War is brutal. But we rarely get to witness the full intensity of its full ferocity in our newspapers or on our television screens.
I read a fascinating Atlantic article last week about Kenneth Jarecke’s now-famous 1991 photograph of an Iraqi man burned alive on the ‘Highway of Death’ as Saddam Hussein’s defeated army retreated to Baghdad after their short-lived invasion of Kuwait.
It was an unflinching image Jarecke thought would change the way Americans saw the Gulf War.
He was wrong; at the time the US’s – and the world’s – media largely ignored it.
The article is an in-depth look at propaganda and censorship in wartime, not always imposed on reluctant outlets by an understandably sensitive military but, as was the case with Jarecke’s harrowing picture, often willingly embraced by the mainstream media itself in the interests of ‘taste and decency.’
The reason the article particularly caught my eye was because we controversially used the photograph in the last programme of Reporters At War, the Emmy Award-winning Discovery television series on the history of modern war journalism I produced with True Vision in London in 2003.
It’s often been said – possibly first by Aeschylus, a Greek dramatist who lived between 525-456 BC – that truth is the first casualty of war.
This last in the Reporters At War series, Wars, Lies and Videotape, went, as the blurb I wrote 11 years ago said, “…behind those well known, iconic stories and images from modern war journalism to scrutinise how such factors as patriotism, censorship, impartiality, propaganda and taste impact on the stories that we get to read, see and hear during times of conflict. If the journalists themselves are rarely happy with what passes for news in such circumstances, how can we ever believe their blood-stained dispatches from the front?”
I say we controversially used Jarecke’s photograph in Reporters At War not because of the viewer reaction it provoked but because it’s the only example I’m personally aware of where an image that was knowingly going to be contentious was dropped into a programme, in this case by our director and series producer, Jon Blair, after it had been signed off by the channel’s Head of Programmes.
And by the time we all found out about it at a packed pre-broadcast public viewing a few days before the series was due to start it was a fait accompli.
When the Discovery Europe Head of Programmes saw it at the viewing they weren’t exactly ecstatic about it but were somehow persuaded it should stay.
The programme is a little stronger because of it.
Oddly, given all the harrowing images that peppered the series, Discovery only asked us to remove one piece of archive during the entire production…and it wasn’t even a particularly gory one.
It was a clip from Sorious Samura’s Cry Freetown documentary of a cowering young naked Sierra Leonean boy suspected of being a rebel sniper cowering in tears fearing for his life being roughly cuffed, occasionally beaten and casually tossed into the back of an open truck before being driven off by soldiers to an unknown fate.
One suspects that once out of sight of Sorious’ camera he was shot.
Of all the scenes to be asked to drop, why this one, we asked? Sure, it was upsetting but there was no blood, no strewn limbs, no dead bodies, so what was the issue?
Turns out Discovery knew their audience better than we did. This would have been what they called a ‘remote control moment’, the unmistakable terror in the petrified child’s eyes likely to be too much for a large swathe of viewers who would have quickly changed channel to avoid further upset.
And as they rightly pointed out, we made our point about the viciousness of war effectively without it.
It’s an argument about self-censorship I’ve seen resurface regularly since, of late around the various conflicts ongoing in the likes of Gaza, Syria, Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan, South Sudan and Ukraine that are currently making the news headlines.
In this social media era when distressing and traumatic images of the impact of war are but a click away, should television news and newspaper editors still try to protect us from its full horrors?
Or would we, as a few veteran correspondents pondered in Reporters At War, demand an end to all wars if dispatches from the frontlines regularly exposed us to their horrific everyday realities?
I wish I knew the answer.