Happy decapitations?

It was preposterous to jail a man for 60 days for showing someone an Iraqi beheading on his mobile phone. Everyone's at it.

Graham Barnfield

Topics Politics

Imagine a trip to the cinema. You might be taking in the fictional mutilations found in Wolf Creek, a grim Australian slasher pic currently on general release. You could be watching the real-life gore in Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 911, which features immediate post-combat footage from Iraq. In both cases the gruesome footage is intended to disturb. Even video-nasty veterans like myself find such flicks hard going at times.

Now imagine the unease turning to anger. The cinema trip was an upsetting experience for you. You take legal action. A criminal prosecution ensues. Breach of the peace charges stick. The projectionist swaps Kia-Ora for porridge and is jailed for 60 days.

Does that seem far-fetched? Relocate to a much smaller screen, and this bizarre scenario was enacted last Wednesday, 28 September. As BBC Online reported, ‘a man who used his mobile phone to replay footage of a beheading in Iraq to a hotel shop worker has been jailed for 60 days. Subhaan Younis, 23, played the images to shocked Charlotte McClay last September at a hotel in Glasgow’ (1). His defence lawyer argued that McClay had consented to be shown the video clip. There was no suggestion that force was used to make sure she saw the gore unfolding on screen.

It is hard to separate this latest bit of weighty sentencing from the wider concern with happy slapping and other forms of unregulated digital content. The only thing to be said in defence of the sentence is that the magistrate pursued a punishment based on existing laws, rather than pressing for novel ways to criminalise a disreputable but legal activity. Apart from that, this outcome is preposterous. It penalises images as if they were deeds.

Younis acquired the video from the internet; he did not behead anyone himself in order to obtain it. Sharing the images was probably not a good idea, given McClay’s apparent squeamishness – but a custodial sentence, m’lud? Come off it. Once again, the distinction between speech and action is being blurred beyond recognition by dumb legal decisions and a press quiescent in lobbying for more of this nonsense. It is as if media studies, where power resides in imagery, is annexing the law for its own intellectual empire.

Despite the bizarre penalty imposed, magistrate Euan Edment wisely wondered aloud why anyone would want this footage on their phone in the first place. What next: the ambient sounds of an autopsy available as a ring tone? But unfortunately, our learned friend has not been keeping pace with the fact that everyone seems to deal in gruesome and shocking imagery these days.

The recent scandal over ‘porn for gore’ exchanges at a busy US website called Now That’s Fucked Up is symptomatic of this, as first reported in Britain by Brendan O’Neill in the New Statesman and subsequently blown up into a global row – Abu Ghraib, only with corpses (2). American soldiers have been sending often gruesome combat footage – including pictures of dead and decaying Iraqis – to the website in return for free access to the rest of its gory and pornographic material.

But blaming grunts on patrol for using their digital cameras ignores the fact that everyone is at it, including respected documentary makers and broadcasters. Indeed, the controversy over Now That’s Fucked Up became a chance for the London daily newspaper Metro and ITV’s News at Ten to reproduce the same images with a modicum of covering up for the most gruesome materials. Journalists’ ‘exposes’ of terrorist websites often become an opportunity to revel in their content, while criticisms of Al Jazeera come complete with graphic summaries of the execution videos submitted to the network, like a barbaric spin-off of You’ve Been Framed.

One could argue that atrocity reporting has a long history and this is nothing new. In 1601, a popular newssheet said that Spanish troops in the Netherlands claimed multiple victims, including ‘James Messier being striken over his belly, so that his intrailles did issue forth’ (3). But that ignores a crucial distinction. Atrocity-mongering in the past was linked to broader goals, whether winning a propaganda war or selling more newspapers through sensational content. For all the guff written about today’s cellphone-toting citizen reporters, collecting gory pictures has become an end in itself.

At times, the video nasties panic of yesteryear hinged on lies about snuff movies, but thanks to a voyeuristic streak a mile wide, such imagery is now treated as entertainment. Subhaan Younis should not have been jailed, because his sick antics are hardly different to anyone else’s.

Graham Barnfield lectures in journalism at the University of East London and blogs at Loneliest Jukebox.

(1) Beheading video man sent to jail, BBC News, 28 September 2005

(2) Website of death, Brendan O’Neill, New Statesman, 5 September 2005

(3) Cited in Martin Conboy, The Press and Popular Culture, Sage 2002, p29

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Topics Politics


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