Why Independent was right to use shocking Syrian beach boy picture

One of the first things I read every morning is the BBC’s round-up of national front pages.

There was one missing this morning. Which was a shame, since it was one of the most powerful I have seen in recent months.

As you probably know by now, it shows a small Syrian boy lying face-down on a beach in Turkey after an attempt to flee his war-ravaged homeland ended in tragedy.

The Independent is the only paper to use that particular image, with others opting for one showing an emergency worker carrying the boy’s body.

The BBC’s apparent reluctance to show the picture presumably reflects concern that it is simply too shocking to use.

I wrote last week about other papers’ use of a picture showing the actual moment – including the actual gun – when a former TV reporter shot two of his ex-colleagues in Virginia.

But there is, to me at least, a clear difference between the two images.

My feeling is that we are not here to protect our readers from the harsh realities of life.

But we do need to show restraint out of respect for victims and their families.

That’s why we should generally draw the line at pictures of bodies at road crashes, mass shootings and other tragedies.

That American picture crossed a line in showing the gun pumping the lethal bullets into other people.

The difference to me is that I can conceive of no possibility of relatives of the Syrian boy coming face to face with the front pages of British newspapers.

It’s also worth saying that his face is partially obscured.

And the moment of death has clearly passed.

It’s always possible for editors to try to justify the use of shocking images with the argument that it will bring home the full horror of a situation or issue, triggering change for the better.

Most of the time, this is disingenuous nonsense.

But the Syrian boy image clearly has the potential to be a gamechanger.

As Stalin said: “One death is a tragedy; one million is a statistic.”

It’s not an image that should be used forever.

But it’s one that might just have changed the course of world politics.


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