May 5th, 2011


Why no photos of the dead bin Laden?

President Obama's decision, reported on CNN and elsewhere, not to release pictures of the dead Osama bin Laden is, from the point of view of White House media strategy, probably a mistake. 

I argued yesterday that the audience which most concerns the White House is the US electorate. They seem to be satisfied that the Al-Qaeda leader is dead so there is no domestic political reason to publish the photographs. The US electorate is not, though, the only audience. In the case of the deaths of Uday and Qusay Hussein, sons of the former Iraqi leader, photographs did convince some of the doubters. 

There are other important points to take into account. 

Firstly, while the pictures are presumably gruesome (as the corpse of someone shot in the head would be), this is likely to be less of a problem outside the English-speaking West. Arab news channels show footage of conflict which would never make it onto the BBC.  Are the pictures being kept out of the public domain because the nature of the wounds might cast further doubt on a version of events which has already become confused and contradictory? 

Secondly, in a world after Wikileaks, don't audiences increasingly expect the opportunity to see things which might previously have been kept private? And doesn't that make it more likely that these pictures will somehow appear one day in any case? It will be interesting to see whether or not the US administration really can control this story.