We often think that we live in a uniquely voyeuristic age. We worry about how children see real killings on their computer and TV screens before they learn to read. We forget that our ancestors routinely watched public executions and, after these came to an end, would often watch animals being slaughtered for meat. We forget, too, how gladiatorial combat and the feeding of Christians to lions absorbed the Romans, to the extent that, by the 4th century AD, the shows in Rome itself took place on 175 days a year. Indeed, looking at medieval art and its depiction of crucifixion and other forms of painful martyrdom, you could argue that our entire culture is built on the contemplation of extreme violence.
That last analogy, between the role once played by religion and art and the one now played by the media, is central to Jean Seaton's erudite and thoughtful book. Seaton is a professor of media history, which is a branch of media studies. Toffee-nosed folk will sneer at such a subject. They are wrong. The media are now as important to our lives as the churches were to our ancestors, and they are just as political. Once, clerics told us what to think about the world; now journalists and TV presenters do the job. Where clerics still have influence, they have to compete with the rival media narrative, which even cabinet ministers are reluctant to challenge.
Seaton sets out to analyse that narrative as it applies to death, war and violence. The nub of her argument is that "there is always an agenda, always partisanship and selection". Violent death has news value, she insists, only if it has political meaning. This is almost true, but not quite. Certainly, crime is now almost wholly poli-ticised. Murdered black youths are killed by racism, murdered children by the authorities' inadequate vigilance against paedophiles. Death in a rail or air crash (but not in a road crash) is always attributable to government or management neglect and, if this isn't obvious, there must be a cover-up. War deaths are of interest only if we can intervene militarily or impose a boycott. But while the Guardian usually sees deaths from hurricanes or floods as evidence of global warming - or, possibly, neglected flood defences - the Daily Telegraph will still present them as old-fashioned acts of God (though I suppose that's political in a way).
In violent conflicts, all parties - governments, armies, rebels, NGOs - compete for ownership of the media narrative. As Mark Laity, the BBC defence correspondent, told Seaton, "targets are set, levels of weaponry are chosen, routes are selected, bombs are detonated and, most critically, armaments are developed" according to how they might play in the media. Nobody any longer admits to waging war for national glory or self-interest; whatever the protagonists' real motives, war has to be justified on grounds of self-defence, justice, compassion and democracy. In this situation, argues Seaton, "journalism acts like a barrister in a legal case, willing to be retained by one side or the other".
Confronted with corpses, therefore, the reporter's first task is to determine their moral meaning. And as his or her role is a quasi-religious one, the reporter should follow established rituals. He should keep his head and upper body still, but may walk slowly and deliberately; his voice should be firm but carry a slight tremor, conveying the impression of deep emotion kept well under control; his clothes should be clean, tidy and orderly (if not exactly priestly, as Martin Bell's white suit was); the bodies should be behind him and preferably framed by ruined or burning buildings. Above all, and this is the most difficult trick to pull off, what we are shown of the dead and how they died should be shocking but not upsetting. Distance matters in every sense. Corpses are more acceptable a few hours after death than when the blood is still fresh or, a day or two later, when the body has started to decompose. (Skeletons, particularly if freshly dug from "mass graves", are in a different category, however.) People in faraway countries may be shown in rows beside a grave waiting to receive them; but any dead westerners are usually in body bags. Some deaths - for example, of the victims of the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center - can be shown a little more explicitly a few days after the event, but as with the Holocaust and Hiroshima, the full details may take half a century to emerge.
These conventions are so familiar that most of the time, we don't even notice them. We forget, for example, that until well into the 1950s the reporter did not exist as an on-screen presence. The media's treatment of war and violence is always evolving: blood appeared on the front pages of the three main British broadsheets only twice in three months in 1980, 11 times in 1990 and more than 20 times in 2000. What the media have not yet developed, argues Seaton - and perhaps are further away than ever from developing - is adequate tools for analysing what are often complex and unique situations. News must be part of a relevant and recognisable "family of stories" and journalists therefore impose on very different wars "a repetitive cycle of moral simplicity".
All this may make Seaton sound cynical and hypercritical. But she is not: she acknowledges that journalists do their best and that many go to great pains to ensure their reports are factually accurate, even when the overall narrative is entirely misconceived. After all, priests weren't perfect. We should not expect too much of their modern successors.