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The pros and cons of publishing picture from execution video

Condemnation of the Guardian’s decision to print a still from the unnocficial video of Saddam Hussein’s execution was very close to unanimous among the 200 readers who contacted the paper, Ian Mayes, the readers’ editor, says in today’s paper.

Among journalists on the paper and the website there was a very small majority against its use. Mayes says the decision to publish the picture on the front page was taken by the the deputy editor, who was on duty that day. He consulted Alan Rusbridger, the editor.

Rusbridger has written to all those who complained. His letter starts:

We thought long and hard about the use of the picture. Few would argue that the quasi-judicial execution of a former head of state was an insignificant event. Saddam was one of the most controversial political leaders of the past 50 years. Billions of dollars and thousands of lives have been expended in bringing about his downfall. Our own government has been in the forefront of seeking this outcome. The circumstances of Saddam’s trial and hanging may prove to be of great consequence within the region and beyond. So we were satisfied that this was a news event of considerable importance.

A further factor in our decision was the misleading impression of the execution which had been conveyed by the original “official” silent video released within minutes of Saddam’s death. The subsequent mobile phone footage – shot from a different angle and with the sound of cursing, chanting and jostling observers – gave an entirely different impression of the occasion. It was, in my view, right to give some prominence to this unvarnished version of events. Both the British and American governments have subsequently distanced themselves from the manner of the execution and the Iraqi authorities have launched their own inquiry into the footage from which our still picture was taken.

Mayes’s conclusion is that it was a time to “take readers into your confidence” and that there should have been an editorial note at the time of the presentation explaining the decision.

A lot of people have commented on the reader’s editor’s explanation and by this afternoon there was a fairly even balance among those who think the paper was right to publish the picture and those who feel it was wrong.

Over at the Independent, Stephen Glover, their media commentator, says: “Those editors who showed restraint were right.”

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