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Wednesday, June 15, 2011 

If it bleeds, it sometimes leads.


The old media adage goes "that if it bleeds, it leads". Of course, this is far too simplistic: it depends on who it is bleeding. Any overseas catastrophe that wouldn't normally merit front page treatment instantly takes on a new resonance if a British person or three were among those caught up in the tragedy. Also helpful is skin colour and perceived shared values: at some point it was decided that disasters or crime in America are far more important and of interest than similar events in Europe, even if we're much closer in proximity to floods in Germany or a school shooting in the Netherlands than we are to tornadoes in Missouri or a massacre at a mall in Utah.

Something similar has been going on this week. On Monday the BBC broadcast Terry Pratchett's Choosing to Die documentary, which followed Peter Smedley as he travelled to the Dignitas clinic in Switzerland to end his life. Having been flagged up weeks in advance, and coming shortly after The Human Body showed a man in the final stages of cancer dying, the programme attracted plenty of media attention, despite it hardly being the first time that documentary makers have followed those determined to end their suffering travel abroad to do so. The Daily Mail, learning the lesson of its coverage of the X Factor final, has just the seven screen grabs of Smedley's last moments in its piece describing the outrage at the BBC resorting to such "voyeuristic entertainment".

If showing a man with motor neurone disease carry out his wish to die at the moment of his own choosing is still too much for a section of the British public to countenance, with campaigners claiming that the BBC is in effect "cheerleading for assisted suicide" through its continued interest in the subject, then you'd expect that Channel 4's Sri Lanka's Killing Fields would come under similar or even greater scrutiny. Shown last night at 11:00pm, even advance warning that the documentary was being confined to such a slot due to it containing "the most horrific footage" the station has ever broadcast failed to garner much in the way of attention.

While that potentially sensationalist claim is debatable, certainly anyone flicking channels who caught the grainy mobile phone footage of three blindfolded men being executed out of the wider context of Jon Snow's narration couldn't have failed to have been alarmed or shocked, as the warnings given by the announcer before each part suggested viewers might be. The end game of Sri Lanka's bloody civil conflict was at the time not given much in the way of wider coverage, certainly nothing even approaching that which has been dedicated to the uprisings and repression across the Arab world this year. For those who have tried to share the blame out equally between the Tamil Tigers, who unquestionably had long used civilians as human shields and recruited child soldiers, and the Sri Lankan government, which regarded the supposed "no-fire zone" as the exact opposite, the programme was unrelenting in its exposure of the realities of near constant shelling.

Having followed the murderous depravity of sections of the insurgency in Iraq, where groups posted videos online of the execution of captured police and soldiers with depressing regularity, you still can't possibly get used to sight of those about to be killed kneeling, waiting for the bullet in the back of the head. The jihadists rarely killed women though, or if they did they certainly didn't record it, the odd exception aside. The images Channel 4 managed to obtain, shot by the soldiers themselves, show numerous dead women either naked or with their clothes torn open, the clear implication being that they had at the least been sexually assaulted or interfered with before or after their deaths. As the soldiers carried the dead bodies onto a truck, one remarked that the woman he was carrying had "the best figure", while in another scene one declared that he'd like to "cut the tits off" one of the dead, "if no one was around". Other photographs suggest that the alleged practice of murdering those who surrendered unconditionally, as admitted by General Fonseka before he later retracted it, more than has a foundation in truth.

Quite why such prima facie evidence of potential war crimes has passed by with so little adverse comment is difficult to properly ascertain. Apart from the few who tried to portray the Sri Lankan victory over the Tamil Tigers as a model either the West or Israel could follow in taking the fight to terrorist groups, no one had any great doubts that the last few weeks of the conflict had seen massive loss of life. With the report by a panel for the UN secretary-general concluding that the "conduct of the war represented a grave assault on the entire regime of international law designed to protect individual dignity during both war and peace", there's just as much a case for the indictment of the Sri Lankan president Mahinda Rajapaksa at the International Criminal Court as there is for that of Colonel Gaddafi.

Our government may well have no stomach for another battle they'll conclude they can't possibly win, but that certainly doesn't excuse the almost complete silence of our wider media to draw further attention to Channel 4's investigation. Here was all the material they could possibly have needed to create an outcry against the leadership of a nation that has not only lied ruthlessly, but revelled in the blood it spilt. Two years ago though is already ancient history, and there's far more pressing issues here at home to attend to. The Libyans and Syrians will have to hope our collective attention span somehow manages to improve, and fast.

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