Saturday 18 January 2020

Censoring TV is futile – we can see all the world's horrors online

Haunting: Ian O'Doherty saw footage of a Saigon execution when he was a child – and never forgot it
Haunting: Ian O'Doherty saw footage of a Saigon execution when he was a child – and never forgot it
Ian O'Doherty

Ian O'Doherty

Can you remember where you were when you first saw the iconic snap, 'The Execution of A Viet Cong Guerilla'?

I remember once as a kid I was allowed to stay up late one night and saw the actual footage of the shooting in what I can only assume was a John Pilger documentary from the late 1970s.

The sight seared itself into my brain forever – the photograph simply doesn't capture just how quickly the blood pools on the ground where he falls.

I remember my parents arguing about whether I should be allowed to see it – my mother said no on the grounds that it was too disturbing, my father said yes on the grounds that this was real life.

I wonder how many similar conversations will have been had in houses around Britain and Ireland in the last 48 hours.

Of course, we have all seen the image of Michael Adebolajo standing in the middle of a Woolwich street, hands painted with the blood of a man he has just butchered like a hog.

But would you let your kid watch the actual mobile footage that was taken just after the deed? Would you watch it yourself?

If anything, the days of a seven- or eight-year-old being marked, if not scarred, by a piece of footage on a late-night documentary are long gone.

Instead, the chances are that now it would be your kid leading you by the click of a mouse to endless execution videos that look like home videos from Hell.

One of the striking aspects of the TV coverage on Wednesday night was the open agonising of the various broadcasters over what was acceptable to show and what wasn't –the body on the street? The blood? His attackers?

Channel 4 was more explicit than Sky, for example, while Fox showed even more.

And all that agonising, well intentioned though it may have been, was helpless in the face of one fact – it really doesn't matter what they decided to show, because the full, unexpurgated footage was already freely available online. This was simply one of those increasingly common moments when broadcast decisions on the grounds of taste or decency are irrelevant.

It's glib but not entirely inaccurate to state that the two great beneficiaries of the internet have been pornography and real-life snuff movies.

After all, even the most basic shrink will tell you that sex and death are what motivates our primal instincts, but I still can't understand the instinct that makes you want to watch someone's agonised last moments.

Don't get me wrong, I'm as bloodthirsty as the next person and screen violence doesn't bother me.

I've always been a fan of Italian horror, from Argento to the nunsploitation movement to Ruggero Deodato's Cannibal Holocaust.

Likewise, I've seen infamous Japanese atrocity movies like Men Behind The Sun and Philosophy Of A Knife (both incredibly boring, but worth watching as interesting landmarks in the genre), which make even the most gruesome, visceral Saw or Hostel movie look like a cherub's daydream.

But it doesn't matter how immersed you are in the more, shall we say, 'refined' sub-genre of gore movies, watching something really happen to a real person is a completely, totally, unforgettably horrific experience.

And it seems that every combatant in every squalid, blood-drenched conflict around the world – particularly since the Balkans conflict, when mobile, hand-held footage really came into its own – has recorded and broadcast their exploits.

This has always been done in one way or the other. Both the Pacific campaign and Vietnam saw Marines making necklaces out of enemy ears, so it's certainly not behaviour peculiar to one race.

But those soldiers wouldn't have paraded their trophies for the wider world to see and, more crucially, the wider world wouldn't have applauded him for his deeds.

Yet you only need to go on to any of the torture and execution sites and look at comments underneath to get a deeply disturbing glimpse into the psyche of some people.

I ventured into one of these cesspits a few years ago and clicked to a scene of four Russian soldiers lying prone on the ground with Chechens, holding knives, kneeling on them.

The video starts, the audio comes on so you can hear the Chechens jeering the doomed conscripts, and as the first soldier's head is held up, his eyes – each wider than a car tyre – stare wildly into the camera.

A caption then appeared on screen: "Cheese!!!!".

I turned off as quickly as I could, but a perverse curiosity brought me back – not to be a part of this grotesque invasion of a man's dignity in his most intimate moment of death, but to see how appalled those who left comments underneath the footage had been.

They weren't that appalled at all. In fact, one guy even critiqued the slicing motions of the butcher as he did his work.

There is a world of a difference between what is shown on television and what you actually seek out online, but that border is shrinking with every Woolwich.

So, if you feel frustrated or patronised by the way the traditional news media 'protects' you from images of the truth, feel free to google Nick Berg, Daniel Pearl or hundreds of other decapitations.

But be warned – some things that you put in your head stay there forever.

iodoherty@independent.ie

Irish Independent

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