Are we playing into the hands of terrorists?

There can’t be anybody in the country who doesn’t know the name of Kenneth Bigley. The British businessman’s name has led news bulletins on radio and television, his picture has appeared on the front page of every national newspaper, his family has found itself in the glare of media attention at a time of almost unbearable tension.

Which is precisely the point, as far as his captors are concerned. If they had been taking advice from some sort of satanic communications adviser, they could hardly have hoped for a better result than the blanket coverage their hostage-taking, executions and further threats have elicited. Bigley’s dramatic, direct, personal plea to the Prime Minister, on the eve of the Labour Party’s national conference, added a new dimension to the horrifying saga and ensured that it stayed right at the top of the domestic agenda.

It brings us to an uncomfortable, but increasingly urgent, question: how much is our coverage of activity like this driving terrorist groups to commit ever more gruesome acts in order to keep themselves on the top of the news agenda? Roger Mosey, the BBC’s head of television news, acknowledged to The Observer last weekend the danger that news organisations are playing into the hands of the groups by allowing them the oxygen of publicity.

It’s an old debate given a new twist by the terrorists’ use of the internet to distribute horrific footage of executions and of their hostages’ pleas, available to anybody with a computer and an internet connection.

Once these are out there, it becomes almost impossible for mainstream newsrooms to ignore them. But Mosey argues that to search out a web site is very different from switching on the television or walking past a newsstand. He believes there should be a debate within the industry. He’s right.

It shouldn’t be about censorship – after all, there are pacts in place covering news blackouts of kidnappings – but about the ethical responsibility of the journalism community in dealing with sinister, increasingly sophisticated forces.

More co-operation, or at least communication, between our newsgatherers on this issue is surely one way to ensure that the public remains informed, without being manipulated by terrorists.

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