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The Pressures of 24-Hour News

This article appeared originally in the guide to News Xchange 2004, Algarve, 18-19 November 2004

The twenty-first 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 life.

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 fine line.

About Simon Bucks

Since writing this article Simon Bucks has become the managing editor of Sky News.

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