The passage of time has not lessened what happened that bright, May morning; it is forever bloody and raw. A British soldier, killed on British soil. It was for many an act of terrorism.
In December, Michael Adebolajo and Michael Adebowale, two radicalised young Muslim men, were convicted of killing the 25-year-old near Woolwich barracks. The court heard – in disturbing detail – how they had knocked him over, dragged his body into the road and tried to decapitate him with a meat cleaver. The jury already knew most of this and so did we; we had watched it unfold on television. Adebolajo had demanded that stunned passers-by film the attack on their mobile phones.
And so that is why Lee Rigby’s murder runs in the mind like a nightmare on constant loop. We saw his crumpled body lying on the road. We watched an armed, blood-soaked man preach hate and Jihad. It was witnessed by the public, filmed by the public and consumed by the public. The BBC, Sky, ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5 all used the material. It was breaking news – a grim sort of death on demand.
A total of 680 viewers complained to the broadcasting watchdog, Ofcom. Many more must have found the footage distressing and graphic and disrespectful to Lee Rigby’s family (we later learned how his mother had unwittingly watched the live coverage from her work canteen). Yet despite the nature of the material, despite the complaints and the angry disgust, Ofcom has ruled that it did not breach broadcasting guidelines and was “justified by the context”.
As someone who has spent most of their working life in television news I, rather predictably, think Ofcom is right. It would have been wrong to penalise broadcasters for using material which had already been widely distributed elsewhere. The murder of Lee Rigby was also significant: it was a terrible first; there were deeper and wider implications for society. The brutality and sheer madness of what had happened needed to be recognised. Viewers were also warned; something that Ofcom rightly took into consideration.
And yet, I am uneasy. While writing this column I viewed a number of television reports covering the trial and the verdict. The detail is still as awful, only now the more shocking images have been pixilated. The bloody weapon and the lifeless body have been blurred, deemed too upsetting to remain on repeat. The fact that it took broadcasters so long to reach this point is telling: we are pushing the boundaries of what is acceptable further and further.
This is partly down to the immediacy of live, rolling news – the race to be first, to have the latest and “best” pictures. At times of crisis viewers demand nothing less. They are consumers who can just as easily go elsewhere. Editors and producers are merely feeding the machine. You may prefer to think of it as a beast, but it demands to be fed nevertheless.
Some newspapers made a deliberate decision not to publish the most upsetting images of the Lee Rigby murder. Readers were not spared the details, only some of the more shocking pictures. This is where newspapers have the advantage; they have time to digest what has happened in a way that broadcasters simply can’t. In this regard, TV is sometimes left behind. What is right at the time isn’t always right the following day or the day after that.
Of course there are still rules – strict rules – and broadcasters take great care. Pictures of bomb blasts and explosions and accidents are still edited. News feeds are examined for limbs and lifeless bodies. Warnings are given. Only now, anyone with a mobile phone is a journalist and for broadcasters this means some of the old filters have been removed. In the race to keep up, the rules are bent to breaking point. It is both sad and deeply worrying – another layer of humanity has somehow been stripped away. All we can do is try to remember the image of Lee Rigby, the smiling soldier in scarlet, not the body in the road.