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Last Updated: Friday, 25 February, 2005, 14:01 GMT
Humiliation on film
By Brendan O'Neill

Big Brother
Is Big Brother part of a culture of humiliation?
The Iraqi abuse photos which led to the conviction of two British soldiers were an extreme example of what some believe to be a growing trend.

Staff at a Staffordshire photographic shop were the first to see the pictures which were later broadcast around the world.

One picture showed Lance Corporal Darren Larkin, dressed only in boxer shorts and flip-flops, standing on top of a distressed Iraqi. Another showed an Iraqi suspended from the prongs of a forklift truck.

In another, two prisoners were forced to simulate a sex act, putting their thumbs up for the camera as they did so. All the pictures were taken at a British base in Basra two years ago.

Tony Blair said the photos were "shocking and appalling". But weren't they also strangely familiar?

These photos appear to reflect what is happening more broadly in society
Dr Graham Barnfield
Dr Graham Barnfield, a media researcher at the University of East London, says the photos reminded him of one of the biggest trends in contemporary culture - reality TV, where it is cool to "record self-abuse and to record yourself degrading others".

"These photos appear to reflect what is happening more broadly in society", says Dr Barnfield. "On mainstream TV, the internet and elsewhere, it has become increasingly acceptable to do humiliating things - both to yourself and others - for the cameras."

Dirty Sanchez on MTV is a show about three Welsh skateboarding slackers who do ever-more outrageous things for the titillation of their largely teenage audience - including smashing one another about the head with blocks of wood, stapling their hands to a table, and eating stinging nettles.

Their inspiration is Jackass, the hit US show that featured bored middle-class twentysomethings abusing themselves, their friends and perfect strangers. It is thought to have influenced a controversial American video Bumfights, in which middle class students paid homeless people to fight, and even defecate, for the cameras.

'Happy Slaps'

Meanwhile the new-media airheads in the Channel 4 sitcom Nathan Barley while away the hours by watching Russian tramps racing, fighting and pulling out their teeth on a gambling website.

Mainstream reality TV does not encourage contestants to torture each other. But it does invite them to let it all hang out and allow themselves to be filmed while they wash, toilet themselves or bicker with fellow housemates.

On the same day in January that papers first published the Basra torture photos, they also reported on a "sick craze" sweeping London's schools called "Happy Slaps". Young people film each other slapping or kicking unsuspecting members of the public, or each other, while announcing: "You have starred on Happy Slap TV."

Indonesian hostages Rosidah binti Anan, left, and Rafikan binti Aming
Hostages are filmed for broadcast
They text these mini-films to their friends, and before long they are being watched by schoolchildren up and down the UK.

Dr Barnfield thinks the rise in reality humiliation at home and snapshots of torture overseas are part of the same process.

"The main shift is that the boundaries between public and private life have been steadily eroded", he says. "People under 45 in particular seem more and more willing to let their dark secrets out into the open with minimal prompting. Reality TV is the perfect genre for this shift in values and a declining sense of discrimination."

Where individuals would have been more guarded in the past, making sure that certain things only took place in private, today they have fewer qualms about doing such things publicly, says Dr Barnfield.

It draws a worldwide audience personally, individual by individual, into whatever drama the terrorist is manufacturing
George Eykyn
Former BBC correspondent
And of course, mobile technology makes it easier than ever to take pictures - the modern equivalent to victorious soldiers looting trophies from their vanquished foes.

At the far more extreme end, militant groups now make videos of their actions - including grisly film footage of kidnap victims being interrogated or even executed. Such films are distributed on the World Wide Web, and often end up on "gore sites".

George Eykyn, a former BBC correspondent who reported from trouble spots around the world, thinks militants are attempting to tap into our media-saturated culture.

"Exploiting the medium of the internet can heighten the drama, fascination, shock, horror - and therefore power - of what the terrorist is perpetrating", he says. "It draws a worldwide audience personally, individual by individual, into whatever drama the terrorist is manufacturing. It reinforces the onlooker's powerlessness in the equation."

The high standard of post-production, such as edited footage from more than one camera, underlaid music and on-screen graphics, "verges on terrorists making their own news, and sending it out already processed".

Today it sometimes seems as though everything has to be photographed or filmed.

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