Harbour views and violent images

Wendy Rowlings 

On a beautiful clear morning at Walsh Bay the 2013 Sydney Writers’ Festival was in full swing, and fans of the written and reported word gathered for another session of Coffee and Papers with The Sydney Morning Herald.

Guest speaker William Dalrymple, the prominent British writer and historian, outlined his views of the continued war in Afghanistan after the Coalition forces depart, with civil war likely to continue between nomad tribes and the settled farmers – as has always been the case.

“You need to understand anthropology to understand nomad tribal politics,” he said. He described a country so entrenched in this war that security and war-related items form 99 per cent of its national expenditure. Therefore, no infrastructure has been developed for many years.

William Dalrymple

William Dalrymple

However it was difficult to feel the full impact of the futile war in Afghanistan, and the ongoing tensions between Pakistan and India, while gazing at Sydney Harbour on a beautiful clear day.

Yet the crowd was completely focused on the discussion, which was facilitated by Sherrill Nixon, director of the SMH newsroom. And when a compelling question was asked about how editors make decisions about the portrayal of violent and gory images in our newspapers and online, there followed some interesting discussion.

Herald foreign correspondent Matt Wade was quick to point out that our tolerance of violent and graphic images and stories may be dictated by our exposure to these types of events so that the “stories and images fit with our cultural norms.”
Judith Whelan, Saturday editor of the SMH described her decision-making generally as “knowing our readers’ taste”, which can sometimes be inaccurate and result in complaints. Referring to the images available for the recent “hacking death” in London of a solider as horrific, she said that editors consider what is already out there, and sometimes “the horror needs to symbolise the story.”

Sherrill Nixon

Sherrill Nixon

Possibly less reassuring to anyone in the audience who appreciates the growth and impact of online news, was when Whelan described how deadlines do impact decisions about appropriateness of images and stories, especially in the online space. Print editors, on the other hand, have the luxury of time to think about these things.

Judith made an interesting final point, about the way in which Australian newspapers provide analysis on world events for us before we read it because of our geographical distance from the rest of the world. “Our newspapers provide perspective on the news for us while we have been asleep” she said.