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Violence in the living-room

October 19, 2014

This post isn’t strictly speaking about language, but it is in a way. I wrote it in a moment of outrage, and fired it off as a thinkpiece to the Times and the Independent on Sunday, both of whom have published pieces by me before. But these days  it’s almost impossible to get free lance pieces in newspapers; they’re all so hard up they don’t want to pay free lancers, and make their salaried staff do everything. I did want the piece to see the light of day, though, so I’m putting it here:

Last night at around 6.30 I switched the television on, and a solemn voice immediately intoned: “…so badly beaten her skull was smashed like an egg”.

Naturally I zapped the channel over as swiftly as possible. But it was too late. The sickening image was already planted in my mind. And I do apologise for planting it in yours. But I can’t see any other way to protest at the way it was inflicted on me – and on several other million viewers. Maybe I should have known better: turning on BBC regional news at that time of the day is asking for trouble. But if we weren’t so accustomed to it, would we really see this sort of reporting as acceptable? Wouldn’t we see it for what it is: outrageous, unwanted, sensationalist, gratuitous brutalism? Night after night, news editors cherry-pick (but is that the right phrase?) the most distressing stories they can find – stories of murder, rape, torture, hideous violence, mutilation and cruelty, inflicted on blameless victims – and beam them into our living-rooms at a time when children are likely to be in the audience. Er, could I just ask… why?

In fact one isn’t safe at any time throughout the day. BBC Radio 2 news broadcasts are notorious for publicising the ugliest tales of violence they can unearth, on the hour, every hour – their news-jingle has created a Pavlovian reflex in me to dive for the off-switch. I could cite an example broadcast at 4pm when I was driving my ten-year-old daughter to a flute lesson, but I’m afraid it’s too horrible for this blog; it would be more appropriate for the kind of horror film I ‘d choose never to go and see. The BBC isn’t alone, of course: all the news programmes in this country share the assumption that we revel in cruelty and violence, as if we were a nation of sadistic psychopaths.

Perhaps news editors would like to argue that we get the news stories we want. Do we? I don’t remember being consulted. Maybe some people do like violent news stories, just as some people like the hard-boiled crime novels of Jo Nesbo or Karin Slaughter. But why assume we all want them, all through the day?

Let me offer three points to help news editors reconsider their values. First, these stories are distressing to children, and to sensitive people in general (and isn’t that, well, nearly all of us?). If they must be broadcast, why not after the watershed, with a warning? Second, violent news stories induce a climate of fear: the message is that legions of killers and psychos are stalking our streets, and you could be their next victim. This is a ludicrous distortion of the facts (there are fewer than 600 murders a year in the UK), but the fear it incites doesn’t make for a healthy or happy society.

And finally, these brutal reports cause people like me, and I’ve no doubt there are many of us, to grab the remote and hit the off-button. If they care about nothing else, surely news editors care about that?


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