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.
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London