Colonel Gaddafi, the trophy corpse

It's good to show the reality of war, but there's something unsettling about our delight in graphic

The blood-soaked face of a still-warm corpse is the enduring image of the past 24 hours. That the face belonged to a vile tyrant is perhaps one reason why we're not as squeamish about this particular death as we have been about others.

Almost all national newspapers today lead with the photo of a dead man's head. Some crop out the smiling militiamen having their photo taken with the body of Muammar Gaddafi; some news channels have opted out of showing the most bloody footage of all. But the likelihood is that most of us with a passing interest in the news will have seen the corpse at some point. I began to feel a little sickened by its near-constant presence on my screens, and I'm not easily shocked.

As I wrote before about the death of Osama Bin Laden, we live in a 'pics or it didn't happen' era, where we don't trust the word of broadcasters and want to see for ourselves. The worldwide web has opened up a place where there aren't the familiar boundaries and standards there used to be, where punters can readily access material that might once have been deemed unsuitable; and the historic importance of the Gaddafi photos and footage could be considered ample justification for the rather shocking nature of the sights we've seen. It is, after all, what happened.

In one sense, it's good to show the reality of war. Our eyes are often shielded by news broadcasters during those times when 'our boys' get involved in scrapes overseas; the inevitable bloodshed doesn't get transmitted at teatime for fear of upsetting children and adults alike. There are countless graphic images of charred corpses, dangling intestines and splintered scarlet skulls that we don't get to see, which might make us shift on our settees a little and possibly bring home the graphic truth of what happens in the theatre of battle.

Maybe we shouldn't be shielded, and maybe we should be shown. This is, after all, what is happening at the behest of our elected politicians. Maybe we should see how our tax pounds are being spent with every shuddering cadaver oozing life by the roadside or twisted carnage of blood and bone that used to be human beings. It could be that we have a rather sanitised picture of war and its consequences, because we see the flag-draped coffins rather than the broken pieces of flesh inside.

Maybe every time politicians bask in the glory of their 'tough decisions' and 'strong leadership' with regards to successful military intervention, their words should play out over scenes of the lost lives - 'our' troops, as well as those killed by 'our' troops - who paid the biggest price of all. No looking away, no changing the channel; this is how things really are.

Are we ready for that? Well, we're less sensitive than we used to be, in the days when other people used to decide what was too graphic to show us and what wasn't, when the nanny broadcasters had to make choices for us. Now we can set our own boundaries of what's acceptable and what isn't. It's all out there, on the net - videos of executions, suicides, car crashes, murders and assorted accidents, all in jerky pixellated shades of crimson; mortuary slab photos of the famous and infamous; ghoulishly detailed descriptions of death and dying to feed our morbid fascination.

But there's another aspect to the Gaddafi story that doesn't sit as easily with me as the other reasons why news outlets have been happy to splash the blood this time around. There's something primeval almost, something rather unsettling, about the trophy-like nature of Gaddafi's corpse, regardless of how horrific a human being he undoubtedly was, and regardless of the suffering and death he unleashed upon his subjects. Perhaps we are in danger of revelling in this violent act, in delighting in the grisly episode a little too much.

In a week when the Sun has been under fire, in parliament and elsewhere, for what it printed in the aftermath of the Hillsborough disaster, today's front page also looks back in time, to 1988. THAT'S FOR LOCKERBIE, it roars, alongside the now familiar grainy still of Gaddafi's bloodied and battered dead face. It wasn't really for Lockerbie, of course; there are many more reasons why Gaddafi was killed by Libyans than that.

But there's a sense in which the Sun, among many others, is enjoying the kill, sensing the bloodlust and tapping the same old jingoistic responses from its readers. You might cynically wonder if the same newspapers happily printing snuff photos will be pretending to clutch the pearls in a few days' time, worried about children being exposed to sex on TV, or putting asterisks in words it doesn't think its readers should see, for fear of the little lambs being corrupted. Ah, but that will be another day, another time.

There's no doubting that the image of lifeless, humiliated Gaddafi is a powerful one - powerful enough to be used to further all kinds of agendas. Maybe it's those agendas we should be more squeamish about. Dead bodies are just facts.

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
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The toxic new right-wing media will outlast Trump even if he’s impeached

Fox News and a network of smaller outlets have created an alternative version of reality. That ecosystem might prove more durable than the US president. 

An early end to Donald Trump’s presidency looks more feasible than at any time in the 117 days since his inauguration.

The New York Times revealed on Tuesday that FBI director James Comey – who was fired by Trump a week ago – wrote a memo recording the President’s request he “let go” an investigation into links between Michael Flynn, Trump’s pick for national security advisor, and Russia.

Already there is talk of impeachment, not least because the crime Trump is accused of - obstructing justice - is the same one that ended Richard Nixon's presidency.

But with a Republican-controlled Congress the impeachment process would be long and fraught, and is only likely to succeed if public opinion, and particularly the opinion of the Republican voters, swings decisively against Trump.

In another era, the rolling coverage of the president's chaotic, incompetent and potentially corrupt administration might have pushed the needle far enough. But many of those Republican voters will make their decision about whether or not to stick with Trump based not on investigative reporting in the NYT or Washington Post, but based on reading a right-wing media ecosystem filled with distortions, distractions and fabrications.

That ecosystem – which spans new and (relatively) old media - will be going into overdrive to protect a president it helped elect, and who in turn has nourished it with praise and access.

On Monday, BuzzFeed’s Charlie Warzel took a forensic look at how a new breed of hyper-partisan right wing sites – what he calls the "Upside Down media" – tried to undermine and discredit claims that Trump disclosed sensitive security information to Russian officials.

The same tactics can already be seen just 24 hours later. Notorious conspiracist site Infowars talks of “saboteurs” and “turncoats” undermining the administration with leaks, mirroring an email from Trump’s campaign team sent late on Tuesday. Newsmax, another right-leaning sight with links to Trump, attacks the source of the story, asking in its web splash “Why did Comey wait so long?”. GatewayPundit, which published several false stories about Hillary Clinton during the election campaign, appears to have ignored the story altogether. 

As Warzel points out, these new sites work in concert with older media, in particular Rupert Murdoch’s ratings-topping cable news channel Fox News.

Fox initially underplayed the Comey memo’s significance, switching later to projecting the story as a media-led attack on Trump. At the time of publication, the Fox homepage led with a splash headlined: “THE SHOW MUST GO ON Lawmakers vow to focus on Trump agenda despite WH controversies.”

Fox acts as a source of validation for the newly established right-wing sites. Once Fox has covered a story, smaller sites can push further and faster, knowing that they aren't going too far from at least one outlet considered respectable and mainstream. If anything should make the UK value the impartiality rules, however imperfect, which govern its broadcast news, it’s Fox’s central role in enabling this toxic mix of misinformation.

These new media sites have another weapon, however. They understand and exploit the way internet platforms - in particular Facebook - are designed to maximise attention. They have found that playing on very human desires for stories that confirm our biases and trigger emotional responses is the best way to build audiences and win fans, and they have little compulsion abusing that knowledge.

This isn’t just a Trump or Fox-related phenomenon. It’s not even just a right-wing one. In both the US and the UK left-wing hyper-partisan sites with a tenuous relationship with the truth have sprung up. They have followed the same playbook, and in most cases the same advertising-based funding model, which has worked so well for the right. Emotive headlines, spun stories, outright fabrications and an insistence that “the corrupt mainstream media won’t report this” work just as well in generating clicks and shares for both ends of the political spectrum.

The main difference between the two political poles is that the right has benefited from an ideologically and temperamentally suited president, and a facilitator in Fox News. 

Of course the combined efforts of this new media and the Fox-led old may still fail. Trump’s recent transgressions appear so severe that they could break through to even his diehard supporters.

But if Trump does fall, the new right wing media ecosystem is unlikely to fall with him. 

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