Does TV news play the terrorists’ game when it shows the hostage videos?

– so asks Nick Robinson, formerly of the BBC, now ITN, in his Notebook column in The Times last Friday. This isn’t strictly about the BBC, although it is quite relevant to recent topics on Biased BBC. Here’s the rest of what he says on this subject:

WHAT a foul, nauseating stench of a week. Day after depressing day I have waited for a man to be brutally murdered as a spectacle for a watching world. Day after day I have watched a family’s agony. Day after day I have witnessed the Government’s apparent helplessness. How I hate the feeling that we are doing exactly what the hostage takers want. Every video of their butchery, every heart-rending appeal, every breathless countdown to a new deadline is part of a script which could have been written by the men holding a knife to Ken Bigley’s throat.

So why do we in the media play along? Please don’t think for a moment that we cover these events without the most careful thought. Each and every day my bosses at ITV News have issued new guidance to programme teams. Don’t talk of hostages being “executed”, read one, as it implies a legal punishment. Another decreed that we would not use the video and the (dreadful) sound of the moments before hostages die as this robbed them of their dignity. And so on. My boss says that these are some of the hardest editorial decisions he has had to take, for he must decide not only whether to show but also how much.

Why, though, don’t we simply refuse to play the terrorists’ game at all and not broadcast any of it? Why don’t we deny them what Margaret Thatcher once called “the oxygen of publicity”? News organisations do occasionally agree to news blackouts if they are advised that this will help to secure the safety of hostages. But to censor our coverage now would be a political act. We can no more censor images of the appalling deaths of hostages than we can of the victims of war. The Pentagon’s decision to refuse to allow pictures to be taken of coffins returning from Iraq was, I have little doubt, not simply to show respect, as officials claimed.

There is another problem. Even if all the terrestrial broadcasters wanted to we could not black out CNN, Fox and al-Jazeera, not to mention the internet. I have been shocked by the number of people I have spoken to who have watched the gruesome hostages videos on the web. I won’t. It is what they want me to do. It is down to each of us to find our own way of not giving the hostage takers what they want.

Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to Does TV news play the terrorists’ game when it shows the hostage videos?

  1. mark adams says:

    This argument is rubbish. there is no public interest argument at all to show these videos. They should in no case be shown without the permission of the family anyway. The argument that if we don’t show them, CNN or FOX will -tho I’ve just spent 3 weeks in the States without seeing any snuff movies on CNN or FOX – is not a reason. If Channel A shows atrocities, is that a license for Channel B ? Is there any atrocity which should not be shown ?


  2. Andrew Bowman says:

    I think you’re misreading it Mark – Nick is not arguing in favour of showing executions – far from it – he’s discussing whether or not the media should broadcast any of the appeals and all the rest of the stuff that the terrorists are making available specifically to spread their message – which I think is a good point, although I don’t buy the argument that, well, we’ve got to show it because someone else will anyway – there’s room for quality and standards above the lowest common denominator in the media too!

    Moreover, I’m getting tired of the media making a spectacle of each and every predictable (though understandable) appeal from Mr. Bigley’s family. Whatever the family say, there is only one course of action open to the PM – and it is wrong for the media to constantly ooh and aah about will the PM give in to the terrorists demands – even if we were sure of what their demands actually are – the only answer to hostage taking is to ignore the demands of the hostage-takers.


  3. Andrew Bowman says:

    While we’re at it, the media drone about government’s not talking to terrorists, but, ah, they spoke to the IRA, didn’t they, blah, blah, blah is tiresome too.

    Sure they spoke to the IRA – but not in response to hostage-taking – and not in the sense of giving in to demands, rather in the sense of achieving peace democratically.

    So much media, so much prattle, get me Phil Space on the phone – yeh, he know’s nothing more than the last news bulletin, and he didn’t even watch that, but we’ll set up a two-way with the studio and fill another hour…


  4. F M Ral says:

    Hostage taking pays because the target is the media, and the media lap it up. Shame on the BBC and others for playing along with the snuff-film makers.


  5. Kerry B says:

    Michael Ledeen makes a good case for showing these videos. As he says, it’s not about us (seeking to intimidate us) but them (to recruit more terrorists). He urges us not to cover up the heinousness of their brutality nor their brutality.



  6. Kerry B says:

    sorry, that last sentence should read:

    He urges us not to cover up the heinousness of their brutality nor their backwardness.


  7. chevalier de st george says:

    Yet how quick are we to broadcast our own transgressions and flagellate our governments and armed forces at the slighest hint of abuse. indeed even manufacturing truth to suit our political agendas.
    Agendas of self hatred and the contempt for of our own civilisation.
    Yet we see no such hatred from the islamic jihadists whom we cannot even dare call by their true names. They feel no self hatred -only hatred for our civilisation.
    Perhaps an indication of where the paths of tolerance and democracy which we hold dearly have ultimately led us.
    Whilst the horror snuff movies sell out in the souks of the arab world within hours , should we give more oxygen to the murderers?
    Perhaps by doing so, we may convince ourselves that our civilisation is worth fighting for after all.


  8. Sean Morris says:

    >>It is down to each of us to find our own way of not giving the hostage takers what they want


  9. Sean Morris says:

    sorry some sort of error on you site, theres much more but it just wont have using mozilla by the way.


  10. Andrew Bowman says:

    I’m using Mozilla too – perhaps there are some dodgy characters in your text.


  11. Zevilyn says:

    You either show the entire executions, in there entirety, or you do not show them at all.

    By showing “edited highlights”, the media is effectively pumping out propaganda for the terrorists.

    Indeed, the media has created an industry, whereby both media and terrorist benefit from the fear and hysteria.


  12. Kerry B says:

    William Safire’s view–

    “Nobody should order reporters and editors to “downplay” a gut-wrenching human interest story involving cruelty, violence and death. Nor should the media flinch from covering casualty counts or honoring the fallen. War involves sacrifice.

    But responsible journalists should consider the wisdom of allowing media-savvy terrorists to play them like a violin.”


  13. Zevilyn says:

    “I’ve played this city like a harp from Hell.”

    -The Penguin, Batman Returns


  14. Nick Mallory says:

    We should show the beheadings. All of them. And everyone who wants to then justify the actions of the ‘hostage takers’ should be free to do so. Only by seeing the true barbarity of our foes will some people in this country rediscover the will to oppose them.