Monday, 14 January 2013

Warning: the following post contains views which some readers may find upsetting

As I’ve already outraged one disabled group – wheelchair users – in a recent post, I might as well get it all out of my system by being horribly unsympathetic to those who suffer from Photosensitive Epilepsy. In a nutshell, I am tired of being subjected to warnings from newsreaders and continuity announcers to the effect that the next programme/news report contains flash photography or flashing images which might trigger a seizure.

For those of us who don’t suffer from this no doubt distressing condition (that would be all of us in Britain minus about 15,000, only a tiny portion of whom might in any case be affected by what’s about to appear on the screen, and an even tinier portion of whom are likely to be watching the particular broadcast to which the warning refers) this feels like nannyish, politically correct, "aren't we lovely and caring" overkill.

Some facts:

It’s estimated that there are between 15,000 and 18,000 photosensitive epilepsy sufferers in the UK. I bet it’s nowhere near as high as that – I always assume these figures are deliberately inflated, for obvious reasons. Mark Lawson, writing in the Guardian, puts it as low as 2,500, but an online report from the BBC put it as high as 23,000. The same BBC report claims that the highest number of adverse reactions to one broadcast in Britain – an animation of the 2012 Olympic logo broadcast in 2007 – was 18 people. It doesn’t say how serious their reactions were (most photosensitive epilepsy seizures are, apparently, over within seconds).

Modern digital television screens don’t – it’s reported -  tend to trigger attacks. Sitting further away from the screen helps, as does avoiding watching TV in a darkened room. And, of course, looking away once you become aware that there are flashing images on the screen would probably help (just as those of a sensitive disposition look away the moment Bruno Tonioli or Jonathan Ross appear).

Apart from what may have been an outbreak of mass hysteria in Japan in 1997 when 600 children were admitted to hospital after watching a Pokemon animation on TV, there have been no reports of widespread seizures caused by flash photography (which, being irregular, is highly unlikely to cause problems) or other sorts of flashing images. While many people have died of epileptic seizures, I can’t find a single instance reported of anyone dying as a result of watching “trigger” images on a TV screen. And yet, every night, it feels like, a newsreader solemnly warns us that the next report contains “flash photography”.

People have died laughing watching comedy on TV. Others have suffered heart-attacks while watching exciting televised sports events. I’d be surprised if others hadn’t pegged out while being subjected to outrageous left-wing propaganda on Newsnight (I know I almost have on several occasions).  Yet, no warnings are issued in advance of any of this sort of content.

Why don’t TV viewers who might be prone to seizures – or their parents or carers – assume that TV news bulletins will contain flashing images, and, if they’re genuinely worried, avoid them. There are plenty of other ways to get your news these days. As for those viewers unfortunate enough to discover that they're prone to seizures while watching TV (and that could be any of us), well, it's probably safer to discover this tendency in the safety of your own sitting room than anywhere else.

Given that OFCOM and Epilepsy Action would… (I was going to say “have a fit”, but that would obviously be grotesquely insensitive of me) … be jolly upset at the idea of removing these warnings, what about replacing them with a small, unobtrusive onscreen symbol that would indicate to those potentially affected that the next item contains flashing images which might trigger a minor seizure in one or two viewers (but are far more likely to have no effect whatsoever on anyone).

Why did OFCOM decide these warnings were necessary (apart from giving the people working for the broadcasting watchdog an excuse to go on pocketing their inflated salaries)? Are viewers in other countries subjected to these  announcements? (They appear in text form on some video games and, albeit rarely, on some films – but in the latter case, it’s up to cinemas whether to use them or not.)

Admittedly, the annoyance value of the TV warnings isn’t that great. But the assumption behind the warnings – that, because a tiny handful of people might now and then be adversely affected by something, we all need to be reminded about it all the time – well, that is seriously irritating.

By the way, I also find it odd that there are post-watershed warnings that, for instance, a fictional detective series called Ripper Street (currently on BBC One) might contain scenes which could upset some viewers (there's already a bit if a hint in the title): ditto TV News reports from war zones - while I'm all for minimising onscreen unpleasantness, I would have thought viewers might be able to figure out that reports from, say, Syria, are likely to contain distressing scenes.

Or am I just over-reacting because this particular Monday is generally believed to be the most depressing day of the year?

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