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13th October 2015

Censorship is the enemy of change

With a spate of high-profile attempts to censor media outlets, Ed John critically assesses our issue with the graphic truth

It is without doubt, as we are constantly told, that we now live in the ‘information age’. With a click of a button, or the swipe of a finger, we can now access, share and follow more stories, content and information from across the world than previous generations could have ever imagined.

However, as the age-old maxim goes, with great power comes great responsibility. And as we continue in our race to becoming an all-knowing, all-seeing population, we have also become a part of an extremely divisive and important debate: Should the information and media we consume so readily be censored and vetted when it comes to violent and graphic content?

As is often the case, this debate is rarely black and white. Of course, certain forms of censorship are ostensibly necessary. For example, the use of a television watershed and various forms of film classification boards are in place to avoid unsuitable content being easily accessed by children. However, when it comes to the news outlets and mass media targeted at mature audiences, is such policy really suitable?

We now live in what seems to be an increasingly violent world. Perpetual and impossible conflicts rage everywhere from the Middle East to the streets of our own country, as well as those in the US. The Guardian’s organisation, The Counted, is a relatively new project dedicated to officially counting the number of people killed by police in the United States. It has recently reported 872 victims of police killings, while thousands of miles away children and innocent people are continually being bombed out of existence in the name of foreign policy.

And yet, although we are aware of what is occurring, are we ever truly shown the extent of such events? Are we ever truly aware of, and empathetic to, the effects that they have on those involved? As a British citizen born and raised in a time of relative stability, I would argue that I am far from either truly aware of their struggles, or empathetic to them—and censorship is to blame.

In August of this year, two journalists working for local US news organisation WDBJ were shot and killed on camera whilst reporting and filming a segment on the anniversary of the building of a local man-made lake. Not only were the deaths caught on the footage filmed by the news crew themselves but also were also filmed by the attacker on his smartphone.

As news of this attack broke, both domestic and international broadcasters rushed to report on it—many using the footage obtained from the news crew in their coverage. However, rather than recognising this as further evidence against the US’s failure of gun control policy—a policy that allowed a man with a diverse history of mental illness to legally obtain a concealable firearm, many viewers instead took to social media to attack the use of the footage. Consequently, many organisations withdrew the footage, along with that taken by the gunman himself, from their reports on the attacks, again leaving it to the presenters to verbally recount a less offensive and ‘more suitable’ account of the events.

With stories such as these, it is often difficult to justify the use of such footage. After all, it is undeniably heartbreaking for the families of these victims to have to relive that tragic day through their television sets and smartphones. Yet, is it not more of higher importance to give the public a first-hand account of how their government’s policies are directly leading to the deaths of innocent people?

Perhaps closer to home is the current humanitarian crisis occurring across Europe with the mass migration of hundreds of thousands of mainly Syrian asylum seekers. Again, although the majority of us are aware of what is occurring, we’re not truly aware of the gravity of the situation. Similar to the footage of the WDBJ shootings, many major media outlets were condemned for publishing a particularly upsetting photo of drowned infant refugee Aylan Kurdi. However, despite some claiming the use of the image was “crass” and “narcissistic,” we could surely use this as evidence in favour of an uncensored media. With the powerful realisation of the true plight of those seeking refuge, many took to both the internet and the streets to show support and solidarity.

It is such images that allow us to understand the true nature of the world in which we live. It is such graphic content that can enable mass protest and movements against atrocities such as those seen during the US invasion of Vietnam, famously sparked by the distressing work of wartime photographers such as Nick Ut.

Graphic content may be harrowing and it may be hard to swallow, but without it we would not only be unaware of the reality of the world we live in but we would be swallowing a far more dangerous and damaging lie too. We can’t hide the truth in order to cling to the idea that our world is not in need of change.

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