Media coverage of terrorism is essential in a free society

Why does the media grant terrorists the publicity they seek by giving their outrages so much coverage? That question has been raised time and again following the atrocities in Manchester, Westminster, London Bridge and Finsbury Park.

In fact, it has been asked of UK journalists ever since Margaret Thatcher’s famous plea, in a 1985 speech to the American Bar Association, for terrorists to be starved of “the oxygen of publicity”.

Three years’ later, she imposed a broadcasting ban on Sinn Féin because she believed the IRA’s political wing was gaining an advantage whenever its leaders argued their case in radio and TV interviews.

That ban’s effectiveness remains a matter of dispute. It rankled with news broadcasters, especially the BBC, which circumvented the legislation, while helping to bring it into disrepute, by using actors to dub the voices of Sinn Féin spokespeople. That law was repealed in 1994.

By contrast, Mrs Thatcher’s phrase has lived on. And who can genuinely doubt the correctness of her viewpoint? Terrorism breathes and breeds on publicity. It does not follow, however, that denial of publicity prevents terrorism.

The IRA continued its campaign of violence throughout the period of the broadcasting ban and it has even been argued that its imposition might have delayed the peace process. That’s a debate for another day.

For the moment, note that the most sensible critics of current terrorism reporting are not asking for an official ban on media coverage. Instead, they are calling on broadcasting and newspaper editors to rein in their coverage on a voluntary basis.

Is that feasible? Is it wise? What benefits, if any, would self-censorship – because, let’s face it, that’s what it is – provide?

Consider, first, the compelling arguments of Fawaz Gerges, a professor of international relations at the LSE, who was interviewed on Radio 4’s Today programme on Tuesday.

He believes that the wall-to-wall TV coverage, with news and current affairs presenters hosting bulletins and reports from the sites of terrorist attacks, plays to the narrative of the terrorists.

It gives them the publicity they desire and engenders two counter-productive outcomes: helping to instill widespread fear and enhancing the possibility of recruitment. Although he did not say so, a third potential outcome is the promoting of copycat attacks. 

Gerges’ main concern is that the disproportionate coverage – his phrase – unwittingly creates a climate that the UK is facing an existential threat (as exemplified by a column in the Daily Mail by Richard Littlejohn claiming that “democracy is hanging by a thread”).

Nonsense, says Gerges. Media coverage is encouraging us to terrorise ourselves. By implication, fear is not so much generated by the acts of terrorism themselves as by the way in which media outlets cover them.

Less academic, if more passionate, criticism has come from members of the public who say they feel nauseated by the scale of the coverage. Others argue, as so often, that it’s all about winning ratings or sales, thus implying that increasing audiences is always an unworthy desire.

At the risk of beginning my dismissal of these arguments with an overly trite response, I cannot help but observe that we in the media are damned if we do and damned if we don’t.

So, what is the happy medium? Although I’m all for a sense of proportion I recognise that deciding where to draw the line between doing too little and doing too much is hopelessly subjective. News values are, by their nature, based on experience and intuition. And competition plays a large part too.

When dramatic stories break, editors must rapidly make up their minds by taking account of factors, including assumptions both conscious and unconscious, that cannot be remotely cast as objective.

They are aware that way back to the dawn of media, death has rated high on the editorial agenda. In the modern era, the deaths of innocents, whether by acts of war or terrorism, whether by accident or design, have ranked high on the scale of newsworthiness.

I concede that terrorism does present special difficulties because its violent acts are, in effect, messages to society. Media coverage is therefore indispensable to terrorists because it ensures that as many people as possible know that their acts have occurred, thereby maximising publicity for their cause.

Imagine, however, a situation in which terrorist acts are deliberately downplayed or even ignored by the media. In a world where news is gathered and transmitted instantaneously by anyone with a smartphone, it is unimaginable that people could die in virtual secrecy.

In a world where mainstream media turned a blind eye to terrorism governments and their security forces would not be held to account for their responses or, most significantly, the lack of them.

If we are worried by the fear and anxiety generated by coverage, think of how that would be doubled or trebled by wild rumours in the absence of detailed reporting.

As for claims that coverage glamorises the terrorists, I have not detected a scintilla of admiration for the current batch of perpetrators (nor any justification for their so-called “cause”). Most often, they are being demonised, which is very unlikely to have helped recruitment.

There are certainly occasions when I think news broadcasters go over the top. I sometimes wonder whether the BBC’s main news presenter, Huw Edwards, for whom I have the greatest admiration, has to stand in front of police crime scene tape and blue flashing lights.

But a moment’s reflection serves to change my mind. It can be justified in terms of the need to engage viewers in order to both maximise the size of the audience and to maximise the audience’s understanding of a story’s significance.

Similarly, although I am often surprised that some editors devote quite so many pages to terrorism stories, I also know how hard it can be to maintain readers’ attentions.

Anyway, who is to say whether 11 pages is over the top and five is too little, while seven would suffice? Editors make decisions about the allocation of space based on several practical matters such as the need to explain complex events, the supply of photographs and the amount of available copy.

Yes, their decisions are also informed by their political/ideological viewpoints. And yes, they are part of a competitive landscape in which they seek to do better than their rivals, whether it means being first with the news or promoting more coherent commentaries. And yes again, they are seeking the largest ratings or sales.

That is the reality of the media in Britain, but none of it should detract from the fact that their essential mission is to inform the public. Failure to do that would amount to a victory for terrorism.


*The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and not IPSO*