Former national newspaper reporter Bethany Usher, now an academic at Newcastle University, argues it is time to rethink how crime news is produced and circulated.
It has been difficult to avoid the harrowing cries and tortured face of six-year-old Arthur Labinjo Hughes as captured in video and audio.
From local newspapers – even ones far geographically removed from where Arthur lived and died – to national tabloids and cheaply produced clickbait news sites, the footage was everywhere. I came across it unexpectedly when in “today’s news” a still image of Arthur’s anguished face suddenly appeared, taken from a video filmed in the hours leading to his death. Above it a headline offered the chance to “Watch” the “heartbreaking footage”.
I did not click. But as the mother of a little boy of the same age, size and hair colour, the image will be forever burned onto my brain.
It is hard to understand why West Midlands Police released this content, although sadly, it is all too easy to understand why so many news organisations seized upon it. The truth is such shocking footage is likely to get clicks and while digital editors might try to justify to themselves that there is a public interest, was that the main reason it was used?
Update (30/21/2021): A spokesperson for West Midland Police said:
“Along with all police forces, we comply with the Crown Prosecution Service protocol around the media’s access to prosecution material. The protocol was brought in to ensure greater openness in the reporting of criminal proceedings.
“Throughout the trial into Arthur’s death, we were approached by media to release imagery of which there were thousands of hours of CCTV. We tried to balance the requests in line with the protocol while still being respectful and sensitive to Arthur’s family.
“We decided not to proactively release any of the material on our own channels due to the distressing nature of the content.”
Court reporting is about ensuring open justice and there is nothing to be gained for that in encouraging audiences to watch and listen to Arthur’s suffering. Explaining that such video and audio files were submitted in evidence would be enough, as newspapers did in relation to the recordings of the cries of children murdered by Myra Hindley and Ian Brady in the Moor Murders trials of the 1960s.
On mainstream news websites, Arthur’s desperate cries and tortured face sat alongside adverts ranging from local garden centres to Black Friday sales. As he begged for help and struggled to walk, he could never have imagined that not only did “no one love him”, but that his abuse would become a means for news organisations to make money.
As clicks climb, ethics seemingly descend
The use of human suffering as clickbait is growing, particularly when there is video footage because the returns are ever more immediate. Journalists are praised for stories that have the greatest clicks and screens in newsrooms highlight the most popular of the day. Advertising teams use these stats to sell space.
Crime news has, of course, always been sensational. It relies on fixed position-taking of “right” and “wrong”, narratives of “judges, juries and executioners”, powerful representations of in-group and outcast and is intertwined with the systems of law and politics which govern democratic societies. It ties into our emotions and lived experiences and offers space for us to safely explore the darkest parameters of society. It also reflects back on us our social position and worth.
And the use of evocative images of violent crime to sell publications is nothing new either. Indeed this is the oldest sustained genre of news media and from an origin in broadsheet ballads and pamphlets of the late 1500s to the current day it has been commercially successful.
Early “murther” pamphlets accounted in detail the “shreeks” and “screams” of victims of “bloudie” and “barbarous” crimes and often even included illustrations of their deaths. When we look to these accounts from long ago, which at first glance often seem frivolous and ephemeral, it is important to remember that these too were about real people, killed in the most horrific circumstances.
Such pamphlets were also the earliest means by which ordinary people – perpetrator and victim alike – might be made famous. Rituals of notoriety went on to shape celebrity culture, with some celebrity criminals made hugely famous by multiple biographical pamphlets, “true crime” dramatisations on theatre stages and even in mass-printed portraits.
By the 18th century this was mass popular culture where people even paid to visit killers in their jail cells and to watch their execution from grandstands with refreshment. Newspapers campaigned not only for arrest and detection, but also for leniency for some of the most famous. Dark urges towards voyeurism and even interaction have always been what made crime journalism popular.
Clickbait fuelling human suffering
But with greater opportunities to find and circulate live footage of the suffering of victims and the acts of criminals than ever before, comes greater responsibility. We must consider how such dynamics will shape what journalism might be in the future.
The early signs are that many news organisations are blundering into use without thinking through the consequences. For example, several newspapers unwittingly played right into the hands of the jihadists who built “Brand Isis” when they used the nicknames of the “Jihadi Beatles” and took still images from videos where they murdered innocent aid workers and journalists and put them on their front pages. In doing so they helped to make these terrorists globally famous with seemingly little consideration of the risks of glorification. It was simply too good a story to miss.
Social media accounts of both criminals and victims alike also offer greater opportunities to mine for content, lift videos and make both famous. Indeed, there are cases of killers posting barbarous acts specifically to attract the attention of mainstream news and media organisations.
The popular Netfix documentary Don’t F**k With Cats reused videos that murderer Luke Magnotta posted online of killing animals and then murdering and abusing the corpse of 33-year-old computing student Lin Jun. They also featured on many news websites, albeit with the most graphic moments blurred out. For Magnotta – who desired fame above all – his crimes were therefore rewarded just as he wished.
It is now time for a rethink. Journalists and editors should ask themselves a simple question – what is the benefit of using this content and for whom?
The truth is that the only benefit of using little Arthur Labinjo Hughes’ suffering was commercial. It cannot help Arthur. It does not make it less likely that another child will be abused. It does not aid justice and indeed given much of this material was released before the verdict, there is an argument it could even prevent it. Lawyers could argue that the defendants could not get a fair trial because of comments beneath the news stories which are in clear contempt of court.
Most of all it shows little care for a beautiful boy who was already cared for too little and no amount of insertion of emotive adjectives such as “horrific” or “heartbreaking” can mask that. While exposing the harrowing plight of children like Arthur is undoubtedly in the public interest, such footage is not. We might ask ourselves what other videos of child abuse, or murder or terror might be considered newsworthy next, simply because audiences are likely to click on it? How far will this go? And when will be the moment when we step back?
Dr Bethany Usher is the author of Journalism and Celebrity which examines the relationship between the two from their origins in the 18th century to the current day. In lieu of a fee for this piece Press Gazette has made a donation to the NSPCC in memory of Arthur Labinjo Hughes.