Football spectators around the world watched in horror as 29-year-old Danish footballer Christian Eriksen lay prone on the field in cardiac arrest, his teammates running to his aid. Cameras focused in and lingered, framing the player as he received chest compressions, his life hanging in the balance.
As medical staff delivered CPR, the camera – aerial shots and close-ups – continued to linger. When Eriksen’s teammates formed a protective circle around him, the cameras moved on to his visibly distressed partner, showing close-ups of her crying. And so it went on until finally, a full quarter of an hour later, coverage returned to commentators in the studio.
This dramatic scene was the reality of the Denmark-Finland Euros 2020 match, but according to many critics, it might as well have been a detective drama or reality police show. “CUT TO THE STUDIO!” tweeted former footballer and analyst Ian Wright, speaking for many.
From an ethical point of view, this situation raises one simple question: Why did broadcasters show these prolonged, distressing images? The answer is far less simple, and may be an unpalatable one to digest.
Responding to complaints, the BBC, who were streaming the match in Britain, apologised for showing the the upsetting images, but placed the blame on host broadcaster UEFA.
While it is certainly true that UEFA was responsible for the content of the broadcast, this sidesteps the issue that the BBC and other networks could have cut the feed and returned to the studio earlier.
Could it be that the people making the key broadcasting decisions, whether that was UEFA as the provider, or the BBC as the UK rights holder, decided to stay with the on-field images for 15 minutes because they knew it made fascinating television? Was this therefore just another instance of “giving the people what they want”? At this time there is no data or empirical evidence to indicate that, despite the outcry, millions turned off their television sets in protest at what was being beamed into their living rooms.
Public interest v interested public
This case highlights one of the key journalistic ethical dilemmas. The concept of “public interest” has been a longstanding defence of publishing or broadcasting controversial material which many think should not be in the public domain. Something being “in the public interest” can be prioritised over editorial codes and guidelines which are in place to protect people.
Such guidelines apply to areas such as privacy and intrusion into grief, both of which are obviously pertinent to the Eriksen situation.
The BBC is legally obliged to adhere to the Ofcom (Office of Communications) regulatory set of codes, which includes sections on privacy as well as harm and offence. The former section sets out to “ensure that broadcasters avoid any unwarranted infringement of privacy”, and clarifies: “Broadcasters should not take or broadcast footage … of people caught up in emergencies, victims of accidents or those suffering a personal tragedy, even in a public place … unless it is warranted”.
It is that final word that makes this such an interesting ethical dilemma. The broadcasting code goes into detail about how it defines “warranted”, stating that an invasion of privacy is warranted if the broadcaster can demonstrate it is “in the public interest”.
As uncomfortable as some people may find the fact, a section of the viewing public were interested and certainly did not switch off (and of course, it is surely fair to suggest that many of those who complained continued to watch). So, accepting that the images originated with UEFA, could we make the claim that the BBC was giving the people what they wanted? Is this an inconvenient truth in the field of journalistic ethics?
Just as many people slow down to look at a car crash, is the outcry at the BBC’s coverage formed out of a hypocritical position and if so, how do regulatory bodies such as Ofcom legislate for such a situation?
As is so often the case, this case falls within a grey area of the regulatory codes and will inevitably lead to calls for the codes to be tightened, rewritten or even for a new clause to be added. While this is understandable, there is often a reluctance to amend codes relating to privacy for the fear of negative consequences such as a reduction in the press’s ability to use the public interest defence to shine a light into society’s dark corners.
Ethically, there is a key distinction to be made between, on the one hand, what public interest actually means in practice (exposing wrongdoing, holding the powerful to account), and on the other, what interests the public.
The coverage of Christian Eriksen offended many – and the BBC quickly offered an apology – but the decision to continue with the broadcast, and the way cameras focused in with voyeuristic intensity, raises a rather unpalatable truth: broadcasters may well be providing what at least some of us want.