AA Gill, in Sunday Times, http://www.topix.com/forum/world/sri-lanka/TRTFUQMJ6JFOM7CKS
Choosing to Die [Terry Prachett’s BBC 2 documentary on euthanasia] was billed, hyperbolically, as the first time the moment of death has been shown on television. It isn’t. Not by many, many deaths. What they meant was the first death of a white western man in a sitting room; there is death all over television all the time.
Jon Snow and Krishnan Guru-Murthy of Channel Four
Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields, Channel 4’s documentary on that country’s civil war, was made up of little else but the moment of death. Just before we get into it, I am going to pause, yet again, to have an eye-rollingly weary word about Jon Snow’s comic ties and jocund socks. And to explain why I mind and why they matter. The ugly garish ties are worn to semaphore the fact that this is a chap who is only wearing a suit because the headmaster says he must. Inside, he is really a far more relaxed, counterculture kind of dude, not at all the establishment flunky the two-piece single-breasted implies. It is a pathetically and worryingly childish pose in a man approaching retirement who wants what comes out of his mouth to be taken seriously. Back to the programme.
Channel 4 has been flogging this story for more than a year, ever since it was given an unattributed but disturbing clip of footage that appeared to show Tamil Tiger prisoners being executed. It has showed it so often, to righteously harangue the Sri Lankan ambassador and various spokesmen, that now nobody will talk to it. The channel has accumulated a large collection of samizdat amateur footage from mobile phones and video cameras – mostly unattributed and uncorroborated. It mixes this footage with comment from unnamed sources with distorted voices and shadowed faces. And human rights lawyers. It was brutal, it was shocking, but it wasn’t journalism.
Not a second of this has been shot by Channel 4; none of the eyewitness accounts comes from journalists.
Snow’s commentary was intemperate and partisan, and it was all held together by assumptions. Channel 4 News has drifted from providing news broadcasts into being an outlet for nodding spokespeople and assorted NGOs and environmental pressure groups, or anyone who can provide interesting or sensational film. It follows the old American news adage, “If it bleeds, it leads”.
What was depressing about this particularly bloody special was not just that it had precious little context or considered thought, but that the people who will suffer most from it are not governments or soldiers, but the victims of this brutal war, who deserve a more measured professionalism and due diligence, and who deserve better than this compilation of gore, topped and tailed by a man in a comedy tie.
Finally, the most demeaning and prurient part of it all was that the penises of the naked men being executed were smudged out, as if they were the shocking part. And the pubic hair of abused and murdered women was coyly pixelated so as not to be titillating. The horror of war tidied up like Japanese porn, to save us the embarrassment and distaste of having to look at the genitals of the dead.
This was a piece of politically correct sanitising that was degrading and humiliating for the viewer and the viewed, but was symbolic of this programme’s contorted news agenda. It really was the most astonishing and misjudged editorial decision from a news broadcaster that has grown into the habit of poor judgment on almost everything. Channel 4 News once had clever and astute reporters; now it boasts a revolving handful of Autocue readers with hair issues. And its arts coverage, which was by far the best of any terrestrial news, is now ill-informed, naff and embarrassing. This documentary was a low point in a continuing slump.
What both Choosing to Die and the Sri Lankan documentary suffered from in different ways was empathy – which is very popular in documentaries these days. What both should have had was a buttoned-up sober detachment.”
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