Wednesday, 10 January 2007

'Happy hanging': Saddam and the mobile phone

Undoubtedly the biggest new media story of the new year has been the mobile phone footage of Saddam Husssein's execution.

The Iraqi government released an 'official' video that was silent, heavily edited and ended before his death (see the BBC: ) But within days unedited mobile phone footage was released, with sound, showing the abuse and taunts he received and also showing his death (see: and )
And new unofficial video of his body in the morgue was also posted online (9th Jan: )

I'm not sure the events need any more commentary but it's a remarkable - and historic - example of the power of new media and especially of how the era of official, managed and edited, top-down news decided for us by Governments, businesses or media industries etc. is over: now one person with a phone potentially has as much broadcasting power as any media corporation. The ease with which the phones were carried into the exceution chamber and morgue and the ease with which the videos were globally disseminated by the internet also highlights how difficult these new media forms are to control. The videos also demonstrate how new media are changing the rules of broadcasting, as the person taking the video had no interest in the ethical issues traditional journalists face or any risk of comeback from a public or advertisers or the law. Plus it demonstrates the taste of the audience for whom an execution video is perfectly acceptable viewing - something that isn't often addressed in traditional, paternalistic journalism.

What's also interesting is both the way in which the mobile phone video blew away the constructed reality promoted by the Iraqi government, showing how one 'reality' can be presented in completely different ways, and how much more 'real' the mobile phone video footage was. The realist aesthetics of the hand-held camera are obvious but the mobile images made for a very uncomfortable sight, giving much more 'reality' than the first video.

On the other hand these images don't exist in a vacuum - they take their place in a contemporary, rapidly expanding 'atrocity exhibition' that includes beheading videos, the Abu Ghraib images of tortured Iraqi prisoners, the 'shock and awe' fireworks of the second Gulf war, the World Trade Centre explosions, the copter-cam close-ups of the trapped victims, the scenes of the jumping people and the smart-bomb camera images of the first Gulf War ... all the way down to You've Been Framed, the World's Wildest Videos and happy slapping mobile phone videos. As Baudrillard says in Fatal Strategies: 'ours is a pornographic culture par excellence ...'

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