When emotionalism trumps journalism

The Killing Fields of Sri Lanka was concerned more with shedding tears than light on a brutal civil war.

David Bowden

Topics Politics

Ah, the Great British Summertime. It says everything about the dissolute life of a TV columnist that the leanest months are the ones the rest of the population look forward to the most. While everyone else is frolicking in the sunshine, we’re getting by on meagre rations and a starvation diet that will give me the perfect bikini body by about mid-September. Don’t even get me started on the waxing.

Like the watershed, the drabness of the television schedules over summer feels like a throwback to a more decorous and rigid era. Those mad-eyed types who believe television and mass culture is a conspiracy by the elite to mollify the masses have never been able to explain effectively why a country with as naff summers as Britain can’t successfully fill its TV schedules for these few activism-friendly months. When 2009’s much-hyped ‘summer of rage’ was supposedly set to turn the City of London into the sack of Rome, you would need some considerable chutzpah to claim the absence of sunkissed agitation was down to, say, ITV’s Primeval.

A sure sign that TV producers are gearing up for their long summer holidays is the sudden explosion of weighty, serious programming at peculiar hours in the schedule, safely tucked away amid the repeats until they can be dusted off in time for a nice black-slap during awards season. So this week we’ve already been treated to Terry Pratchett’s essay on euthanasia and More 4’s The Pipe, both reviewed on spiked this week.

Receiving just as much fanfare was The Killing Fields of Sri Lanka, which promised us the ‘most shocking images ever seen on Channel 4’. That this warning was delivered by a sonorous voiceover from Jon Snow did not stop it sounding as trite as it reads on the page. Certainly it lived up to its billing, offering first-hand video footage of the brutality inflicted upon the Tamil population by the Sri Lankan military at the end of the civil war in 2009. Images of dead child soldiers, civilians with limbs blown off and naked corpses of raped Tamil women piled on to trucks was as shocking and harrowing as you would ever wish to see. For the 700,000 viewers who tuned in on for its late-night screening, perhaps with little or no knowledge of the 25-year war which preceded it, the film will linger in the mind. Foreign Office minister Alistair Burt pledged to pursue the Sri Lankan government with ‘all options available’ after seeing the ‘convincing evidence of violations of international humanitarian and human rights law’ on display.

That said, it was difficult to dispel the air of ghoulish atrocity exhibition, compounded by the knowledge that such events were so recent. The images were, of course, shocking, but shock value alone offers no useful understanding of the events or politics which led to them. That the end of the Sri Lankan civil war, one of the longest-running and bloodiest of living memory, was so vicious came as little surprise. Indeed, the bloodshed was anticipated by the large Tamil diaspora community, who sought Western intervention through co-ordinated Europe-wide protests. Yet as Brendan O’Neill and Nathalie Rothschild documented at the time on spiked, it fell on the deaf ears of a Western media who could not readily place the highly-organised, politicised and militarised Tamil Tigers – who pioneered the art of suicide-bombing – into a comfortable victim/oppresser narrative.

The faintly repellent thought you walked away with upon viewing the film was that a body is easier to turn into a victim than a living human subject is – that and the apolitical enthusiasm for perpetrators to be held to account. Whether there was anything which could or should have been done to prevent the deaths of 40,000 civilians is a separate and no less unsettling argument, but at least one that would have justified the programme’s shock value. As it was, you were left pondering whether seeing someone with their leg lawfully blown off would be any less upsetting.

The Killing Fields of Sri Lanka at least sought to raise awareness of one of the most shamefully under-reported conflicts of recent years, and the desire of the surviving Tamil community to have atrocities accurately recorded and recognised should be acknowledged, but as a memorial it felt distasteful and as a piece of documentary it was not particularly insightful. It would have been a much better film, and far more helpful to the public’s understanding of the complexity of the conflict, if it had been willing to swap some of the shocking images for an earlier primetime slot and some harder-hitting journalism.

Instead we were left with a piece of upmarket, late-night gorno which, when placed alongside the revelations of the media’s credulity over the lesbian bloggers of the very contemporary political struggles of the Middle East (and, lest we forget, an ongoing NATO-led war in Libya), offered very little useful insight into the sad fate of the Tamils. This may have been a rare attempt at serious programming in the summer silly season, but it was one which added only to humanity’s vale of tears, rather than its pool of knowledge.

David Bowden is spiked’s TV columnist.

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Topics Politics


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