It will be 21 years come April, but I still remember that bright, spring Saturday afternoon in the days before live, televised football, when BBC radio and Grandstand were a sports desk’s nearest thing to a "multimedia" link to the outside world, and when football reporters had to rely on a shared telephone in the press box at grounds.
It was just before three o’clock, and I had arrived in Wapping for my shift on the sports desk at the Sunday Times
when someone called us over to the office’s TV set. Bob Wilson, in the Grandstand studio, looked perplexed, confused, and then they cut away to start showing live pictures from Sheffield and the FA Cup semi-final.
I can’t be certain now, but I am sure I heard the television commentator, distanced from the subject of his cameraman’s pictures, making the same assumption as we did as we saw football fans climbing over barriers and police constables jogging over towards them. This was the bad old days of football, so what were you to expect?
But it did not take long to change our minds, as we saw more pictures, and looked closer, at the solitary, ill-equipped ambulance weaving across the pitch, of the fans with a mate on an advertising hoarding turned into a makeshift stretcher. Something was very wrong.
By 4pm, and what was going to be an FA Cup semi-final sports section was being re-drawn, making way for as many on-the-spot reports, and pictures, that we could get to reflect the real horror of what happened that day at the Leppings Lane end of the Hillsborough Stadium. The face of the young lad, in agony, pressed against the wire fence, hoping someone could get him out of there, is the image that was flashed around the world and stays with me to this day.
As they say, a picture tells a thousand words, and images do remain, seared into a person’s memory, long after the words arranged around them in a newspaper have been recycled into the following day’s chip paper.
Vietnam was the first television war. But it is a photographic still from Trang Bang in 1972, of a small girl, naked, her clothes burnt off her by napalm, her arms outstretched in agony, that has become one of the iconic images of the 20th century.
It is said that because the American public saw the Vietnam war on TV, the US withdrew from the conflict sooner than they might otherwise. Today’s media coverage from Iraq and Afghanistan is much more measured, far more controlled.
It is without doubt that the public outcry in 1989 after seeing the images from Hillsborough, where 96 people died, finally saw action to remove fencing and end the cattle-shed-like facilities endured by football fans.
Four years earlier, 56 fans had been killed in a fire at Bradford City. But that was a match in the Third Division against Lincoln City, so there were fewer press photographers and television cameras present to record what happened, to show the real horrors. The resultant Popplewell Inquiry made important recommendations, but it was the post-Hillsborough Taylor Report that really changed football grounds for the better. Might that also be because the public, through television and newspaper pictures, saw so much more for themselves?
The question is worth considering following Friday’s death of the Georgian luger, Nodar Kumaritashvili.
Today’s instant news access, via television and the internet, has many advantages, but what it no longer affords the media is the luxury of time. Time to review and consider the correct course of action, to make the right judgement.
Should TV stations have shown the footage of Kumaritashvili hurtling out of control, up and over the luge course’s banking? Should newspapers have used the picture, distributed around the world from the AFP news agency, of the deadly moment that the Georgian was thrown off the track? Should insidethegames
have used a picture of paramedics attending the stricken luger?
In an instance such as this, the role of news media organisations, including this website, is profoundly different from sports bodies, such as the International Olympic Committee, which on Friday quickly exercised its almighty copyright claims to deter YouTube from running clips of the horrible accident.
Mark Adams, the IOC spokesman, said they were trying to restrict the footage to "occasions where it is absolutely required as part of a news story. Where there is a need for news to use it is one thing, otherwise this is not a spectator sport". Which sort of begs a question as to why such a self-evidently dangerous sport as luge is on the Olympic programme at all.
But sports bodies such as the IOC do have a duty of care to the athletes and their families and friends. The job of media outlets is to report the news, however uncomfortable that may be to the IOC.
It is a pity that the IOC, and the Vancouver organisers, did not act as promptly, and with similar discretion, in the months before the Games to take precautions to avoid such a tragedy ever happening. When I first saw the pictures in my living room in London, I was astonished that the ever-cautious Canadian organisers could build a luge course with a series of body-breaking steel pillars within reach of an 80 miles per hour icy bend.
If the danger was so obvious to me, why had it not occurred to the course designers and international federation long before they were forced to place a few flimsy crash mats around the pillars, but too late to save Kumaritashvili’s life?
The IOC’s flexing of its copyright muscle did nothing to deter the major TV broadcasters, CBS, Fox and CNN from showing clips, often repeatedly. Even the BBC used stills in its news coverage. One news director in California explained (excused?) his channel’s usage by saying, "We felt we had a fair use argument and the public should see the potential dangers on the track."
And while the North American TV networks, including US Olympic rights-holders NBC, presaged their coverage on Friday night with a warning from their bulletins’ newscasters, they did not escape criticism, as the blogosphere was suddenly abuzz with the news of this previously unheard of competitor, from a country few knew existed, in a sport hardly any had ever previously watched.
"You have ruined my Games by embedding that image into my mind as the first thing I will recall and perhaps the only thing I will recall that occurred in Vancouver at the 2010 Olympic Games," one blogger commented. It took until Sunday, 36 hours after the accident, before NBC confirmed it would no longer run the clip.
The question many raised was whether such graphic pictures would have been shown on network television, in newspapers or on websites if the competitor had been American, Canadian or British.
An American colleague had to explain to one of her friends that, in this case, Kumaritashvili was not from anywhere near Atlanta, but from the former Soviet republic of Georgia. It is probably true that such distancing from the victim of the accident saw some western news outlets less cautious than they might otherwise have been.
For instance, on Saturday, in the Wales v Scotland rugby international in Cardiff, winger Thom Evans suffered serious neck and spinal injuries (pictured) that required emergency surgery overnight. Yet the BBC’s live coverage of the incident, and later news bulletins, did not linger on the bone-crunching tackle, but instead utilised more discreet pictures of Evans being carried from the field on a stretcher.
Perhaps therein lies the balance and judgement required. Images do stay with us - whether it is Dan Marino’s or David Busst’s leg that is being shattered while in footballing in action, or now Kumaritashvili’s final moments, we remember them because we saw them.
We all, also, need to consider whether our own reactions to the use of such pictures might be just a little holier-than-thou, when in fact, we are just as likely to turn and stare at the next motorway accident that we pass on the road.
Earlier this week, the BBC aired a fascinating documentary, fronted by former Olympic athletics champion Michael Johnson, which tried to discover what it was that makes downhill skiers literally risk their necks each time they jump out of the start gate.
Franz Klammer, the 1976 Olympic downhill champion, summed up how he felt when he entered the start hut before a race: "I shit my pants."
There followed 30 minutes of gut-wrenching admissions of fear, interspersed with crash after bone-shredding crash, from Hermann Maier’s cartwheeling catastrophe in Nagano 12 years ago, through every fall suffered by a leading downhiller in the past 20 years. Some of them more than once. This was the epitome of car crash TV.
Johnson’s conclusion at the end of all this is that the very reason we bother watching downhill ski races is because of the intrinsic danger involved. Just as with Formula 1, or luge racing, the reason people watch is because they are waiting to see a crash.
Rob Steen lectures in sports journalism at Brighton University, and he makes the distinction between news coverage and the misuse of stories for more sensationalist reasons. As he points out, avoiding using pictures of an incident is not going to make that event "unhappen".
"Newspapers carry pictures of bleeding and dying people in war zones all the time, so I'm not sure whether broadcasters should be disempowered from doing so, however distasteful it might be," he says.
Steen’s students are told that it is important for all publications to exercise cool, mature judgement in using such pictures, something which often only comes with experience. In many respects, in selecting which pictures to use, and how to use them, the editor’s test must be whether the images they choose will shock or sadden their readers.
If it is the former, utilising someone’s misery and pain crassly to drive sales or traffic, then clearly the wrong choice has been made. It is at times such as this that "exclusives" or being first with the news, counts for very little.
Steven Downes is a sports journalist who has won awards for his writing and investigations, both in print and on television. The co-author, with Duncan Mackay, of the acclaimed athletics book Running Scared, Downes has also edited Athletics Weekly, been swimming correspondent of The Times and for five years was business editor at timesonline.co.uk. He is now secretary of the Sports Journalists' Association of Great Britain