From Northern Ireland to the US, from 1968 to today, the camera is a powerful catalyst for change

The  horrific  image  of policemen in Minneapolis  caught in the act of slowly  choking  George Floyd to death  has prompted the thought :  how  different would have been the course of the Troubles if  they’d been waged under the eyes of  24/7  live news coverage and video cameras with sound on mobile phones?    Would a whole race of citizen journalists,  citizen terrorists and citizen security forces have been created  all videoing each other like crazy? Might violence amounting  to civil war  have spread like wildflre?  Would searing  pictures have acted a deterrent against some of the worst excesses or as recruiting sergeants after Bloody Sunday?  Furious blame games and whataboutery would have  been the norm as every day’s outrage was drowned out by the next day’s atrocity until perhaps case hardened  to the point of exhaustion – and maybe to earlier resolution.

From the early 1970s the broadcasters’ case for  showing running events (although never live in those days of film before live video), was that we were or tried to be arbiters for truth against lies and the ravages of the grapevine.  I remember days of evidence at the Scarman inquiry of 1970 into an attack on children at Unity Flats ( a 1960s  Catholic enclave  at the bottom of the Shankill, long gone)  that never happened.

The limitations of the evidence before the camera’s  eyes  were actually severe. The camera didn’t lie but the bigger truth could  have been round the corner.    As time progressed most killings  were sudden or silent  ambushes, captured only as aftermath.

As  the Troubles seemed never ending I began to imagine them as  a sort of Truman Show, in  which what appeared to be real life action was an illusion, in  the form of a  gigantic scripted fiction filmed in an enormous  plastic bubble off shore in real time, for the entertainment of millions of reality TV  fans.

And yet  the power of the image is as potent as ever.  The  roar of pain captured by an RTE cameraman as the police commander in Derry jammed  his  blackthorn into  Pat Douglas’s groin in Duke St on 5 October 1968, can be seen as  the  moment  of ignition from  grievance into protest and thence  to a cycle of violence that lasted 30 years.

Of one thing I’m sure.  Journalists would have come under constant attack as the rhythm of the Troubles took hold. In those simpler days  they were not  identifiable from their flak jackets screaming “press.”

Extreme law and order  zealots argue that the presence of camera incites violence. This is  hard to refute after a line is crossed and protest escalates into attack. The  defence is that the camera  should not be raised until the incident is well under way. But that has nothing to do with the looting and burning when the camera takes on the same role as CCTV as an incriminator.

In the last few days when protest has swept through 49 American cities,  the camera has been a powerful force for change  in ways not always intended  by the actor.  It captured what may turn out to be the defining image of Donald Trump posing  grotesquely as Law’n Orderman  and brandishing a Bible outside the “President’s Church” near the White House. It has surely temporised the conduct of the police and National Guard by exposing further acts of unprovoked violence and those occasions when they  bowed the knee and laid down their shields  in solidarity with  the demonstrators. Images like these remind me of the power of the Shah of Iran draining away before our eyes in 1979. The same may be happening to Trump today.

The United States is sorely divided but full blown revolution requiring military intervention is not an issue.  Society knows it’s really in trouble when violence happens suddenly with no incidental witnesses or cameras immediately on hand.  That is called terrorism and it is thankfully absent from the current mix, despite the pervasive presence of guns and the underlying throb of violence in American life today.