By Peter Preston
Former editor of the Guardian
The taking of hostages, such as Ken Bigley in Iraq, has prompted debate on the media's role and responsibilities in covering such events.
Does publicity help or hinder their plight? Was Margaret Thatcher right to decry the 'oxygen of publicity'?
The dilemma is beginning to haunt editors everywhere. How do you deal with this wave of hostage taking from Russia to Iraq?
How do you cover something where, time and again, your coverage is part of the reason why the hostages were taken in the first place?
Perhaps the media has been a little slow off the mark here, blinded by a certain arrogance.
Ken Bigley being held in Iraq
We couldn't believe that Chechen revolutionaries or Al-Qaeda terrorists with beards and kaftans could be sophisticated spin doctors, too - let alone that it was us they were spinning.
But that is the truth of it. The Chechens who stormed that school in Beslan and shot their own videos inside it expected to see TV cameras poking 24 hours a day from surrounding buildings.
That was one of the points of their brutal exercise. The most vicious of the Iraqi groups who take hostages like Kenneth Bigley aren't after ransom money: they want their deeds on the internet and then on front pages and television screens everywhere.
It boosts their power in the Arab world. It shakes western public opinion. It's the name of their game.
What do we - those editors who have come to realise the ploy and our readers and listeners - do about that?
Another infernal dilemma. Many readers or listeners have a simple answer, the one Mrs Thatcher gave long ago when she decried the 'oxygen of publicity'.
Simply: don't show the hostages or their masked captors, don't publicise the demands or chart the progress, don't mention the beheadings or the agonies of their families.
What the eye doesn't see, the heart doesn't grieve over. Enforce blanket silence and (perhaps) the hostage takers will go away.
But, like all simple answers, this one doesn't quite work. It doesn't work for the two smiling Italian hostages now released from captivity and safe home. It hasn't been the way to get two French journalists back to freedom - or many more hostages before them.
Some groups in Iraq are extortionists, not zealots; some bargains are best made in the open.
How, though, do you know who you're dealing with until some way down the line? News isn't a water tap, to be switched off and on arbitrarily.
Readers and listeners aren't stooges, to be informed and then ignored. In a free society, moreover, I think that citizens who have the profound ill luck to be taken hostage deserve more than being left to die in silence, to join the ranks of the disappeared. That is us using them as pawns; and we ought to be better than that.
No: the only way is the hard way. It means thought and reflection from editors, reporters and listeners alike. It means seeing, hour by hour, the nature of the manipulation and explaining the probabilities.
The injunction, at the last, is to tell the whole story, the full truth. And if sickening spin is part of that story, to make sure that we all understand that, too. The hostages have to live, terrified, in the dark. We have to live in the light.
Send us your views on the form below
This is not an all-or-nothing issue, and media editors trying to spin it as such is deliberately misleading. Government censorship is not necessary; editors should - and regularly do - censor their own organizations. What is at issue is what a poor job those editors are doing when it comes to hostage takings. Just as responsible news organizations consider it immoral to show excessive blood and gore or to release the identities of slain soldiers before their families are advised, so too should there be standards attached to the airing of hostage videos. Reporting the hostage takings is one thing. Broadcasting images of a terrified man pleading for his life is craven and disgusting, and quite obviously plays right into the hands of his captors.
Erin, Calgary, Canada
Publishing the actions of terrorists invariably gives them greater power. Mr. Blair is absolutely right: if you don't respond to terrorists, their actions become worthless. In an ideal world hostage situations would be dealt with out of the public eye and - where possible - diffused. What good does it do for these horrific occurrences to be international news? Unfortunately we feed off bad news and newspaper sales increase considerably when something like the Ken Bigley situation is on the front page. If the press could see the bigger picture and put world safety above profits, then perhaps we would be able to find a way to reduce these increasingly frequent situations.
Bridget Randolph, London
The media is not a root cause for criminal acts, but it does bear some responsibility to deal with such situations in a responsible manner.
Currently press 'self-censorship' exists and is used in cases of suicide, where it has been well-proven that press coverage results in an increase in the number of subsequent attempts, and also in accidents where the injuries are deemed too unpalatable for public consumption.
Perhaps a similar mechanism can be used for hostage situations.
Crawford Millen, Maple Ridge, BC, Canada
Banning the reporting of hostage situations might stop the press from unwittingly becoming an agent of terrorism, but would bolster its role as an agent of government. Like it or not, terrorist activity has drawn far more attention to the developed world's complicity in oppression throughout the globe than years of 'peaceful' protest. We need to suffer this paradox in the knowledge that banning hostage reporting would at do a far more sinister favour to the governments of the developed world.
Helen, London, England
Has everyone forgotten about the media that was embedded with coalition forces during the invasion? Was the media manipulated when it filmed a few Iraqis pulling down Saddam's statue? I think the questions are; who decides what information we common folk get and what is their hidden agenda? In the US a mere handful of people control all media outlets. I don't trust their judgement when it comes to unbiased reporting. Here, in order to learn the truth, a person has to sift through commercial and independent media from around the world. In addition, I think if we start a fight, we disrespect and dishonour ourselves if we turn our heads because we don't like violence. If we don't want to watch violence we shouldn't start fights.
Glenn McGowan, St. Louis USA
Why don't we weigh the whole issue? See the pros and cons of allowing such brutality to be broadcasted. For me, showing this conduct means a free-of-charge favour for those terrorists to reinforce what they advocate and a call to others to do the same around the world. For some people its ok since it is in the Middle East and against citizens from Coalition forces countries or Iraqis. But these terrorist acts will become a dogma that will be adopted by others in your countries sooner or later. Criminals are people like us watching television and learning from it. Thus, I believe the freedom of media should be based on the interest of the mankind and not the opposite.
M Alanbari, Iraqi lives in South Africa
Showing footage of hostage's acts, demands, and specifically beheadings is, in my opinion, a form of yellow journalism. That is, it sensationalizes (and gives legitimacy to)terrorist acts. People running the media should have the sense not to show such things. It is indulging voyeurism at best. At worst, it is accomplishing exactly what the terrorists want: that is scaring as many people as possible. This is not about censorship folks. This is about basic human decency.
Melissa L. Bautz, Lander, Wyoming
I'm sure the US and UK Govt would love to start us down a slippery slope of not being allowed to know the full picture of events surrounding the war - censoring reports of hostages would be a good first step in that direction, and for that reason I oppose it.
Shanti, London England
The media does have the right to cover the taking of hostages. This should be done briefly and responsibly, without overplaying the "emotion card". However, I object to the tabloid approach used to cover such incidents. In that regard, the media seems almost willing to amplify and glorify the acts of these thugs for the sake of ratings and circulation sales.
R. Motlasz, Burlington, NJ, USA
There is no option but to broadcast these stories. Censorship is too easily abused, and the American media seems reigned in enough already. I think those citizens involved must force themselves to look at the consequences of the war, of invading another country, the results and effects have to be available to the public. And I have to hope that the world can learn from these times, that we'll actually take what we can from this and not repeat it again in 30 years, though it seems doubtful. History only teaches if we're willing to learn.
Laura, Toronto, Canada
Whilst it is inevitable that in the modern age, terrorists, kidnappers and other will use the internet to their full advantage, there is no reason why the mass media should give additional coverage. These hostage takings are publicity stunts, designed to pressurise governments. Newspapers, and the broadcast media are doing their work for them by publicising these horrific events further and in graphic detail. By all means inform people that a hostage has been taken but to show video footage of a man coerced into begging for his live serves no purpose. How many members of the public acutally monitor these extremist websites and check out the latest video ?
"Readers and listeners aren't stooges, to be informed and then ignored." Quite right - but at the moment broadcasters have become the stooges of the terrorists.
Woefully naive bleating about censorship misses the point completely. News editors must exercise self restraint in reporting these horrific acts if they are not to be seen as culpable; report the minimum necessary.
David R, Hebron, CT. USA
We have all the right to see what is happening in the world. We blame third world countries and dictators who hide information from their people. If we do the same, what is the difference between democracy and dictatorship? You can't hide the facts in 21st century. Instead of hiding it we should try to eradicate the root cause of problem.
David Heron, Manchester, UK
How typical of the media to adopt the pretext of 'Free Society' as an excuse to cover up the inelegant, irresponsible and often sensationalist coverage they so frequently provide. In this instance retrospection is not a defence. Maybe editors should consider the ramifications of their reporting before they air it and not (more conveniently) justify it with abstract ideals afterwards when the damage is done.
The ghoulish reporting of the anguish of the families and the broadcasting of the heartrending pleas of the hostages all simply amplify the terror effect and impact of the hostage takers. In essence the news media - especially the tabloid media of both print and TV - is aiding the hostage takers and making life more dangerous for others living in that environment. Governments cannot give in to or pay off hostage takers. That simply sets the precedent that it is a worthwhile vehicle to be used to further a group's aims, whether those be for publicity or for money.
It would be wrong to allow governments to censor news in these circumstances. It would almost certainly be abused if they could. However that does not mean news editors do not have a duty to act responsibly. They must think very carefully before broadcasting/publishing these stories to ensure they are not making matters worse both for the specific hostage(s) they are reporting on and possible future hostages.
Rachael Winn, Stockton UK
Terrorism is no new disease and nor can it be quickly cured or even eradicated for that matter. Instead it is imperative that it be managed through an internationally cohesive, direct and determined policy effort that will seek to limit its devastating effects. No matter how we feel, we cannot and must not pander to the terrorists' requests or even move an inch from our line. The only response they should receive from us is swift justice.
Damien, Chobham, Surrey
I don't think a media black out is the solution but I also don't think its right to exploit people in this way to improve newspaper sales.
They should think of the effect it has on the family's loved ones? Report the facts, but don't show the pictures. The Government says it will not negotiate with terrorists? But surely by broadcasting these videos and pictures you are giving them exactly what they want.
Emma, London UK
I think the press has a lot of the responsibility for what happens in the case of hostages. Hiding behind the banner of "the people have the right to know" a great deal of damage is done. This never ending barrage of horror fills people with fear and distorts reality. It's time for the press to grow up and take more responsibility for the power they have and not for how many papers can it sell or how much prime time they can get.
Michael Cox, Spain
Totally agree with Michael Cox,Spain.
The Media are are being manipulated by the terrorists and yet the media fall even further into the trap of giving them 'the oxygen of publicity'. Stop the videos now,showing them is creating psychological damage to the fabric of society. How this daily onslaught of horror must be affecting our younger generation one can only imagine.
J Newsham, Wigan,Lancashire
The grief of Mr Bigley and his family, and of others like them, is being exploited for political purposes by the kidnappers. The Western media is actively and irresponsibly assisting this because, as products of liberal societies, they are not ready to accept that publicity is not always for the best (and they wish to increase their circulation figures - cynical perhaps, but also true).
Why can the media not simply report the fact that a kidnapping / murder has taken place and leave it at that, without including photos, details of the kidnappers' group, the victim, etc? The manner in which such stories are reported erodes support for the British government at a delicate time, which is exactly what the kidnappers intend. The public is being used and manipulated by murderers and the western media is allowing it to happen.
Kalyana, London, UK
I agree with Kalayana's comments, the media feeds the kidnappers' frenzy and plays right into the terrorists hands. But we do need a free press.
Politicians (British, US and others) continually say that they refuse to talk with terrorists. This is both the wrong policy and absolute rubbish. Think of the IRA situation, the only way Britain improved the situation in Northern Ireland was to talk (secretly) with the IRA.
Communication is the key to many of to-day's problems; business, religious, social, community etc. Let us all talk, negotiate, discuss, review, etc etc.
Mike Bruce, Brisbane, Australia.
The media can report the hostage takings and beheadings, and these they will go on. But, after a time, the public will become increasingly inured to the images that are delivered to them via a media designed to entertain, and the only thing that will re-connect their interest is some new level of horror. The unthinking media is thus the catalyst for escalation of terror by the rendering of horror and atrocity down to everyday news.
Doug, New Brunswick, Canada
It is indefensible that we should even be asking the question of whether the government should allow us to see images which may cause one to reconsider one's support for the war.
What we are seeing is the actions of people who have been bombed by us. As our "enemy" does not possess cluster bombs, fighter jets etc, they resort to less technological methods - and we then act surprised that they have the cheek to fight back!
By reporting frantically on the hostages' fate and screening the messages of the terrorist hostage-takers we exactly follow their agenda of working on public opinion and getting what they want: universal terrorizing of the mind. There should be sober written reports of hostages being taken by these criminals, but no screening of images, videos, or calls for mercy.
The price to be paid is high, but there can simply be no dealing with terrorists, the worst genre of criminals around.
J. Berger, Amsterdam, Netherlands
Hostage taking will not go away but there is no doubt that it has become a cheap, effective public relations exercise. I don't think we should ban the media from coverage but the media need to take a more responsible role in the portrayal of these actions. Putting these stories on the front page certainly isn't putting pressure on the hostage takers to release their captives, it's only adding voice to their cause whilst putting public pressure on our own governments. Hostage taking seems to have become less about demands and more about providing a platform for attention.
Christopher Sanderson, Glasgow, UK
There is no doubt that the publicity given to hostage taking is the primary reason that hostage taking occurs in the first place. Continued and increased publicity will only serve to encourage more hostages to be taken in future, not only in Iraq but also other parts of the world as people realise how effective it can be in creating a media frenzy. Total media blackout, perhaps not, but a simple ban on showing photographs of the hostages themselves could work very well.
David Cawley, London
We absolutely have to broadcast the fact that these events are taking place. They are a direct result of the action taken in our names when this country went to war in Iraq. People should be made aware of what is happening in these countries. News should not be sanitised for the "public good". Rather we, the people, should know what is being done in our names, what the results of those actions are. Then we will be able to tell our leaders what it is that we think of these events and whether we truly believe them to be necessary and worth the cost. We cannot make that judgement if we do not know the full cost of our actions. That is why this is a democracy, not some kind of totalitarian government.
Gavin Harris, London, UK
Well done, people finally got there, providing these terrorists with publicity merely fuels and justifies there activity from their perspective. Whilst yes it means hopefully they wont kill anyone it encourages them that they are being given a voice. This is dangerous as it encourages future kidnapping. Whilst I am sympathetic to the hostage and their relatives you do not work in a country without knowing the risk.
Yes, media publicity empowers terrorists; it is akin to feeding oxygen to a blazing fire. Starve the terrorist fire of media oxygen and the perpetuation of hostage taking will suffocate.
I understand and, to a degree, sympathise with the dilemma of reporters on this sensitive issue.
However, by publicising the kidnappings you are giving the kidnappers exactly what they crave. These fanatics play you and you let them, which only adds fuel to their fire.
In the case of the Italian women. They were set free because that's what the hostage takers wanted. It had absolutely nothing to do with the press and if you think it did then in my view you are very naive.
Tia Gold, London
It is impossible to ban coverage of anything as the internet is accessible to everyone. The problem is the way media in this and other countries reports news. Because we have these 24 hour news channels and huge chunks of evening viewing on the terrestrial channels devoted to news, they have to make everything a hyped up super important earth shattering story. What is needed is less news on TV and to condense the news to 15 minutes at the most please.
Jim, Leeds England
Undoubtedly publicity tends to play into the kidnappers' hands, but the alternative of secrecy gives blanket authority to governments to do what they think best, with little public accountability, formal or informal. In theory democratically governments should work according to public wishes but the reality is not always so, as we all know from history. In this trade-off between leverage in negotiation and public pressure one should always opt for openness, public knowledge and scrutiny over secrecy.
S Bashir, Karachi, Pakistan
I think this is more about presenting both sides to a story. I believe the invasion of Iraq has been repeatedly spun to us as a war of liberation and freedom by western politicians who used the media when it suited them and are now telling the media not to interfere. Now it's time to listen to the other side, even if we call them terrorists. Show both sides and let the viewer sort out what they want to watch or not, and what to believe or not.
Bilal Patel, London, UK
As a nation we cannot bow to the demands of these people. Ken Bigley's horrific situation would only be the start of worse scenarios to come. Let us keep praying with perseverance!
Sean Harris, Newcastle upon Tyne
The media should exercise restraint when reporting these events. I've been watching a news channel here and they show the Ken Bigley video almost every 15 minutes. Then, ironically, they report that the main advantage the terrorists are getting is publicity!
Report it? Yes absolutely. Constantly play the video? No.
This is the problem for 24hr news channels. There is just not enough news, so they repeat everything over and over and over again.
Ian, Currently in Oman
In free societies, people should be allowed to know what's happening in the world. Censorship of the media is a hallmark of autocratic government. An enfranchised population without free access to information is not very different from a disenfranchised one. Regarding the hostage taking, I believe that it's beneficial for people to be aware of the consequences of meddling in the affairs of sovereign nations. I don't believe that hostages should be abandoned. Regarding the taboo of negotiating with terrorists, if the Nat government of South Africa had refused to negotiated with terrorists (and as far as I know, Nelson Mandela is still on the US list of known terrorists), who knows where South Africa would be today?
Ikabot, Cape Town, South Africa
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