No sense

Dnevnik Daily, January 14, 2010

By Spas Spasov

In the end of 18th century the distinguished philosopher Jeremy Bentham introduced his designs of a Panopticon. Its social concept and architectural structure combined to represent the perfect prison. The building was designed to accommodate “the insane, the sick, convicts or pupils” allowing everyone to observe everybody else. Above all, naturally, was the ubiquitous eye of the Gaoler. The Panopticon surpassed the expectations even of its own creator, once it was clear that inside it no one would ever know the extent to which their behavior was controlled. At the end of his life Bentham delivered yet another manifestation of his eccentric genius. He wished to be mummified post-mortem! That is how his Panopticon designs and the idea of his own death fused together.

It was this grim story I remembered looking at the post-mortem photograph of Georgi Iliev* published recently by the newest red top weekly paper.

The lynch

The media’s voyeurism takes over their true nature. The horrifying photo taken more than five years ago in the city morgue of Burgas, has a function no other than that of serving “eternal human joys – to observe a spectacle and tattle about it” (quoting Boyko Penchev). Way too trivially on top of that – too superficially, full of revolt and lacking all sense.

Such a publication, of course, may not be possibly be excused. Therefore, those who published it (and by all means those who look at it) must provide their alibi.

The chief editor of the paper made an appearance on a national television channel to share not one, but two streams of theoretical reasoning, namely:

1.The dead body of Iliev reveals the ugly truth about the life we’re forced to live, and journalism is simply obligated to tell it to its readers.

2. Placing the photo of Iliev’s dead body, taken immediately after the autopsy, is the delayed moral punishment for a Bulgarian mobster who managed to evade justice while alive.

Surely, both explanations are mere market fraud entirely void of value and meaning. The dead body may only be meaningful in certain contexts. Iliev was a piece of the ugly truth about our life, but only while he was alive. The post-mortem image, published five years after his physical death, “raises to the surface” nothing but information about the underground media world. Even worse! It compromises the ethics of journalism, replacing its functions. The photograph of an examined corpse, any corpse, may not be foisted upon readers masked as punishment. The act of lynching humiliates those who punish, because it’s the triumph of mediocre vengeance. But media should never be the platform of such vengeance.

Balkan tragedies

This problem would have been even more complicated, had the photo not appeared in The Galeria newspaper, but in some of the semiofficial newspapers. Or had it been multiplied by other media in order to become a sensation, one that it was not. What never happened, though, by no means undervalues the risk of Bulgarian media becoming morbidly fascinated with the intimacy of voyeurism. No need to pick out any example – the papers are not on fire! Dissecting reports on every single detail of the Belneiski sisters’ death have been for years now the substitute of an actual investigation on the infirmity of our forensic expertise. How about the tears of widowed elderly people which after the tragedy in the Lake Ohrid on September 5th last year soiled all emissions of all newscasts telling one story – that Bulgarian tragedies are fathomless, and any attempt to “exhaust” the tragic domain is fruitless. Quite the contrary, profiting from them is quick and easy.

The assassination of Bobi Tsankov is the latest example of the situation previously described. Those cast in the same mould as him have been for several years now successfully inhabiting their niche of paranormal media hit. And as the fake always compromises the original – victim to that fell the investigative journalism. This is also a loss for the general public which ignorantly surrenders to be tricked, while the sound reason of the debate on the essence of information slips under its feet.

Comparisons The US TV channels’ broadcasting on October 4th 1994 of a video showing Somalis dragging the naked body of an American soldier down the streets of Mogadishu, left the public at large in shock.  This soldier was one of five American army soldiers killed on the very first day of a large-scale UN peace keeping operation against the militia of Mohamen Farrah Aidid. Those who skipped the evening news saw the very same pictures on the pages of next day’s papers. Several days later President Clinton announced that having seen those photographs he had initiated an urgent reconsideration of his policy towards Somalia. The photographs stirred a nationwide public debate on the ethical consequences of media actions, and journalism textbooks give this case as a perfect example of how the media could influence US foreign policy.

In January 1995 the French weekly magazine Paris Match placed the late president Francois Mitterrand on his death bed on two of its inside pages. “I believe in the power of human spirit so I will never abandon you” reads the caption on top of each page. Another caption at the bottom of each pages read: „Dans la chambre nue, un gisant pour l’histoire“ (On display for history he lies in the bare room„).

„Placing the photograph in the magazine was an extraordinary aesthetic challenge”, says Editor-in-Chief Roger Therond. “But then again, five hundred privileged ones saw the dead body of the President. So? Why can’t everybody else do that?” A year later, in an interview about that photograph Therond said: “As a piece of photography it is simply magnificent (…) We used it to send a message to politicians: Worry not for what we say about you. Worry for what we know but say not!” On January 13th 1997 the City Court of Paris imposed a fine of FRF 100 thousand to Roger Therond because of that photograph. As controversial as it may be, it has taken its clearly positive place in the history of French journalism. It was only one year before that, in 1996, that The Noshten Trud newspaper in Sofia had published the postmortem photograph of the murdered former Prime Minister Andrey Lukanov. Naked in the morgue. The price paid being a bottle of brandy to buy the night-shift orderly. Just as cheap a pathos was used in the drunken chatter about how ethical or not it was to have it published. Searching for the traces of the electronic copies of articles on this issue takes time and effort, while the result is tragic.

Roles and causes

Regardless of all efforts, after Jeremy Bentham was embalmed, his face had to be replaced by a special wax mask, while almost everything else was to a great extent preserved. This could have been Providence mocking the philosopher’s cynical idea of making prisoners exposed to observation from the outside and the inside.  Probably that is the reason why even today those revolting exhibits of deformed wax figures bear the name of his stupendous project – Panopticon.

The appearance of yet another dead man on the pages of Bulgarian papers has, of course, nothing to do with the journalistic evidence of the ‘94 Mogadishu drama, nor does it have any relation to the aesthetic challenges that have rendered Paris Match a showcase of journalism, let alone the publicist vision of Roger Therond. The examples mentioned only outline the outer rings of Bentham’s structure. Enclosed in them is everyone: those whose meaningless deaths burden the newspapers pages, and those on whose conscience lie the empty bottles of brandy – the price paid for the missing meaning. The cells of this very same Panopticon, however, accommodate also the communities which had rather be amused by role-plays, than ardently supporting causes.


* According to Wikipediaa Bulgarian wrestler and businessman, considered an important figure in the domain of organized crime in Bulgaria in the end of 20th and the beginning of 21st century.