A global abomination: Woolwich and the politics of violent images

Uncensored pictures of the Woolwich murder were quickly beamed around the world - what does research say about the use of violent imagery in mass media? EPA/Facundo Arrizabalaga

Even in a city with London’s savage history, the Woolwich murder is especially distressing. A man has been horrifically and wilfully murdered in public. Footage of this appalling crime has spread through global media outlets. The world has seen one of the suspects, cleaver in his bloodied hand.

What has happened is clear. Why it happened, and what the murder means for British society, is another matter. Social media users have acted quickly to frame the event. British National Party chairman Nick Griffin immediately turned to Twitter to relate the attack to his anti-immigration agenda.

Journalist Laurie Penny used the same platform to warn of “ugly racism and Islamophobia”. At this time, when so little is known, it’s worth noting that images of the crime are not neutral - they will play an active part in deciding what the Woolwich murder means - and what is done about it.

The images we are all consuming with disgust are doing more than just showing us something horrible. There’s a political twist on the old adage about pictures being worth a thousand words. In the 1950s, semiotician Roland Barthes explained how a simple image of a black soldier saluting the French flag, on the cover of the Paris Match magazine, conveyed a complicated apology for French Imperialism. At a time when France’s colonial investments were a matter of intense political debate, the picture was hardly disinterested.

In the immediate attempts to connect Woolwich with particular positions on British multiculturalism, we see the same ideological struggle coming into play. Behind the simple truth, here’s a man saluting a flag, here’s a man holding a bloody cleaver: different camps are jockeying to secure the significance of the visuals.

Academics have long regarded media violence as a political narrative. Hungarian-American social scientist George Gerbner famously argued that television violence was really a story about society: who’s good, who’s bad, and what we need to keep us safe. Importantly, he also argued that particular stories about violence matter most when we relate them to other images and stories. The meaning of Woolwich won’t just depend on the images of the crime itself. It will also depend on how news audiences recall other stories about violence when making sense of this one.

The point in all of this is that instant global access to the murder as it happened is paradoxically and inevitably obfuscating. The real-time mediation of Woolwich demonstrates how media exert their own reality effect, shaping the very events they set out to cover.

Early reports show how witnesses were shocked not only at the ferocity of the rampage, but also at the suspects’ apparent desire to be filmed and photographed “as if they wanted to be on TV or something”. The idea that images are not neutral is enhanced by the possibility that the crime was committed in the expectation of a global audience. This expectation puts the focus on how eyewitness media footage is framed and distributed by news outlets.

Research on school shootings helps explain what this might mean. This work emphasises that media affect how real violence works as a symbolic phenomenon. There is a “performative” aspect to this particular form of mass murder. According to their own posthumous accounts, shooters are often acting out their rage against people and society. The promise, and even the certainty of media notoriety lends a distinct shape to their actions. Cho-Seung Hui, for example, stopped in the middle of the Virginia Tech murders to film a monologue, which he then delivered to NBC. When it comes to school shootings, the crime and the media event are often hard to separate.

This creates an ethical dilemma for the media outlets that process images of real violence. Research on school shootings in Germany is insightful on this issue. First, public murders produce thousands of images that can be used to tell completely different stories. School shootings produce a wealth of visual data about murderers, victims and crime scenes. The German experience shows how different news organisations and platforms use the same stock in different ways. There, the tabloid press are more likely to concentrate on images of the murderers, whereas the broadsheets tend to stick to crime scenes.

The question is, do these different editorial styles have “reality effects”? One fear is that mediated public murders offer a perverse promise of celebrity. This punctures any sense that instant news simply tells us what the world is like.

At the same time, the question of whether images of murderers encourage copycats is less important than is the matter of how media violence works as a source of political capital. It is to be hoped that Woolwich does not become simply fodder in debates over other issues. Here, the responsible handling of images will be key. Images don’t just show us the world. In significant ways, they make it.