We live in a country that vehemently prescribes, promotes and defends the right to a fair trial, as explicitly proclaimed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Article 14 in this declaration begins ‘All persons shall be equal before the courts and tribunals’.
That the British tabloids felt it necessary to report Colonel Gaddafi’s death in such a voyeuristic and offensive manner therefore, is at best distasteful, and at worst an inescapable and fundamental mockery of the rights that we claim to adhere to.
On hearing the news of Gaddafi’s death on 20 October, many may have felt a surge of relief and vindication on behalf of the Libyan people; it marked a symbolic close to a brutal civil war, and more importantly to a forty-two-year long repressive, tyrannical reign by the self-appointed leader.
Those who had followed, however fickly, the escalating violence and fear as the rebels made their way into Gaddafi’s hometown of Sirte, would have been waiting for news such as this to come.
That is not however, to say that it was met with any of the sense of glee that was so overwhelmingly apparent on almost all newspaper front pages. As young people living in Britain, most of us can have no claims to any true understanding of the long-term suffering of the Libyan people. If this is so, then where does our affinity with this sort of furious reportage come from?
Perhaps what the public found most shocking were the photos of Gaddafi’s corpse, varying in degrees from long-shots of his body covered with sheets, to a close-up of the bullet hole in his temple.
Headlines such as the Metro’s ‘A mad dog in life but a cowering rat in his last, brutal moments’ is a sensationalist attempt to reduce an incredibly complex and sinister figure (and all of his actions) into vulgar caricatures.
Similarly, The Sun’s ‘That’s for Lockerbie: And for Yvonne Fletcher. And IRA Semtex victims’, indignantly claims his death as revenge for British tragedies. Is the West so arrogant and hypocritical that we forget our kinship with the leader and claim that it is these events, rather than four decades of dictatorship, that are ‘avenged’?
Notably, The Sun’s article described Gaddafi’s involvement in these events before even explaining fully how he was killed. It seems likely that at least part of the motive behind this is to legitimise our involvement in the civil war by appealing to the prejudices and emotions of the British public. It seems impossible to deny the fact that this was not only in poor taste, but an incredibly irresponsible move by a newspaper that has such a huge influence over its readership (an average 2,821,618 copies sold daily in July 2011).
But of course, this is not an isolated event. It is a continuation of the bizarre culture of delight taken in human death across all the tabloids; Saddam Hussein’s and Osama Bin Laden’s executions the most recent and similar contextually. Aristotle argued that what made us fundamentally different from animals, driven by their instincts and passions, was reason. And reason tells us that Gaddafi, like every other human, had the right to a fair trial.
The fact that this right was taken away by the people he had abused for so long, is something that creates conflicting opinions that I cannot resolve either through my sympathy for the Libyan people or an unfaltering belief in human rights. The fact that the press in this country exhibited almost uniform elation over his ‘humiliating’ and ‘brutal’ murder however, is something I believe we should all be fiercely questioning.