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Last Updated: Friday, 8 September 2006, 11:01 GMT 12:01 UK
The Irwin video: Would you watch it?
Tributes to Steve Irwin

Crocodile hunter Steve Irwin's final moments were captured on camera. But should that film ever be broadcast to the watching public?

Steve Irwin made a career partly based on taking risks with wildlife. His death this week at the barb of a stingray on Australia's Barrier Reef was filmed, and in a Sydney Morning Herald poll 40% of the 24,000 or so respondents thought it should be shown.

Here, two medical ethicists try to answer the question of whether anyone should be able to watch it.



While we might question what kind of person would want to watch such a gruesome spectacle, I suggest there are reasons why we should at least consider making the footage available to the public. Steve Irwin was a well-known public figure, whose popular TV shows regularly drew large audiences.

His death occurred while he was in the process of filming another documentary - hence the existence of the footage in question. The life and death of a public figure are - naturally - of public interest. This is particularly the case when a person is well-known because of the risks he takes.

Vote results
The vote has now closed. Final results above
When Irwin wrestled with crocodiles, some of our amazement at his feats was surely connected with the risk involved. Irwin was a courageous man, and courage relies on danger for its expression.

Had Irwin's exploits with crocodiles been entirely safe, he would not have been regarded as an intrepid hunter and naturalist, and perhaps we would have been less inclined to tune in when his programmes were being aired.

The point here is that Irwin's public appeal was premised on facing danger. At any stage of his media career, disaster could have struck; animals are unpredictable as Irwin himself was aware, so even an intelligent man, physically strong, and an educated naturalist, cannot be certain of what an animal will do next.

Irwin was willing to undertake these risks for the sake of our entertainment and our education, and at a broader level, for the sake of conservation. Irwin's role as an educator is important here.

Steve and Terri Irwin and a snake
He was willing to provoke animals so that viewers could see what happens when a crocodile or snake goes into attack mode
While his documentaries were undoubtedly sensational and highly entertaining, his aim was also to enlighten viewers about the animals he interacted with, their behaviour when threatened, and their means of defence.

He was willing to "tease" or provoke animals so that viewers could see what happens when a crocodile or snake goes into attack mode. Irwin's tragic death can be regarded as a poignant reminder of the fact that this kind of work involves severe risks.

Up till now we have witnessed Irwin sporting with crocodiles, poisonous snakes and tarantulas, always emerging unscathed and as lively as ever. The footage of Irwin's final film can in itself be regarded as a necessary part of our education: these animals are dangerous, and fooling around with them can be deadly.

'His ultimate message'

So, let us ask: who would want to watch the footage of Irwin's fatal encounter with a stingray? Perhaps those for whom Irwin's programmes revealed a world whose creatures fascinate us partly because of their dangerousness and unpredictability.

Irwin spent much of his life bringing to a wider public a vision of "nature red in tooth and claw", no fluffy bunnies or cute kittens here. His programmes were not for the squeamish, but portrayed wild animals capable of killing a man.

The footage of Irwin's death is his ultimate message to us of the ruthlessness and power that we admire and fear in nature.


Daniel Sokol

In an interview four years ago, Steve Irwin said "If I'm going to die, at least I want it filmed."

Of course, this may not have been an invitation to broadcast the footage to the world - he may have wanted only a select few to see it or made the remark with his tongue firmly in his cheek - but it is plausible, in light of his ebullient personality and intrepid attitude, that this is precisely what he meant. There is, nonetheless, some uncertainty as to what Irwin would have wanted.

Our beliefs today may differ from those we held even a year ago. Presumably, his wife and close friends could provide the most educated guess on his latest views on the matter. Still, the most cautious approach (applying what some call the "precautionary principle") would oppose releasing the tape. The reasoning goes "If we're not sure, better play it safe and leave things as they are".

'[The tape] should be destroyed,' said Irwin's producer John Stainton
Discovery Networks, for which Irwin was filming, said it will consult his widow on use of footage
Terri Irwin said to have spoken to Discovery five years ago about husband's wish to be filmed at all cost
The issue would not be resolved even if it were clear that Steve Irwin had wanted to broadcast the footage to the public. There is no absolute obligation to honour the wishes of a dead - or, indeed, a living - person. It depends on the nature of the wish itself. Is it reasonable? Can it be fulfilled? Will it cause distress to others?

Irwin's family and his crew members should have a say in the decision to release the footage. John Stainton, his close friend and manager, has already indicated after watching the tape that he wants it destroyed.

The public and graphic exposure of his death could have significant psychological effects on his relatives and, in particular, his two young children.

Even if his entourage gives the green light and the tape is released - and many believe this last event will inevitably happen - there remains a question of personal morality. Should you, the viewer, watch the footage?

Why watch?

The answer depends on your motives. Are you a marine biologist or ethologist (someone who studies animal behaviour) eager to understand the defensive behaviour of a frightened stingray? Are you a cardiologist or toxicologist interested in aspects of the injury itself?

Steve Irwin
Before watching the footage, we should ask ourselves: why do I want to watch this? I suspect many people would answer "for entertainment" or "out of curiosity".

Is there not something discomforting about these answers? Do they not reflect a morbid desire to witness a fatal tragedy? Sometimes our instinctive "yuk" response to an event or suggestion is not based on reason but on deep-rooted prejudice or ignorance.

This time, the "yuk" is more firmly grounded. It is a mistake to say that watching the clip in private would harm no one, as the event has already occurred.

It may well harm the watcher, whose humanity and moral sensibility will suffer. Irwin's passion for nature and his exuberance leapt out of the screen. Let that memory remain, and let the footage of his pierced heart disappear with the stingray into the depths of the ocean.

Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

Yes, I would watch. But an edited version that cuts away as soon as the barb makes contact with Steve. Afterall, we know the ending. Personally I don't see the reason for general public to watch beyond the point of contact. That's when it becomes personal. Steve's death shocked and saddened me, unlike any other public figure. However, Steve went out doing what he loved doing. That's the bright spot to all of this.
Sabrina, Columbia, SC USA

I think its disgusting that this is even been suggested. Steve Irwin was a great man and the general public does not need to see this footage.
David James, Stoke on trent

The final decision should be left to his wife as she knew him better than anyone else.
Grizzly, Aberdeen, Scotland

That question of whether the video should be released is entirely up to the family. Steve Irwin is a publuc figure but not public property.
Evan Skuthorpe, London

Now I'm not religious but I think that there are at least two sacred events in life, birth and death. No matter how much of a public life Steve had, his death should be treated with respect and considered sacred. There is no reason why anyone but his family should have the right to intrude into that part of his life.
Sara, Oxford, UK

If it was able to be viewed I would, however I say no to making it available. This would add to the culture of 'if it doesn't happen on a TV screen, it doesn't happen at all'. Life in general should not be reduced to watching pleasure. And his death on tape would become a pleasure for people as it would soon do the rounds on the internet with witty captions which yes, would I'm sure be great fun. But why reduce a family man's death to this? I feel for his children growing up when they have a very famous father whoes death is nothing more than entertainment. Yes we always saw him taking risks with dangerous animals and saw him come off well. Opposed to what ANNA SMAJDOR stated in her column, we shouldn't dumb ourselves down to the point where we need to see a death on TV to assertain risks in danger.
Nick, London

I wouldn't watch because I'm not interested - I can't believe how much media space has been devoted to this. Surely there are more important things going on in the world??
Carol, Basildon

I don't see any reason why the footage of Steve Irwin's death should be broadcast. He has two little children: how would they feel knowing that their beloved father's last moments are watched by millions of viewers? Curiosity should have its limits. Sadly, tragedies, catastrophies and wars are what interests people the most.
Karolina, Poland

Everyone has seen the shooting of JFK and the execution of a kneeling prisoner in Vietnam so why would this be so shocking? We see pictures of mangled bodies and horrifically injured people routinely in the news and in documentaries and I suspect that Steve Irwin's death will be far less harrowing that those. I think seeing the footage would allow us to judge whether he was behaving in a sensible way or was inviting the attack that he so unfortunately suffered.
Robert Wragg, Nottingham UK

Years ago, I scoured the web for the full video of the Nick Berg beheading. Morbid curiousity I felt. After which I wish I hadn't. Seeing people at their moment of death in a voyeristic kind of way does something to you. I respected Steve for the work he did and message he put across, I think his memory should be protected by showing him as this courageous adventurous croc hunter and not as a defenceless human. Id rather it not be broadcast.
simon c, Warrington

I say NO. Those who think yes are a product of our macabre society, where we revel in the downfall of others and seek higher and bigger thrills to satisfy us. I ask who would benefit from its release? Contrast this to the damage it would cause, especially to his widow and young children. He and they should be afforded the decency of privacy and all copies of these last moments should be destroyed. By all means use the other footage, that should not be wasted but please don't seek to abuse his memory in this way. We are in real danger of overshadowing the profile of his conservation and educational work with the details of his death. We've already lost the man himself, lets not lose what he stood for.
Liz Phelps, London

Why is this even a matter for debate? It's such a ghoulish question that doesn't need to be asked.
Al, London

The whole world is clamouring for the most detailed and gruesome information from the abducted Austrian teenager if she was sexually abused or molested. A rather wrong motive and a wrong question. The case of Irwin is different. There are no motives here except for the educational value and learning experience for would be successors all over the world. RIP Irwin.
'Buchi Eze, Essen, Germany

There is no justification for the release of what would be essentially a 'snuff' movie.
derek lucas, glasgow

I can't believe we're even discussing this. Steve's family should decide, period. I have to say though, if it's the fear of "harming the watcher" that worries some people, then I suggest these same people never turn on the evening news, where events far more disgusting and shocking happen on a daily basis. The whole discussion is ludicrous.
Gav, Luzern, Switzerland

I find it distasteful that you even ask the question. This is a family matter. I am even annoyed at myself for responding. You are the media and you are exploiting this tragedy.
Chris Taylor, Singapore

To show the footage of Steve Irwin's unfortunate death would be voyeurism of the worst kind. There is no educational, "public interest" or other merit in doing so. Whilst death is a fact of life improving TV ratings by showing the recording of a persons death is not.
Peter Dobson, Earls Barton, Northamptonshire

Hold on, your all saying IT CANNOT BE SHOWN! etc. etc. for X reasons, yet the world is happy to watch documentries on the life of serial killers, mass murderers & the individual death of a person & even the moment it happens. To top it all of people still watch WITH AWE the 1st nuclear explosion that incinerated thousands of lives in an instant & yet the same people of the world cannot bring to bear watching the death of a great man in his field who did die in an unfortunate incident.
Graeme, Aberdeen

As a Tarantula keeper I thought it best to point out the inaccuracy in the suggestion in the following paragraph.

"Up till now we have witnessed Irwin sporting with crocodiles, poisonous snakes and tarantulas, always emerging unscathed and as lively as ever. The footage of Irwin's final film can in itself be regarded as a necessary part of our education: these animals are dangerous, and fooling around with them can be deadly."

The inclusion of Tarantulas in this list of "deadly" animals suggests that they themselves are deadly. This is not the case. The majority of Tarantula bites are similar in severity to a bee sting, those of a more serious nature can cause the victim to present flu like symptoms but there are very few documented instances of anything more severe and certainly no deaths (that I am aware). I understand that this is an opinion piece and is not intended as a scientific study, but to have such an inaccuracy in an article regarding someone who educated so many people on the dangers of wild animals seems like an unforgivable mistake.
Graham Whittenham, UK

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