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.

Kenneth Jarecke

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.

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8 Comments. Leave new

  • Neil Fazakerley
    August 11, 2014 8:27 pm

    That is unquestionably among the most horrific images I’ve personally seen. But I don’t know how far it changes my perception of war. I like to think I have enough imagination to realise war is exactly that dreadful, without having to actually look at the direct evidence.

    Then again, perhaps my distress at Gaza is greater than in similar conflicts in the past precisely because of the vivid images this time round, and perhaps I would be stirred to the same (albeit limited) action over Gaza over all wars, were the images the same.

    Intellectually I feel I am more angry about Gaza because of the west’s explicit complicity. But I don’t know for sure.

  • Unfortunately Pat, tribal rules apply. Horrific images of human suffering are booty to the enemy of the sufferer. And the enemy of the sufferer isn’t as obvious as we might assume; it’s not just the opposing army, opposing terrorist organisation or the opposing country. It’s people everywhere with a bias, racist or religious or ideological or whatever. I read today that Israeli troops were given photos of the destruction of Gaza – before and after photos – as a kind of token of their success. There’s to be ‘an investigation’. Really? I doubt it. So one person’s nightmare image is another person’s pin-up. The dehumanisation of an enemy begins in cradles all over the world. When the US went into Afghanistan after 9/11 and stopped incoming aid from across the border, I wrote on an online forum that refugee camps were without food supplies and people were starving. A woman on this forum from mid-West America wrote back: “I’m sorry they’re starving but they’re used to it”.

    I design logos. Years ago, I was asked to design a logo for an agency for young adults leaving the care system. I worked with a committee they set up which included a couple of the young adults themselves. In terms of ‘ways of seeing’ it was a valuable lesson. LOGO ONE: An adult and child from the back in silhouette, holding hands. MY REASON: It shows care and security. YOUNG ADULT RESPONSE: Abduction. LOGO TWO: Again a silhouette, this time of a group of young people running up a mountain with the sun shining. MY REASON: Freedom and light. YOUNG ADULT RESPONSE: Running away. So on and on we went until I realised using any human form in this logo was going to be open to both a positive and a negative response, and pretty much always a negative from young people whose interaction with humans to date had been difficult. In the end, I used a kite.

    All aby way of saying that while we can believe the majority of people are right-thinking, and will respond to an image in a predictable way (horror; this has to stop, etc.), this is just not true. And in fact the very people we need to see it as we hope – the people whose change of heart and mind can make a difference – are by and large already beyond being able to do so. It’s such a huge subject, this impact of imagery, and a very important one.

  • When there are not enough words to convey an image, the image itself is all you need.

    A Dubliner living in Midwest United States

  • Very thought provoking Pat, thanks.

    As long as media require $$$$ and live without a financial buffer for failure / ‘remote control moments’, the neutralisation of war by the media will continue. Not one media company in the world can afford to lose paying customers – therefore the softer option will always be taken in order to protect the readership.

    Social media should be changing all that – we should be able to see the full reality of war through unedited, first hand account social media – but we very rarely do. Why is that? That’s what I cannot understand.

    • The unedited version is out there ok – ask the guys at Storyful who spend their days verifying such user generated footage – but most people chose not to share it. Maybe we’re all mini TV-news editors, worried about upsetting and/shedding, not viewers, but friends and followers?

  • […] article written by Pat O’Mahony pitches in on the argument that the mainstream media has often its own agenda in maintaining […]


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