The Press Council has considered whether its Standards of Practice were breached by the publication of a photograph in The Daily Telegraph on 21 August 2014. The headline was “Barbarians behead US journalist in grotesque propaganda clip. PURE EVIL”.
The image occupied much of the front page and showed journalist, James Foley, kneeling in front of a hooded person who had one hand clasped around Mr Foley’s jaw as the other hand brandished a long knife in close proximity to Mr Foley’s throat.
Some other news outlets around the world have published the same image from the video, while others published images showing the knife further away from Mr Foley or, in at least one case, when it had moved closer.
The images came from a video apparently posted on the internet by the group often known as Islamic State on the basis of which it was generally believed, and was stated by the publication, that Mr Foley had been beheaded very shortly after the action shown in the published image.
The Council asked the publication to comment on whether the front-page image breached its Standards of Practice requiring that reasonable steps be taken to “avoid causing substantial offence, distress or prejudice, or a substantial risk to health or safety, unless doing so is sufficiently in the public interest”.
The publication said the image was confronting but was greatly in the public interest to show the “wickedness” and “horror” of the Islamic State’s behaviour and also to “let the world see how horrible wars can be”. It likened the image and its impact on public opinion and policy to a famous image published during the Vietnam War of a young girl running naked after being severely burned by a napalm attack.
The publication also said the image which it chose from the video was before the execution had “formally started” and did not show the actual beheading, and it “stopped short” of images that had been published by some other outlets.
The Council considers that the image was likely to cause substantial offence and distress to a significant number of people. This impact was due largely to the close proximity of the knife to Mr Foley’s neck and thus to what readers might have perceived as the actual beheading.
On the other hand, the Council agrees it is sometimes in the public interest for people to be exposed in a powerful way to realities which they may find upsetting but about which it is important that public opinion is well-informed. This applies especially to behaviour that, as in this case, is of an extreme kind with which they may not already be familiar and which has potentially far-reaching consequences.
The Council considers that the image could well have been published on an inner page without losing its effectiveness. This would have reduced the risk of offence or undue harm to children and others including those who merely saw it in passing. The risk could also have been reduced by choosing, as did many other publications, an image less close to the actual beheading but still powerfully graphic.
On balance, however, the Council has concluded that publication of the image was not a breach of its Standards. This is mainly because there was a very strong justification in the public interest due to the extreme behaviour about which it was reasonable to believe readers should be well-informed.
The Council welcomes the careful consideration in the publication of images of this nature, but emphasises that where the justification is less powerful than in this case, some images may breach its Standards of Practice if published on the front page even though they would not have done so if published less prominently. The particular placement of material is not usually a matter for consideration by the Council but in some cases it may affect whether the Standards have been breached because, for example, it substantially affects the circumstances in which the material is seen, the range of people who see it, or the nature of its impact on them.
Accordingly, the Council has concluded that its Standards of Practice were not breached.
Relevant Council Standards (not required for publication):
This adjudication applies the following Standard of Practice of the Council:
General Principle 6: “Avoid causing or contributing materially to substantial offence, distress or prejudice, or a substantial risk to health or safety, unless doing so is sufficiently in the public interest.”