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Television as collective witnessing.

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Monday 2 June 2003

Dr Tara Brabazon, School of Media, Communication and Culture, Murdoch University


Television as Collective Witnessing  


Troubled visions of white ash and concrete-grey powder water-log my mind. Just as I had ‘understood’ the events of September 11, I witnessed Jules and Gedeon Naudet’s 9/11 documentary, as they followed the firefighters into Tower One. Their cameras witnessed death, dense panic and ashen fear. But it was the drained, grey visage that will always stay with me - where the New York streets and people appeared like injured ghosts walking through the falling ruins of a paper mill.  


Not surprisingly I was drawn safely back in time, away from the grey-stained New York streets, when another series of images seismically shifted my memory palate. Aberfan was the archetypal coal mining town, but what made it distinct was tragedy. On the hill above the village, coal waste from mining was dumped on water-filled slurry. Heavy rain on October 20, 1966 made way for a better day to follow. The dense rain dislodged the coal tip and at 9:15am, the slurry became a black tidal wave overwhelming people and buildings. There have been worse tragedies than Aberfan, if there are degrees of suffering. In the stark grey iconography of September 11, there was an odd photocopy of Aberfan, but in the negative. Coal replaced shredded paper. I remain interested in the notion of shared tragedy and media-ted grief. This Welsh mining disaster is a bloodied gauze through which to understand collective memory and social change. 


A disaster, by definition, is a tragic, unexpected circumstance. When coal slurry engulfed the school and houses in Aberfan, a small working class community gleaned attention from the London-based media. For the first time, cameras gathered live footage of the trauma as it overwhelmed the Taff Valley. The events in Aberfan were not created by a natural catastrophe or an ‘act of God.’ Aberfan’s disaster was preventable, but became explainable within a coal industry village accustomed to unemployment and work-related ‘accidents.’  


Aberfan was not merely a disaster that cost life. It represented a two fold decline of Britain: industrially and socially. Coal built the industrial matrix of Britain. This cost created what Dean MacCannell described as “the collective guilt of modernized people.” Aberfan was distinct from the other great national tragedies in the manner the public perceived the events unfolding in the village. It was the disaster where cameras recorded the shrill screams of grief. The cameras - in true A Current Affair style - intruded on grief and privacy. This breach of grieving space allowed those outside the community to share a memory and raise some sympathy-triggered money. To actually share death and grief at Aberfan through the medium of television led to a reappraisal, however temporary, about the value and costs of industrialization. The long-term consequences of these revelations are more difficult to monitor.  


A question I have always asked - and the events of September 11, Bali and the second Gulf War have not helped me - is if a community personally untouched by a tragic event experience grief. Sympathy and empathy are obvious, as is voyeurism and curiosity. But when the bodies are simply unidentified corpses and saddened mourners indistinguishable from any other town, then viewers need to ponder the rationale and depth of personal feelings. Through the window of television, onlookers become Peeping Toms, perhaps saturated with sympathy and tears, but still Peeping Toms. Too often we sap the feelings of disasters at a distance, and then withdraw when it is no longer fashionable, relevant or in the news.  


Television allowed a collective witnessing of the disaster. But class-based inequalities are not blinked out with the operation of a remote control. Perhaps the most difficult task for those of us working in cultural studies or the media is to understand the citizens of history, not only as consumers, spectators or an audience, but what they may feel. Raw, jagged emotion is difficult to understand, and even more complex to commit to the page.  


The coal slurry rolled onto the Welsh village nearly thirty seven years ago. Aberfan represents more than a symbol of decline or of burgeoning televisual literacy. It demonstrates how we accept mediated death. The literacy of tragedy and its reportage was different after October 1966. When reading the journalism from the time, grieving parents appeared as devastated puppets lashing out at their puppeteers. Their anger was molded for other agendas. Big business, big government and big unions colluded to displace the voices of an injured community. Harold Wilson came to office in 1964 with the slogan “13 wasted years.” He promised that - through economic growth - consensus could be established. Affluence through consumer goods was to signal the end of the polarization of worker and management. These new world symbols, fed by a ‘technological revolution,’ were - like the industrial revolution - uneven in its application. A Welsh working class community seemed out of time and space in 1960s Britain. The scarved women and stocky, strong men appeared to emerge from a different era. The television nation did not share a unified grief, but performed the gulf between England and Wales, centre and periphery, middle and working class, white collar and black collar.  


Politics saturates television, so that it is no longer possible to see the join. Aberfan’s television coverage is important, because the scar was still visible. Literacy in television grief was formed through the event. But if Aberfan did change the ‘national consciousness’ of coal then why did so few southern English citizens support the miners trying to keep open the Welsh pits? The Beveridge Report in 1943 declared that the great achievement of the Second World War was the sharing of a unity that would achieve victory. The People’s War would create a People’s Peace. Aberfan, mining closures and economic decline destroyed this New Jerusalem. The green and pleasant land was built on black coal. Aberfan is an historical translator of these visions - between the black and the grey.  


Guests on this program:


Dr Tara Brabazon  

School of Media, Communication and Culture 

Murdoch University 

Western Australia