incidents as they unfold. More than any previous generation, we take on board disasters, famine, war and terrorism, wherever they occur.

Technology keeps narrowing the perspective: helmet cams on soldiers in Afghanistan have taken us inside the moment of an IED explosion. Mobile-phone images showed the events at the Bataclan in Paris, as gunfire rattled in the background and concertgoers hung from window ledges. Live streaming brings a new level of intimacy.

The received wisdom is that this risks de-sensitising us, that the parade of painful truths on rolling-news channels can induce compassion fatigue, as Melvyn Bragg suggests in his excellent TV history The Box That Changed the World (Saturday BBC2).

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It doesn’t feel that way to me, and it certainly didn’t watching those images from Grenfell Tower. Sometimes unfolding, unfiltered coverage can jolt us from our comfort zone and make us connect with the experience of others.

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After all, the history of TV news is the story of filters falling away. When Michael Buerk reported on the Ethiopian famine in 1984 he had to fly back with cans of film and edit them. Today there would be a live satellite link. Yes, we very much need the perspective that a correspondent’s considered take on events can bring. But the game has changed: now, as Bragg puts it, “Everyone can be a camera,” and we’re still learning what that will mean.