Terrorism and the Responsibility of the Media

Posted by es328 at Mar 23, 2017 09:36 AM |
Dr Rob Dover discusses the responsibilities of media reporting on terrorist incidents, following the attack on Westminster on 22 March

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Yesterday's attack on London was as terrible as it was predictable and long-expected. The impact on those families who have been bereaved and those who loved-ones have life-changing and serious injuries will be life-long. There will be a tiny minority in the country who applaud the attacks and agree with whatever political ends it may have had. How this is reported will have a large impact upon societal tensions and whether the country once again rushes into a legislative response to a criminal outrage.

But whilst the coverage of yesterday's attack was shocking for the events that it so vividly catalogued, there were additional worrying dimensions to it that potentially further compromise the security of London.

The desire of all forms of media (be they traditional or new) to fill the vacuum in rolling coverage by adding new information 'as it breaks' is understandable. For the viewer, listener or browser, the additive or captive quality of rolling news depends upon a sense of us being involved in the event. Consequently, each new angle is poured over, and a contemporary oral history is formed. Based on what happened yesterday, though, I believe there should now be limits placed on aspects of the coverage, and in particular upon the reporting of the standard operational procedures around responding to terrorist events, and in terms of depicting the images of key counter-terrorism officials.

Restricting the reporting on these elements are important because yesterday - if we view the attack as having some kind of planning behind it  - was valuable to anyone involved in planning further attacks. It might be the case - for example - that this attack was merely the warm up to 'the real event'. If it was the planning mastermind would now know how the close protection unit respond to secure the political leadership's safety in an attack. They would know the type of vehicle, if not the vehicle itself, and have a very good sense of the route taken away and destination. To place the leadership of the country in this kind of danger to fill a gap in the coverage, is unacceptable and needs to be addressed. Even if we can also reasonably assume that the protocols will change as a result of having had to publicly air them in a live response. Similarly, the number of police officers involved in counterterrorism and parliamentary protection whose images were broadcast in close up - given that these officers perform a delicate policing task discretely - also poses a significant potential risk to their personal safety. We do not want our policing and security officers to have to wear balaclavas (it's offputting), but if they cannot be protected from unwarranted attention it may have to be the case.

The media outlets may have concluded that social media would reveal all, and so they may as well be part of that process and to do it more responsibly. Perhaps. But ultimately what purpose does it serve to reveal these details? We might say the same about the attackers, and their motivations. Keeping them within a criminal frame of reference would help to undermine the utility of the propaganda effort this is meant to serve for them.

By Rob Dover,

Associate Professor in Intelligence and International Security, School of History, Politics and International Relations, University of Leicester

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