article appeared originally in the guide to News
Xchange 2004, Algarve, 18-19 November 2004
century terrorist fights with a Kalashnikov in one hand and
a video camera in the other. Ten weeks ago, from the ruins of
the Beslan School, a tape surfaced showing the hostages, pathetically
huddled together in the school gym.
Then came a series
of grotesque images of foreigners kidnapped in Iraq, making
desperate appeals for their lives and in some cases being murdered.
Together, they have forced television bosses to consider the
place of the terrorist video in TV news.
When I started to
devise this year's News Xchange hypothetical, in the spring,
I concocted several fiendish scenarios to test the panel. Colleagues
with whom I shared it generally agreed that it was wildly over
the top; almost too fantastic to be credible. But within weeks
my fictional ideas had started to become ghastly reality. Each
new draft was soon overtaken by events, forcing me to construct
increasingly grim or bizarre storylines to stay ahead of real
So, unlike my 2002
"Dirty Bomb" hypothetical, this year's session poses
tough questions with which broadcasters have already been grappling.
In Britain and elsewhere,
the video of hostages put out by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi has provoked
a rash of debate on how much, if any, of the material should
be shown. Sky News, the UK's most popular 24-hour news channel,
decided not to show any of the tape of the Briton Ken Bigley
making a final plea for his life, before he was murdered. Nor
did our rivals, though some newspapers used still frames from
the video. We showed only part of the previous tape of Mr. Bigley,
in which he made a direct appeal to Tony Blair. These decisions
were based on taste and sensitivity to the family. Likewise,
we severely restricted how often and in what context we used
the Beslan tape. At the time of writing, no Western TV station
has shown a hostage being beheaded on screen and it seems unthinkable
any would do so. But there is a growing proposition that TV
news should not show any part of these videos, to cut off the
terrorists' "oxygen of publicity" supply. Should we,
would we, agree to such a ban-voluntary or otherwise?
Some argue that once
terrorist videos have been posted on a website, they are in
the public domain. But TV is a much more powerful medium that
the Internet, and viewers watch is passively. We cannot justify
our decisions on such flimsy ground. Most professional journalists
would probably argue that a complete ban would be unacceptable
censorship, to be resisted at all cost. The pressures facing
our Russian colleagues should serve as a warning not to go down
this dangerous road.
But with this argument
goes a moral responsibility to judge each case as it arises
and try to do what is best for everyone involved. Showing a
tape of a man appealing for his life--albeit under duress--might
help keep him alive; showing even part of one after he has been
murdered clearly has no such merit.
And if we refuse
to screen anything, will that be the end of it? Nick Pollard,
head of Sky News and CNN's Chris Carmer have both raised the
spectre of terrorists holding a TV station ransom, saying effectively
"Show the pictures or we kill the hostages."
It is arguable that
television news has been a vehicle for propaganda on all sides.
The 9/11 plotters clearly knew that many cameras would be trained
on the Twin Towers as they flew in the second plane, if not
the first. The pictures from Madrid were powerful enough to
topple a government. But the scenes of "Shock and Awe"
war were meant to send a powerful message to the Iraqi people,
as were shots of massed US tanks in the Kuwaiti desert. Every
free TV station in the world showed all these pictures, because
they made news.
Al Jazeera and the
other Arabic TV stations claim that the Western media is biased
and one sided. They say that by showing more terrorist group
videos and more horrific pictures of the continuing carnage
in Iraq, they give their viewers a more balanced picture. In
truth, it is probably the case that news channels give their
viewers what they want, or at least what they will accept.
Even before the recent
kidnapping and murders in Iraq, a journalist was beheaded, on
camera, by his captors. Daniel Pearl's legacy was to remind
us of the dangers facing journalists who try to get to the truth.
If we bow to censorship, we betray the memory of him and other
colleagues who died in the line of duty. But equally we must
take infinite care not to betray journalism itself by allowing
ourselves to become the tools of the terrorists. It's a damned
this article Simon Bucks has become the managing editor
of Sky News.