Moving images

The fascination with mobile phone footage of the London bomb attacks reflects a deeper cultural morbidity.

Jennie Bristow

Topics Science & Tech

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For most Londoners, the abiding memory of last Thursday’s terrorist attacks will not be what we saw, but whom we called. As we sat in our offices waiting for the internet to chug through frustratingly slow news updates, or wandered the streets looking for some way of getting to work, we fell upon our mobile phones, reassuring family, friends and colleagues that we were all right, and eliciting the latest information about what had happened.

It soon emerged that many of those in the heart of the attacks, too, turned to their mobiles. The Guardian reports that the now-famous picture of the ripped-apart bus in Tavistock Square was sent to the BBC website within 45 minutes of the bombing and used on the front page of two national newspapers on Friday. More than 300 emails containing an average of three images and about 30 video clips were sent to the BBC website on Thursday, and some mobile phone footage was on air only 20 minutes after being received by rolling news channels (1). Police have appealed for members of the public to send in their grainy firsthand images of the devastation on the Underground, taken by camera phones and video phones, and more than 250 emails containing footage and photos have been sent to a dedicated Scotland Yard email address (2).

But if mobile phones became our comforters, informants and diaries on that day, the bombings have become a focus for frustration and suspicion. The difficulties that many people had making calls in the immediate aftermath of the bombs, as overloaded networks prioritised emergency calls, was rapidly – and wrongly – attributed by the rumour-mill to the networks having shut down, to prevent terrorists using mobile signals as detonators.

For every parent who was reassured by getting through to their grown-up child after the bombs, there must be several who understood their initial failure to make contact as a sign that their loved one was trapped or injured. And as the people of London show themselves only too willing to share the footage from that day with the police, UK home secretary Charles Clarke is pushing for new ‘anti-terrorism’ powers to compel internet and phone companies to retain their records of traffic on private emails, text messages and mobile phone calls for up to three years (3).

After the attacks, as in everyday life, it seems that we have a love/hate relationship with mobile phone technology. The heightened role played by mobile phones after the bombs was undoubtedly useful: we saw what was going on, when TV cameras and news photographers would have arrived too late; we could communicate with each other, even when stranded between home and work; the police and emergency services will be able to piece together the ‘what happened when’ of the attacks far more quickly and effectively than they might otherwise. On one level, it seems that the only problem regarding mobile phones is that the technology is not yet advanced enough. In the future, we’d hope that victims trapped Underground could make calls, that the networks could deal with more calls at one time, that the images and the sound were better.

But, again as with everyday life, the more ambiguous issue is about how and why our society uses mobile phones. Why, in the midst of a disaster, did so many think to record what was going on – and then send it directly to the media? How does the sheer mass of grainy footage and pictures affect media coverage of a disaster such as this, and the information we receive? Who benefits from what could be seen as a grisly competition to see who can produce the most, and the most striking, images of the dead and dying? And why on Earth has the government’s response been to snatch up phone records that will be, for the most part, meaningless?

In a sense, it is hardly surprising that people on the bombed Tube trains, trapped and unable to do anything, took some images of the disaster just because they could. Many will have distributed these to the media and police because they thought it was a public service to do so, and in some cases they may be right. But the extent of this reveals something about our Reality TV culture that is rather morbid and voyeuristic, too. Two years ago, while on holiday in Venice, my husband and I became caught up in a crowd of people in St Mark’s Square, watching a man committing suicide by jumping off the Campanille: we thought at first it was some kind of entertainment stunt, as everybody had their camcorder to their eye. I was lucky on Thursday, so I do not know what went on in those grim tunnels underground; but I cannot help but wonder if this kind of ghoulishness played a part in it.

We know that, when embroiled in a disaster, people try to help; and if they cannot help they watch. But there is a difference between watching a tragedy and recording it; there is a difference between recording it for yourself and your friends and disseminating it to the world at large. It is almost as if, in order really to feel part of something now, we have to be watching it on telly, and looking for our names in the credits at the end of the show. This is not a reflection on the number of mobile phones about, or the different motivation that individuals might have had in taking the pictures. It reflects a deeper cultural morbidity, reflected and shaped by the media.

The Guardian article on the new trends in media reporting revealed by Thursday’s bombs asks about the ‘citizen reporters’: ‘And what about issues of privacy? Imagine, for example, being one of those injured in the blast, when before tending to your wounds, a fellow passenger looms over your body to snap a close-up picture with his or her mobile phone.’ (4) But such citizen reportage would be scarcely less sensitive than the TV crews with their cameras in the faces of victims and their families, broadcasting traumatised people shaking with fear through the nation’s living rooms.

Many in the UK media have remarked that the use of mobiles in Thursday’s bombing reflected a ‘gear change’ for the media that was in some way ‘revolutionary’, and heralded the birth of the ‘citizen reporter’. Sending in your mobile phone images is now up there with blogging as representing a new wave of media democratisation, where the people produce the news while reporters stand by and marvel. As a description, there is some truth to this – rolling news channels reproduce people’s own footage, while newspapers publish edited extracts from what they think are noteworthy blogs. But while the odd mobile phone image, like that of the Number 30 bus, is clearly newsworthy, the mainstream media’s reliance on the people’s reportage seems to be more a reflection of the media’s problems than the vibrancy and newsworthiness of the ‘citizen reporter’.

For every hour of on-the-scene footage, every page of eyewitness accounts, there is a hole where the analysis should be. While we have been kept constantly up-to-date with press conferences, images of what happened, personal testimonies and commentators’ opinions, we have to wonder what happened to the objective reporters, painstakingly crafting one piece to explain what is going on, or the editors sifting through the mass of information to find the most pertinent. The tendency to publish everything, indiscriminately, all at once is often explained by the advent of the internet and 24-hour news channels, but it’s not so straightforward as that.

The fact that people increasingly rely on the internet to get their up-to-date news means, one would think, that there was a particular role for the print press in providing more considered, analytical coverage. Instead, the impression one gets is that the internet struggles, caught between the desire for speed and the need for accuracy – this was the first big breaking news story since the BBC published new editorial guidelines emphasising that ‘accuracy is more important than speed’, meaning that updates on the BBC website were frustratingly slow. Meanwhile, the print press seems to play catch-up with TV and the internet – archiving what was said, rather than producing a distinctive brand of news. In the political confusion that surrounds events like these today, relentlessly reporting directly on what eyewitnesses saw and say seems to have become a substitute for news analysts knowing what to say themselves.

And what’s with the UK government, in its desire to force mobile companies to keep records of all the texts and calls their customers make? From the point of view of fighting terrorism, this makes little sense. The government was pushing for similar proposals back in May, but the European Parliament’s civil liberties committee rejected them, pointing out that it would generate a mountain of data that would be unsearchable and, if stored, would be ‘equal to 10 stacks of files each reaching from Earth to the moon’. Furthermore, the committee pointed out, it would hardly stop terrorists, who could avoid being traced by using front men to buy telephone cards, by switching between mobile phones from foreign providers, or by using public telephones (5).

But as with previous terrorist attacks, on the USA and on Spain, the UK government does not like to waste the moment by failing to bring in some new law, any law, regardless of the impracticality, just because it can. The role played by new technology in Thursday’s disaster has raised many new issues for discussion, and causes for concern – but we also shouldn’t forget about the more predictable attempts by politicians to turn a disaster into an excuse for regulation.

Read on:

spiked-issue: London bombs

spiked-debate: Mobile society

(1) ‘We had 50 images within an hour’, Guardian, 11 July 2005

(2) CCTV seizures raise hopes of quick identification of suspects, Guardian, 12 July 2005

(3) Clarke wants to track email and phone messages, Guardian, 11 July 2005

(4) ‘We had 50 images within an hour’, Guardian, 11 July 2005

(5) Clarke wants to track email and phone messages, Guardian, 11 July 2005

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Topics Science & Tech


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