Michael Appleton - cricket lover, Cambridge

Tuesday, April 13, 2004

Cricket, gore, etc.

It took 127 years and 27 days, and almost 1700 matches, but test cricket has finally yielded an individual score of four hundred. The funny thing is that the crowd didn't seem all that excited. Really. Having spent the previous few hours waiting nervously for Brian Charles Lara to reach the world record Matthew Hayden took off him half a year ago, the Antiguans had already had their frenzied climactic moment.

There was less cheering for Lara's 400 (off 582 balls, or 4.12 an over) than for the century his partner, Ridley Jacobs, brought up an hour or so earlier. Lara has surely cemented his place as the best batsman of the modern era The crowd was suffering “record fatigue”, the commentator said. Oh well. Lara, now the only player to surpass 350 in tests twice, has surely cemented his place as the best batsman of the modern era: better than Tendulkar (who gets to bat on much more batsmen-friendly pitches at home than does Lara), better than Hayden (whose 380 was against a much weaker attack) or Gilchrist, and better than Jayasuriya.

The philistine of the year award goes to the English cricket supporter, quoted by Sky Sports' commentary team, who decided not to turn up to watch Lara seek the world record because the match was now "boring" and in a "stalemate" position. Indeed, the English section of the crowd were certainly getting restless as Lara took his side into the afternoon session of the third day, something sides batting first very rarely do. But the West Indian innings wasn't as long as the Barmy Army might have felt. It lasted 202 overs. Had it not rained on the first day, Lara would have reached his 400 some eight overs before lunch on the third day, and had a chance to have short burst at the Englishmen before session's end.

In any case, despite the pitch being a featherbed, one shouldn't discount the possibility of Lara's record being crowned by a West Indian victory. 552 to avoid the follow-on is a daunting task on any surface, against any attack.

Meanwhile, The Observer's David Aaronovitch wonders how the folks at Al-Jazeera can live with themselves. The recent kidnapping of three Japanese civilians in Iraq, and the consequent ransom demand, was brought to the world in terrifying detail by Al-Jazeera. Of the group behind the kidnapping, Aaronovitch writes:
[it] probably only came into existence at the moment that it decided to send a video off to Al-Jazeera, demanding the withdrawal of Japanese troops from Iraq. In fact their action told us very little about how most people in Iraq live, but much more about how some media outlets will now prostitute themselves for the sake of the story ... Did they, I wonder, even consider the consequences for others of broadcasting a geopolitical ransom demand in this way? And if the Japanese prisoners are burned alive ... will Al-Jazeera broadcast that as well?
I think the answer to his last question is probably "yes". Al-Jazeera has proven itself to be much more willing to show blood and guts than any Western broadcasters. From memory, they showed the clip of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl being decapitated.

So, what arguments are there for not showing/printing troubling images? (I start from the basic assumption underpinning any liberal society that anything should be shown unless there are compelling reasons not to.) I can think of three:

1) The images will further the cause of people we don't want to help. By showing the Japanese kidnapped, you are facilitating the actions of insurgents who – if for no other reason than that their methods are suspect – shouldn't be helped. Al-Jazeera is acting as the kidnappers' propagandists, and thus urging on more such abductions.
2) The Geneva Conventions sometimes forbid it. The faces of individuals captured in war should not be shown, because they are protected under international law, which aims to guard the sanctity of individuals in trying situations during war. For the same reason, you shouldn't print pictures of identifiable individuals killed in war.
3) Their families will find it upsetting.

It seems Aaronovitch is drawn towards 1). The problem with this argument – and it is not a new one, Margaret Thatcher was wont to berate the BBC for giving the IRA publicity, "the oxygen of terrorism" – is that it requires a media outlet to decide which causes are worth helping and which are not. Al-Jazeera might disagree with abduction and ransom as a method, but it might feel sympathy for the nationalist, anti-occupation cause for which it is (possibly) being used. Some in the anti-war media might have found some of George Bush's speeches in the run-up to the Iraq war – when he continually, dishonestly, and successfully sowed the Saddam-Osama link in most Americans' minds – distasteful. These speeches were cynical, manipulative propaganda in the service of a cause such media outlets found abhorrent. Should they therefore have refused to cover the speeches, to deny Bush publicity, the "oxygen of warmongering liars"? I suspect a much better rule of thumb is that broadcasters shouldn’t pick between causes. Rather, they should act as both the propagandists (by airing their views) and critics (by questioning those views) of all sides.

2) and 3) are more problematic. I understand why the Geneva protections are in place, though they didn’t stop Aaronovitch’s paper printing illegal pictures of Saddam after the dictator was captured. (How do those folks at The Observer live with themselves?) It must be insufferably upsetting for families to see their loved ones all gored up in the Sunday papers or on television. But there's a more important issue here: that of realism. War sucks. People die in gruesome manners. And if wars are to be waged, then those who wage them (and the people who give the war-wagers democratic mandates) ought to be able to stomach the consequences, including all the unseemly bits.

British broadcasters during Gulf War II avoided using most of the graphic footage their cameramen and photographers sent in. As John Ryley of Sky News put it, "We showed shock and awe, which was a glorified fireworks display, but we didn't show people dying." Academics at Cardiff University did a thorough analysis of British media coverage of the war, and one of their major concerns was that war coverage was being sanitised. "We need to know not only how it looks from underneath the missile launcher, but what happens when the missile lands," they wrote. Failing to show blood and guts had "profound ideological consequences", they concluded.

If Blair and Bush are going to bully their publics into going to war, the latter should at least be able to face up to the fallout.