Following the release of a video purporting to show the beheading of British hostage Alan Henning, the fourth recent on-camera execution of a Western hostage by Islamic State militants, several British newspapers have decided not to publish images from the latest video, stating they don’t want to award the extremist group a propaganda victory.
While the decision appears to be drawing support from some on social media, others argue there is an educational value in offering the public the opportunity to see firsthand the barbarity of the Islamist extremists, citing photographs the Nazis captured of their Jewish victims during the Holocaust.
More than half of the front page of Britain’s Independent newspaper on Sunday was taken up by a black box in honor of Henning, along with the words, “On Friday a decent, caring human being was murdered in cold blood. Our thoughts are with his family. He was killed, on camera, for the sole purpose of propaganda. Here is the news, not the propaganda.”
Lloyd Embley, editor in chief of the Daily Mirror, posted on Twitter, “After David Haines was murdered pix of him on his knees were on all the front pages. We decided not to do that again. They can't win.”
This as the Sun newspaper wrote in an editorial, “If his killers think they will benefit from this, they are wrong. That is why today The Sun is not publishing images from the video of Alan’s murder. We refuse to give his absurd killers the publicity they crave.”
Not all British newspapers took that decision, as the international media, including in the U.S., grapple with the challenging ethical and journalistic decision over what, if and how much to publish from the Islamic State group's images.
Following American journalist James Foley’s beheading, former Director of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Walter Reich wrote in the Washington Post in favor of making such videos accessible to the public, citing an experience at Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial museum.
Reich wrote in August, “[W]hat convinces me that the video should be accessible is that it shows, very clearly, the horrendous nature of the ideology behind it. The reasons not to show it are good; the educational value of showing it is greater.”
In 1995, photos at Yad Vashem were subject of a controversy in Israel, because they showed Latvian Jewish women desperately trying to cover up their nakedness with their hands as they were about to be shot into pits by German soldiers in 1941.
Those who campaigned for removing the photos which were taken by the Germans argued that they “constituted a perpetual degradation of women who had been murdered” who “forever after, would be on display in their nakedness,” Reich wrote.
But one Auschwitz survivor wrote in the Jerusalem Post that if images existed from when she herself had been stripped down by the Nazis and humiliated, she would want them in the museum.
“Are the pictures indecent, immodest, demeaning, humiliating?” she asked. “The facts are, not the pictures. We couldn’t cover our nakedness then. Don’t cover it up now.”
Yad Vashem did not take down the photos in the end. Reich wrote:
As someone whose relatives were murdered in the Holocaust, some of them no doubt having had to remove their clothes, I found it appalling that these women would be on display for all to see, and forever, in their nakedness. But I felt it was bitterly necessary to show the nature and consequences of the ideology that inspired their murderers, an ideology that promoted degradation and dehumanization in the service of achieving its murderous goals.
Similar bitter necessity requires us, I’m convinced, to make it possible for the public to understand the nature, methods and consequences of the grotesque ideology at the heart of the Islamic State.
“Nazi Germany used degradation and dehumanization as tools in its mass-murder of Jews. The Islamic State uses similar tools and unspeakable violence to conquer territory, commit genocide against non-Muslims, and murder those who don’t interpret Islam the way they do,” Reich who is a George Washington University professor of International Affairs, Ethics and Human Behavior wrote. “All of this is happening right now. We have to understand it. And we shouldn’t make it impossible to witness the graphic images of its reality.”
Former Washington Post correspondent Jackie Spinner interviewed editors at major news organizations for an article in the American Journalism Review last month about what drove their decisions about publishing images from the beheading videos.
CNN International’s Executive Vice President and Managing Editor Tony Maddox told Spinner, “We try to broadcast information that’s pertinent to the act of barbarism, but as distasteful as it is, one cannot get away from the fact that these videos will drive the debate.”
“They will impact the policy. And it’s not for us to say to CNN viewers you’re not allowed to see that,” Maddox added.
Santiago Lyon, director of photography at the Associated Press, told Spinner, “We are trying to navigate between not trying to sanitize the horror on the one hand and not becoming an amplifier or force multiplier for radical groups engaging in what might be called violence pornography.”
“There is no real difference in my mind between a detailed description of that scene and showing it in a picture,” Santiago said. “One of the things we talked about here is that while we might describe that scene, we wouldn’t describe it in tremendous detail. We treat words and photograph the same.”
The AP on Friday released only one still photo (seen above) from the Henning video showing Henning in an orange jumpsuit kneeling on the ground next to a militant wearing a black head covering and armed with a knife. The image offered by the AP showed Haines only from the torso up.
Julian Clarke, the chief executive of News Corp Australia, defended the decision to publish an image of James Foley moments before he was executed.
“This is the most horrendous thing that is going on in our world and hiding the brutal reality of this from anybody I don’t think is in anybody’s interest,” Clarke said, adding “we’re prepared to use a pretty straight up, brutal [image].”