Rough scenes on Rough Justice - are pictures of the dying taboo?

The BBC is going ahead and screening it episode of Rough Justice that shows shocking CCTV footage of 37 year old Christopher Alder dying on the floor of a police station.

The former paratrooper had become aggressive while receiving treatment for injuries caused by a fight outside a nightclub. Police removed him from hospital and took him to Queens Garden police station in Hull where they proceeded to stand by and accuse him of play-acting while he sprawled on the floor suffering a heart attack. The footage shows his 11 minutes of distress and he was left on the same floor with no medical assistance for a further 8 hours before finally being checked over and pronounced dead.

No surprise that the police were not going to release the pictures but having obtained them elsewhere and received backing from Mr Alder's family who were left outraged and disgusted by what they saw, the BBC decided to show them.

An inquest cleared the police of wrongdoing but failed to answer key questions as to how Alder's condition had rapidly deteriorated in police custody and why the police van and clothing were cleaned before anything potentially incriminating could be found.

Aside from the theme of the programme - namely investigating deaths, especially of black people, in police custody - the decision to show Alder's death carries its own controversy. Media normally don't publish or broadcast pictures of people dying - the Mirror attracted record level of complaints to the PCC when it front-paged Marc-Viven-Foe being stretchered off the pitch in France after suffering a fatal collapse. The BBC also attracted complaints after showing pictures of murdered british soldiers in Iraq.

While we are presented with plentiful pictures of war and death on our screens and in our papers, there seems to be a taboo about showing anything too real or too close to home. In this case Alder's family wanted the pictures to be shown to let the public see how shocking they were but this will not always be the case.

It presents an increasingly difficult question for editors over the limits of what to show. The public has a right to know and should be told about miscarriages of justice or the true extent of war but do they need the pictures to go with it? In this case the answer was yes and the BBC were right to screen the CCTV pictures. Where relatives don't give their consent and are likely to be seriously upset then a finer balance needs to be struck such that the upset caused to family can be justified by a compelling need for the public to be informed. Arguably, when it came to the pictures of war the BBC's judgement was less astute.

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