BEVERLEY CLARK AGAINST THE PRESSThe Press Council has not upheld a complaint by Beverley Clark against The Press over its front page publication of a series of pictures showing masked Iraqi executioners preparing Saddam Hussein for his hanging.
On January 1, 2007, The Press ran a frame-by-frame series of Reuters-sourced pictures of the former Iraqi dictator being attended to just before his execution. The pictures, close-up and run across six columns above the story, show the executioners placing the noose around Hussein’s neck and adjusting it before the moment of hanging. The sequence stops short of the actual hanging.
The pictures were presented under a relatively small-print catch line, “Saddam Hussein Execution”. A caption reads: “Last moments: frame grabs from al-Iraqiya television show masked executioners preparing to hang Saddam Hussein. The footage was shown throughout the Arab world.” The headline and story follow below.
Beverley Clark has complained that the illustrations broke two of the Press Council’s Statement of Principles:
- Principle 10, which requires that headlines, sub-headings and captions accurately and fairly convey the substance of the report they are designed to cover, and
- Principle 11, which says that in respect of photographs, situations involving grief and shock are to be handled with special consideration for the sensibilities of those affected.
In the case of the latter principle, Ms Clark says the affected are those with suicidal vulnerabilities. The illustrations, she says, had given “a powerful illustration” of a suicide method. People bereaved by suicide would also have been affected. Under Principle 10, Ms Clark says the lack of an adequate headline above the pictures to “pre-inform” meant that readers had no forewarning of the illustrations. The Press’s main headline was below the pictures, above the story.
“The series of six photographs covering the top half of the page were very compelling,” she says. “The title above was so insignificant that it could not warn the reader that they may prefer not to view the images. This eliminated reader discretion.”
In a letter to The Press, she adds that the illustrations were irresponsible, outside acceptable publishing standards, and “certainly not within the spirit of suicide reporting guidelines of which I am aware your organisation disapproves.”
The Newspaper’s Response
In response, The Press deputy editor Andrew Holden says he cannot accept the premise that images of a state-organised execution would encourage young New Zealanders to commit suicide by hanging. Nor did he believe that the [Health Ministry] reporting guidelines had any connection to the decision to publish the images. Mr Holden further says that video footage of the preparation for the execution was shown on free-to-air and cable television – as well as repeated a number of times during the week - and that the images The Press used were also carried in the NZ Herald and the Dominion Post, though not on the front page.
In a letter to the Press Council, The Press editor Paul Thompson says that papers cannot hide the brutality that characterises such events. “To do so would disqualify a paper from claiming to be a medium of news and to report accurately what is occurring in the world.” The paper was aware that considerations of relevance and taste impinged on how it reported violent events but, in this case, had decided to publish because the images had already been shown on television and would appear in other newspapers; they dealt with an event of major public interest; were not gratuitously violent; and did not depict the most brutal elements of the execution.
Mr Thompson says that running the photographs less prominently would have merely delayed their viewing; that a prominent headline above them would have done little if anything to soften their impact; and that it is far-fetched to think that a person contemplating suicide would not know how hanging occurred or would have been guided in how to carry it out. The newspaper was aware of the constraints on reporting suicide and abided by them.
In later correspondence with the Press Council, Ms Clark says that the distress arising out of the photographs was exacerbated by the fact that the top of the front page was visible for the whole of the day, in sales outlets, as well as in homes. The assertion that the images had already been shown on television was misleading as both TVNZ and TV3 had resiled from graphic coverage.
She reiterates that she believes the photographs were informative to the vulnerable as to the means of carrying out a suicide, and stressful. To make her point she encloses two overseas newspaper reports of copy-cat suicides said to have occurred after seeing video footage of the Hussein hanging, including by children trying to re-enact the event.
In his final response, Mr Thompson says the fact that the two main New Zealand television networks did not show the images did not alter the fact that they were widely available to New Zealanders in the electronic and printed media. The Press should not be held accountable for not conforming to some other newspapers’ handling of the execution.
Ms Clark’s complaint about headlines and captions (Principle 10) is a difficult one to support. The wording was clear and accurate, and fairly conveyed the report of the death. The issue before the council is therefore sensibly the larger one: whether the paper behaved ethically in putting such images so strongly before the public, in a manner that could affect the vulnerable.
The Press has broken no clearly defined rules in publishing pictures leading up to the hanging of Saddam Hussein. The death of the dictator was not a suicide and the coverage therefore was not subject to Coroner’s Act stipulations that largely preclude the publishing of details about the manner of a death by suicide. However Ms Clark sincerely raises the larger and vexed question of whether depictions of the hanging – a common choice of suicide method – should be, at the least, played down in their manner of presentation to avoid the possibility of copy-cat suicides. In effect, was there an ethical imperative on the newspaper not to put the pictures before the public to prevent the possibility of an adverse influence on the vulnerable.
This Council has previously noted (Annual Report, 2005, p.24) that the press, health professionals and the community at large are all concerned about the tragic problem of suicides in New Zealand. But it also found that blanket judgement about causality in copycat suicides is problematic, and the research sometimes conflicting. While leaning towards the benefits of greater openness of reporting, it urged editors to keep in mind the complexity of the issue, recognising the widespread effects that reportage can have on many people. Ms Clark’s concern is, of course, one removed from the norm, suggesting copycat behaviour from an execution rather than another suicide. But the principle involved would appear to be the same.
The news media generally take a conservative approach and do not cover suicides in detail. But a dilemma arises for them when there are large public interest issues at play. The news media are legitimately guided by a “public interest”. Media law expert Professor John Burrows notes that “ ‘public interest’ … does not mean ‘of interest to the public’: public curiosity is not enough. The matter must be such that there is legitimate public concern in knowing about it; it must be of public importance.” (Burrows’ italics)
Some would argue that that right could have been upheld equally with less graphic pictures less prominently displayed. But the counter argument is that the public has the right to see for itself the true horror of such an event and to come to its own conclusions. The case has been put elsewhere that over-concern about viewer sensibilities could in some circumstances be clouding understanding of the horrific reality of many areas of human suffering – and therefore the chances of amelioration. Putting the pictures so powerfully on the front page above the fold ensures the picture has maximum impact.
It must also be said that the likelihood of copycat deaths after seeing images of the execution is far from proven. Some of the most disturbing of the supplied overseas examples - assuming they are substantiated - appeared to be cases of children not committing suicide, but coming to grief while re-enacting the execution in play. Stopping publication of pictures from such a big international event to prevent the risk of tragedy would be a difficult line to draw.
In this case, the Press Council accepts the argument for legitimate publication. The Press appears to have weighed the issues carefully before making its decision to publish. Its decision to highlight the reality was bound to upset many: the images were disturbing. But the Council places weight on the side of public interest – the public’s right to know the whole picture of one of the most momentous events of recent history.
The complaint is not upheld.
Press Council members considering this complaint were Barry Paterson (Chairman), Aroha Beck, Ruth Buddicom, John Gardner, Penny Harding, Clive Lind, Denis McLean, Alan Samson, Lynn Scott and John McClintock.
Keith Lees took no part in the consideration of this complaint.