guardian

The power to shock

It is extraordinary because it is something entirely outside our experience.

You don't expect to turn on the evening news to see a man, with blood-stained hands, standing on a street in London in front of the body of the man he has allegedly just killed.

The mobile phone footage, obtained by ITV News, already defines the horrifying killing of a young soldier in Woolwich. 

Soon this breathtaking footage was on constant repeat, a horrifying loop labelled Breaking News.

It appeared on screens around the world, and by the following morning was on the front pages of most British newspapers.

And there, in the background, the body of a murdered man.

Hundreds of people have already complained, to ITV and its regulator Ofcom, about the decision to screen the footage.

Some object on grounds of taste, others say it provides the very publicity the alleged killers sought.

But the decision to broadcast and publish these images has also been defended.

Writing for the Guardian, Roy Greenslade says: "pictures and film clips of the incident were across social media within minutes. Newspapers (and TV) would have looked completely daft to ignore what was already in the public domain."

But mainstream newspapers and ITV news bulletins are a different world from twitter and facebook. TV news comes into your home, newspaper front pages scream out at you from corner shops and supermarkets.

To defend the use of shocking material by arguing "it's already available online" puts you on a rather slippery slope. Videos of murder, torture and child abuse are all available online - but this doesn't mean they should be broadcast just before Emmerdale, or piled up next to a fridge full of sandwiches.

But these images were keenly gobbled up, and endlessly repeated, to keep rolling news rolling.

The killing in Woolwich highlights one of the biggest problems facing 24-hour news.

The culture demands you stay with a major breaking story, even when there is nothing else to say. New viewers will be joining you all the time, desperate for more information. But you have nothing new to give.

So instead you replay the same images, again and again, and remind viewers of the timeline of tragedy, and you desperately try to conceal the fact that you are saying nothing you hadn't said two hours earlier.

Could this endless repetition of the shocking be what makes us more immune to its power?

We now inhabit a culture where journalists know no more about a breaking story than the audience.

Through tweets and mobile phone video, the viewers have become part of the news cycle.

This can have huge advantages - there may not be a camera crew at a news event, but there'll almost certainly be someone with a mobile.

People know more now about the nuts and bolts of politics, business and the courts than they ever did before.

But there's little room for context, for considered reporting. Journalists and viewers are in a process of mutual learning, in which we're only ever a half-step ahead of the audience.

News is always Breaking News on Sky (and to a lesser extent on the BBC). Those bright red and yellow banners across the bottom of our screens appear so often, we barely notice them anymore.

Until something shocks us out of that complacency. Like the sight of a man with blood-stained hands, holding a machete a few yards away from a young man's body.

How we got here…

Leveson is the seventh large-scale inquiry into the press since the Second World War.

So let's pause for a moment to recall the surge in ethical conduct displayed by the crazier end of our industry as a result of the previous six.

Oh.

Much like a serial cheater, or domestic abuser, each time the leaders of our street of shame are caught, they are ashamed, humbled. They promise change. Next time, it'll be different. 

So we give them one last chance. And six months later we've been smacked in the face again.

If you believe some papers, any change in regulation will turn the British press into some kind of Soviet-era hell. Our freedoms lost, our papers full of heroic tractor production figures.

So it's perhaps worth remembering how we got here.

Some newspapers developed a side industry, routinely hacking into people's mobile phones, listening to their private messages.

Some of their targets, undoubtedly, were bad people doing bad things. Others were completely ordinary, their only sin to blunder temporarily into the public eye.

The people who listened to their messages, poking around in their private lives, drew no moral distinctions. Criminals, footballers, politicians, murdered schoolgirls

All were just good sources of copy.

And we, in a way, encouraged this. We kept buying newspapers filled with salacious non-news, often obtained through such shady means.

Some of the newspapers who now issue apocalyptic warnings about press freedom used to do these things, daily. If they didn't do them directly, they hired other people to do it for them.

And the regulator that was supposed to protect against such things instead argued these things were not happening. There was no scandal, beyond the actions of a rogue individual. The regulator in fact criticised those journalists trying to highlight the scandal.

The police didn't bother to investigate. Partly because it was scared of the press, partly because some officers had developed very cosy relationships with the same newspapers.

Our political leaders didn't bother to investigate. Because no-one who challenged the press could expect to win power.

When caught out, the papers would offer cash in return for silence. And then carry on trawling through people's private lives, in the hope of another pointless story.

And now, finally, we have a chance to do something.

Who is actually arguing for state control of the press? This nightmare scenario is the invention of newsrooms at The Sun and Mail. No one with any credibility is suggesting a Cromwell-style licensing of newspapers.

Any regulation of press standards must be independent, both of the state and proprietors. Nothing else is likely to get through parliament.

People who prostitute their private lives to the press to boost their careers have little right to demand privacy when such attention becomes inconvenient, and it's true that harsh restrictions on the press would best serve the corrupt and powerful.

But the press has had endless chances to make self-regulation work. It never has. And in order to believe it would work any better in the future, you'd have to trust the word of people who've lied to us for years.

The News of the World exposed countless scandals, broke many newsworthy stories. It was not destroyed by that tradition of hard, popular, public interest journalism.

We desperately need more of that kind of journalism. And it's possible that by raising our sights from the gutter so many papers currently choose to inhabit, we might just get a little more journalism we can be proud of.