TV COLUMN: The ethics of live news coverage are complex

James Waller-Davies
James Waller-Davies

Our television columnist James Waller-Davies gives his thoughts on the television coverage which surrounded the tragic bombing in Manchester earlier this week.

There is a morbid fascination, a sort of television rubber-necking, that goes hand-in-hand with events such as the bombing in Manchester this week.

In the digital world, incident news breaks first on social media and it was just gone eleven on Monday night when Twitter began filling with the first indications of the horrors that would unfold through the night. The all-night 24-hour news channels weren’t far behind.

It’s occasions like this that rolling news channel ceases to sit around, twiddling its thumbs desperately milking the last drop of irrelevance and making news where none exists. On nights like Monday, the mundanity of nothing happening would have been a blessing.

The ethics of live news coverage are complex, balancing the ‘right to know’ with sensitives of victims and the fact that all around the country there are people – parents, partners, siblings, friends, family – desperately wanting news of a far more personal kind and wanting no news to be good news.

Live television provides a national shared experience like no other. This week has been punctuated with images that will stay in the collective national memory for a long time to come. The photographs of kids, who went from ‘missing’ to ‘victim’ as the hours passed, Tony Walsh’s poem at the Tuesday vigil, the Coronation Street tribute, Manchester United in Stockholm, all indelibly etched into the memory.

There are other images though – but I’m not about to put name to them here and give anymore of the publicity they crave. And this is the other side of the television news coin. If publicity for atrocity is what is sought, should the media feed this by pumping out wall-to-wall coverage all through the week?

The cancelling of some programmes due to ‘sensitivity’ whilst broadcasting non-stop news coverage is a further irony. It’s saying: “You can’t watch this because you might be upset – but we’re going to show you this all the time and you’ll definitely be upset.”

Frankly, there could have been nothing on television this week that could have made any difference to how most people felt. ‘Upset’, doesn’t quite cover it.