The reporting of terror and the case for restraint


The Independent

24 October 2004

Once again, images of a hostage in Iraq have shocked the nation. We have seen Margaret Hassan's face on television and in newspapers while, in many cases no doubt, wondering whether the level of interest that we show, and that the media reflects back to us, is tainted by voyeurism.

If Kenneth Bigley or Mrs Hassan had been captured with the sole intention of extracting a financial ransom, the standard procedure in the West would have been to impose a news blackout. That cannot apply in Iraq, and it is clearly in the public interest to report the facts as they are known. On the other hand, there is a danger that some of the coverage of the two cases has tended towards a pornography of terror.

Was it necessary, for example, for several newspapers yesterday to carry large front-page pictures of Mrs Hassan in distress, coupled with such emotionally overblown headlines? While conventionally newspapers are licensed, perhaps required, to ventilate stories of human interest, in the case of these kidnappings, surely different rules must apply. This dilemma is being played out in television newsrooms, under the added pressure of 24-hour reporting. Sky News and ITV News broadcast parts of Mrs Hassan's pleas for mercy, recorded by her captors. The BBC showed admirable restraint in showing only stills.

The danger of excess is twofold. One is of intrusion, of dwelling unnecessarily on suffering. Sometimes this can be outweighed by the desire of the hostage's family for any publicity that might put pressure on anyone with influence to work for their release. But that cannot justify news organisations wallowing vicariously in other people's grief.

The other risk is that of conveying the messages of terrorists, and of investing them with an emotional power to which they are not entitled. Some newspapers linked pictures of Mrs Hassan with her plea, in large type, to Tony Blair not to move troops to Baghdad. These were not her words, however, but those her captors presumably required her to say.

We do not make these observations in the belief that we occupy any moral high ground. Journalistic decisions of these kinds often have to balance conflicting imperatives under time pressure. We are not sure, either, that our own reporting of Mr Bigley's capture and death always got that balance right. We do hope, however, that we have learnt from it.

Our intention is to err on the side of restraint in presentation and language in reporting Mrs Hassan's plight. We will endeavour to report the facts but not overburden them. We will publish pictures that may show suffering but will attempt not to add to it. We may not always get it right, in this case or in future cases which, unfortunately, seem inevitable. But if we do fall short it will not be for want of trying.