2011 was undoubtedly an incredible year for news as uprisings spread across Egypt, Tunisia, Syria, Libya and London. Now the dramatic uprisings of the last 12 months are the subject of a new exhibition. I went along to check out the opening day of Frontline: A Year of Journalism and Conflict.
Perhaps not surprisingly, given that it’s sponsored by Sky News HD, Frontline declares video to be the most important medium for breaking news in 2011. And while I would have liked a little less Murdoch PR and a little more Paul Lewis, it’s hard to argue with some of the examples they’ve chosen.
Innovative and mobile technology is well represented. The section on the London riots showcases footage grabbed by reporter Mark Stone on his mobile phone. Meanwhile, Alex Crawford’s team used a mini satellite dish charged by a car cigarette lighter to beam live footage from Libya to London.
In keeping with the focus on new technologies, the exhibition uses iPads to allow visitors to access timelines and extra video. However, I’d have like to have seen this interactive element used to its full advantage. Why aren’t they linked up to #jan25 Twitter feeds or a Sky News Storify, for example?
I came away from the exhibition a total fangirl for Alex Crawford. Shes a true female #journorolemodel, the only woman on the scene when her crew joined a rebel convoy on the way to Tripoli. Her brave Sky News report on the Zawiyah massacre was some of the first evidence to the West that Gaddafi was killing his own people.
She has been branded a “death vulture” by some critics but I found her coverage remarkably sensitive. The scenes shot in a makeshift hospital are a frenzied montage of bloody chaos with minimal narration from Crawford. There is no analysis, no attempt to make sense of the destruction of bodies. This seems, in a curious way, the most brave, honest and respectful decision. As the wounded hold out their injuries for the camera to record, she is simply there to bear witness.
The controversial video and photos of Gaddafi’s corpse are the only images of death that this exhibition attempts to explain. A short documentary called ‘The Last Days of a Dictator’ plays in a separate room which bears a warning for sensitive visitors. It’s a stark contrast to, for example, the Sun’s front page at the time, which splashed the gruesome picture of his corpse with the headline “That’s for Lockerbie”.
Journalists on the documentary make their case for using the footage, arguing that war isn’t sanitised and neat and the public shouldn’t be hidden from that reality. But the most compelling argument is that the corpse was the news. Documenting its destruction was central to the Libyan people’s understanding of their own conflict. The body was later put on display and crowds of Libyans queued up to photograph it on their mobile phones.
Besides the Gaddafi film, the exhibition makes little attempt to contextualise or analyse the events of 2011. The iPad timelines and brief explanations next to each photo are no more illuminating than the Twitter feeds that informsed us of the unfolding events of 2011, while we struggled with the lack of time to understand and digest.
Yet somehow, set in the dark, tomblike bowels of Somerset House, the footage has a deeper resonance. We still cannot completely understand the impact of these uprisings, nor predict their long-term consequences, for citizens or for journalists. But the exhibition allows us time and space to consider images which, at the time, flooded our screens without pause.
Any aspiring war correspondents should make every effort to see Frontline and pay particular attention to the “behind the scenes” videos which reveal the “balancing act” between getting the best coverage and keeping journalists as safe as possible. And any journalist depressed by the findings of the Leveson inquiry will emerge from Somerset House with a revitalised sense of purpose.
FRONTLINE: A Year of Journalism and Conflict is at Somerset House from 12 January to 5 February. Admission is free.
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