31 Aug 2015

Why there is no equality in death

6:07 pm on 31 August 2015

As I write this, there are two stories dominating the TV screens around me. Well, actually, one.

This is the tragic murder of the journalist and cameraman in Virginia in the US.

It is a shocking story, made all the more dramatic because their deaths were broadcast live on local breakfast television.

WDBJ7 TV reporter Alison Parker, 24, and cameraman Adam Ward, 27

WDBJ7 TV reporter Alison Parker and cameraman Adam Ward were shot during a live broadcast. Photo: AFP/WDBJ7-TV

We have two large TV monitors that are tuned to BBC and Sky, so that we do not miss a big story on our patch.

And yes, though this murder is thousands of miles away, both those screens are dominated by the story: the manhunt, the apparent suicide of the perpetrator.

I must admit I have been following it for the past couple of hours.

I suppose part of it is that it is close to home.

All of us in broadcasting can imagine the same thing happening to us. And secondly, it was the drama of how it happened - right in front of a TV audience.

But the story I have been working on is far worse: the discovery of the bodies of around 50 migrants, in the hold of a boat carrying hundreds from Libya, all hoping for a new life in Europe.

Of the two stories, which got the airplay? Well, of course it was the murders in the US.

And I understand why. Here was a very unusual way to die: from within the TV industry.

Naturally TV workers would be interested and so, I suspect, would many millions more.

And of course, other TV companies could easily follow the unfolding tragedy minute to minute, live.

The technology was there to make it happen and then all that footage was available to be relayed across the world.

Public accustomed to anonymous tragedies

When the Swedish boat rescued the hundreds of survivors and recovered the bodies off the north African coast, there were no live crosses or regular updates.

We have grown used to these sorts of stories. This was 50 dead. We have seen 10 times those numbers die in one boat alone.

Members of the Libyan Red Crescent move the body of a migrant washed ashore on a beach after a boat carrying hundreds of migrants sank off the coast of Zuwarah, Libya.

Members of the Libyan Red Crescent move the body of a migrant washed ashore on a beach after a boat carrying hundreds of migrants sank off the coast of Zuwarah, Libya. Photo: AFP

We have grown used to it, accustomed to ghastly reports of largely anonymous tragedies.

We do not know their names, where they came from, who their loved ones back at home may be.

I remember back in 2002, I was reporting a story for Foreign Correspondent in southern Spain on the flow of migrants across the sea from Morocco to the small Spanish town of Terife.

We were there on a beach as a rubber dingy, overloaded with Moroccans and sub-Saharan Africans, splashed out of the sea and into Europe.

As we chased the police chasing the migrants, we had missed something.

When we returned to the beach, the Red Cross officials were lifting the dead man's body from the sand to the recovery vehicle.

We had initially overlooked the fact this man had died during the crossing.

No-one seemed to know who he was - or appeared to care that much.

After all, his demise was not on live TV and his story all too common to be of interest.

I wondered if his loved ones ever found out what happened to him.

Or are there parents, brothers, sisters in Sierra Leone or Liberia or some other African country, still holding out hope that one day he will return, having lived the dream in the continent of plenty?

Modern news cycle focuses on the 'dramatic', 'attainable'

Giving a name, a background, a past life to someone who has perished humanises and makes it so much easier to capture people's attention and, hopefully, sympathy.

But being able to bring that into everyone's home on live television really ramps up the interest - for better or worse.

The main 6:00pm BBC news did mention the deaths of the migrants, but only as part of a wider migrant story which was broadcast around 20 minutes into the bulletin.

The American TV killings was lead story, although the death toll was 25 times less.

It is the way you die and the accessibility of reporting your demise that dictates where that event sits in the TV and radio bulletins.

And the more publicity, the more people are interested and care.

So if you are nameless and there are no pictures, no grieving relatives, no distraught fiance/es to be seen, then the emotional connection is not made.

And the circumstances of your death - this time attempting to get to Europe in a boat - well, that just merges into all the other anonymous victims of that odious trade in human desperation.

Is it fair? Is it a reasonable ordering of human values? Not really. Is it understandable? In a way, yes.

Technology and 24-hour news have enabled instant reporting for a few years now and those arts demand instant gratification.

And the easiest way to do that is turn to the dramatic and the attainable.

A boat in the Mediterranean, with its cargo of despair and shame, does not fit that mould, and so we can end up caring less about the deaths of 50 than two.

I do not see this changing. But it never rests easily with me.

That old-fashioned sense of the equality of life just does not sit with the inequality of death.

And that matters, because if we are led to feel more about two American reporters than 50 Somali or Syrian or Afghan asylum seekers, surely we have lost something of our basic humanity.