Pock-marked by rebel bullets, Muammar Gaddafi’s televised body signalled the end of Libya’s ideological incarceration. His demise was globalism’s version of the public execution, where LCD panels became the world’s window into a Libyan death chamber. It was an event in which the swelling desire for international retribution washed away Human Rights Laws and submerged the public outcry for Islamic tradition to be upheld.

The public interest in Libya has turned to its interim government’s battle to control rival militias – remarkably muffling Gaddafi’s globally witnessed lynching. Yet we know from history that the failure to recognise and indeed apologise for civil war crimes prevents disparate groups’ cooperation toward a country’s future harmony. See Sri Lanka, Sudan, and the independence of Bangladesh.

So, with the consequences potentially so grave, what are the reasons for such public silence? If it had been Barack Obama who was assassinated, his body dragged through the streets by some terrorist group, it is highly unlikely that he would have received the same media treatment. Indeed, the manner of Gaddafi’s death prompts a broader question: do the actions of an individual in his/her lifetime vindicate a particular treatment in death, and thus in Gaddafi’s case, were the media wrong to cover his death in the way that they did?

The answer to this question is almost certainly yes.

Naturally, the mass media could not shirk the responsibility to publish the information, and indeed, were not wrong to inform the world of Gaddafi’s death.  However, its crime, as it were, was its voracious and almost blood-thirsty glee in doing so. The constantly refreshed images of Gaddafi’s dead body, in different locations and from a myriad of different angles, flooded TV screens, as if public appetite for the scene could not be sated. In fact, this “comprehensive” reporting really unveiled nothing – certainly no ‘news’ was delivered by those pictures. Everyone knew that Libyan politics was corrupt, that Gaddafi was a despot and that his regime had been built on the death of others. It was as if the media went heavy duty digging in the desert, hoping to find something else than the sand that everyone else, on the outside, was subsequently subjected to.

In contrast, during the Watergate scandal in America, investigative journalism went digging to prove that the surface and its foundations were incongruent. And indeed, underneath the immaculate façade of American politics it found that corruption was rampant. Moreover, it showed how the government had, even at its lowest point, tried to rebrand the scandal of Nixon’s rigged election as a political aberration (glossing over the constitutive fact that American politics was inherently crooked) and used it as a base from which a new America could begin to emerge. Naturally, this new America never truly materialised, but in its discovery of truth, the media’s following of the Watergate scandal allowed the public a chance at the change the American dream had always promised.

In Libya the media presence only served to enshrine the brutality that Gaddafi’s death was meant to repudiate, because it captured, in great detail, the “good guys” committing bad acts. It documented, through the hyper realism of its coverage, actions which mirrored the past regime. But pictures of bludgeoned bodies and videos of shouting rebels delirious on death do not pave the way to a better future: they therefore told the story of how the new started as the old finished, that change required death to begin – a fact which might, in the near future, be used as justification for more bloodshed. The end result is that the media caused the past to subsume the present. Now, swollen-faced, the former Libyan leader has been plastered on billboards from New York to Tripoli, his images garnering the attention of the globe, instead of the rebuilding of the country he brought to its knees.

Yet, although the media were wrong to report Gaddafi’s death in the way they did, placing the blame solely with the media is too simplistic. By analysing the media’s growth in the recent past one notices that the relationship between it and the public is one marked by a change in power. Like Dr. Frankenstein and his monster, the creation has overpowered its creator and now the media’s output has ramifications well beyond the control of those who sanction it into being. Yet, who is to blame, Frankenstein or his monster?

Synecdoche Tripoli

In contrast to Albert Camus’s belief, the newspaper does not have the ability to act like a gospel, in which contemporary politics transforms into demi-religion and enters onto an ethical plane. The media was never autonomous; it was more like an inverted parasite becoming fat through being consumed. In order for it to survive it had to feed its clients’ wishes with the latest news, and embody a contemporary zeitgeist. Responding to public demand, it offered retribution when it sensed a consensus for vengeance, or clemency when it identified a public sentiment of forgiving. Indeed, it is by this logic that an unflattering photograph of Obama’s limp, dead body would never appear on the front page of the Sun, but why Muammar Gaddafi’s did.

Yet, as the world population has grown and technology improved, the information load that floods the globe has proliferated to such an extent that it has now swallowed up the reality it is meant only to report. Like a social synecdoche, the newspaper was at first a micro-representation of humanity, but now, subsumed by its own creation, humanity as a whole has become merely a subject to reports of itself.

Indeed, it is a phenomenon which is described by the French theorist Jean Baudrillard. He believed that the more efficient a simulation at replicating reality, the more the boundaries between reality and simulation blur and the more likely it is that individuals will start referring to the simulation in advance of reality itself.  This process is very traceable in the mass media. Demanded in ever more detailed formats, reporting has become so instantaneous and visual  – so close to real life – as to become more than simply a record of what occurred, but instead to be constitutive of the events themselves: for the consumer, reports of an event supplant the event itself. One only has to think of live footage from recent wars, or when CNN war correspondents were caught watching CNN coverage of the Gulf War whilst being asked to report live on the Gulf War. Thus the media becomes, through the demand of the people, not a portal to or reporter of reality, but reality itself for a majority of people.

Therefore, although the media was wrong to cover the dictator’s death in the way that it did, this immorality was exacerbated by its own efficiency in doing so. Indeed, its accuracy quelled the scepticism that would have been attached to most sources in the past and in doing so made the media coverage seem like a purely objective account of events. Thus the media may have marred Libya’s new regime through its journalistic methods, but, it did so only as a result of the voracious public demand for news of Gaddafi’s death. Here, there can be no clear cut moral evaluation. Frankenstein is equally as culpable as his monster.

Illustration by JMC