Sunday 20 July 2014
To die is one thing – to be turned into a blob quite another matter. The blob is the weird, mystical “cloud” which weak-kneed television producers place over the image of a dead human face. They are not worried that the Israelis will complain that a dead Palestinian face demonstrates Israeli brutality. Nor that a dead Israeli face will make a beast of the Palestinian who killed the dead Israeli. No. They are worried about Ofcom. They are worried about rules. They are worried about good taste – something these TV chappies know all about – because they are fearful that someone will scream if they see a real dead human being on the news.
First, let’s set aside all the usual excuses. Yes, I accept that there is a pornography of gore and death. There comes a point, perhaps – though this has to my knowledge never been proved – where the repeated sight of human butchery can drive others to acts of great cruelty.
And there comes a point where filming a terribly mutilated corpse displays – let’s use the word, just once – a lack of respect for the dead. Just as we close the lid of a coffin, there comes a point where we have to put down the camera.
But I don’t think that’s why the dead are being blobbed. I think that a creeping and cowardly culture of avoiding death on television is taking possession of the namby-pamby girls and boys who decide what we should, and should not, see of war, a practice that has very grave political implications.
For we are now reaching a point where the dead children of Gaza – let us forget the women and men, for a moment – become faceless. If a little body can be shown, but his or her face – the very image of their soul, especially if it is undamaged by the wounds that killed the body – must be cruelly obliterated by a scientific blob, then we kill the child a second time.
Let me explain. When they are alive, children may be filmed. They may be shown on television. If they are wounded – provided that the injuries are not too terrible – we are permitted to view them in their suffering. We as nations do not care very much about them, of course. Hence our refusal, for example, to intervene in the bloodbath of Gaza. We pity these children – we may weep over them – but we do not respect them. If we did, we would be outraged by their deaths. But once they are dead, we must show them a respect we never showed them when they were alive. The privacy of their killing must be maintained by protecting us from their faces.
Last week, Al Jazeera showed a tearful Palestinian father carrying his freshly killed baby girl to a Gaza cemetery. She had black curly hair and a gentle child’s face, dead as if sleeping, innocence made flesh, an angel whom we – all of us – had killed.
But most UK television stations – and the BBC have become experts at this censorship – destroyed her face with a grey blob. We were permitted by our television masters to see her black curly hair. But beneath it lay that disgusting, deleting blob. And as the child was carried, the blob moved along with her face. It was an insult to the father and to the child.
Had he not carried her in his arms – in public, to the cemetery – to show us the extent of his loss? Did he not wish us to see the face of the angel who had just died? Of course, he did. But British television conmen – gutless, fearful of their own masters – decided that this father should not be allowed to show us the extent of his loss. They had to disfigure his daughter with that revolting blob. They turned a little girl into a faceless doll.
This has nothing to do with Ofcom’s oh-so-moral demand that audiences should never view the “point of death” – although I have shown a Gaza Palestinian dying on the operating theatre in a 1992 television documentary, and we are constantly shown replays of television journalists being rocketed to death by a US helicopter over Baghdad. And it has nothing to do with “good taste”, whatever that may be. Personally, I find the sight of Israeli guns or Hamas rockets in disgustingly bad taste – they, after all, are the death-dealers, are they not? – but no, television soaks up these awful scenes. We must watch them. No problem. Weapons are good. Bodies are bad. Oh, what a lovely war.
Back in 2003, I remember a brave camera crew pleading with Reuters to allow them to send their footage of Iraqi civilian victims – wounded, as well as dead – of a British army bombardment of Basra. Reeling from their own fear of the past 24 hours, the crew were superciliously told that they were wasting their time sending their transmission to London. It couldn’t be shown at tea time. It was too disgusting. And – here we go again – we must respect the dead.
I know that many of my television colleagues are furious at this censorship of death. “Preposterous, absurd, and getting worse,” was how my old mate Alex Thomson of Channel 4 reacted when I called him to discuss this most potent of self-censorship last week. He recalled how British television viewers could see medical staff collecting body parts from the Oxford Street bus station in Belfast on Northern Ireland’s Bloody Friday. This, of course, emphasised the iniquity of the IRA.
And historically, we aren’t at all squeamish about showing the dead. Documentaries still show British army bulldozer drivers heaping thousands of naked Jewish corpses into mass graves at Belsen concentration camp in 1945. These past six months, we have televised thousands of images of dead soldiers – disfigured, mutilated, rotting – in powerful documentaries on the 1914-18 war. Is there a time limit on death, as there is on war crimes?
If it weren’t so pathetic, it would be necessary to explain the humour of those television presenters, who warn us that viewers may find pictures of the dead “distressing” – only to show us film in which the faces of the dead are hidden behind that mortician’s grey curtain of blobbing. I hear an ex-editor of mine groaning when I say this, but war is not about victory and defeat – all those guns and rockets – but about the total failure of the human spirit. The little girl’s face. This is what the producers and “line managers” and prissy little men and women of television want to keep hidden from us.