Media: A moment with Marquis

This week's moral maze: a picture hits your desk. It is Diana, Princess of Wales, receiving oxygen at the scene of her fatal car crash. To publish or not to publish, that is the question.

Umberto Brindani, the editor of the Italian magazine Chi, published. Predictably, around the world, but most stridently in the UK, his decision was branded as insensitive, shameful and irresponsible.

Many would agree that it was in poor taste, but since when has taste dictated the editorial content of the media? Taste is a matter of, well, taste - and frankly, for editors, it is not and never has been a priority, nor perhaps should it be.

The ease with which we judge, the sanctimoniousness into which we dive, are not especially attractive aspects of 21st-century humanity. They show us up as priggish, swift to take offence and, it has to be said, astonishingly hypocritical.

For example, all major media, including BBC television news, chose to show the security-camera footage of the unprovoked knife attack in Romford a year ago in which the 20-year-old student Daniel Pollen died. Was that in good taste? Is it sensitive and responsible to show how easy it is to attack someone when they least expect it? Admittedly, the family of the dead man gave permission for the video to be released, but does that make it any more acceptable?

Brindani gave some pretty tasteless excuses for his decision to run the Diana photograph - she didn't look dead but like a "sleeping princess", he said. But maybe he was right in saying the best reason for publishing the picture was that it had not been published before. If he hadn't done it, it would eventually have found its way on to the internet or on to the desk of some other magazine's picture editor. Would it have been as "shameful" if it had come into the public domain that way? Would our tabloids have held back had it been a dying Italian princess?

These are difficult questions and the line between right and wrong (or at least acceptable and unacceptable) is shifting rapidly.

Media have become so omnipresent and so instantaneously available around the world, any form of restraint or self-censorship becomes more and more difficult to uphold.

And yet - think of the furore over the infamous Mohammed cartoons published in a Danish newspaper earlier this year. Never has the need for such editorial wisdom, tact and judgment been greater. Mr Brindani may have scored a short-term coup, but what of his long-term reputation?

simon.marquis@haynet.com.

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