Bombings and arrests put news ethics in the dock

THE LONDON terror attacks have taken television news into uncharted territory over the past five weeks.

The
bombings themselves, the bloody aftermath, police sieges and actual
arrests have been beamed live into our homes and it’s both harrowing
and riveting stuff.

Viewing figures for the main news programmes
jumped by up to a quarter after the terror attacks on 7 and 21 July,
and the West London arrests on 29 July.

Even now, news audiences
are still well above summer averages and the news agenda has only just
begun to settle down into a more typical summer pattern.

Reporting a story of this magnitude and sensitivity raises all kinds of tricky ethical issues for the news broadcasters.

It’s
a truism worth repeating that terrorism is all about instilling terror
and it’s the broadcasting of terror which does this far more widely
than the acts themselves. There’s also the matter of decency and
respect.

News editors have had to make some tough judgements
about what to show. In general, I think they have done this very well,
but when we look at the wreckage of the bombed number 30 bus a few
seconds after the actual explosion, it’s as well to remember we are
also looking at a murder scene and the remains of 13 dead bodies.

The
emergency services – in particular the police – are also understandably
concerned about the media coverage, especially when it could
potentially interfere with an active operation or investigation.

News
camera operators were asked not to film certain elements of the Notting
Hill siege in case the suspects were watching rolling news channels on
their TV sets indoors.

The leak of forensic photos of the tube
bombings to the US network ABC also upset the police, who feared it
could hamper their inquiries and alert other terror cells to their
potential vulnerabilities.

On the other hand, the police clearly
need the mass media. I doubt if the suspects would have been rounded up
quite so quickly without the early release of CCTV imagery to TV and
newspapers.

The Government needs the TV news programmes to
project a message of reassurance and to appeal for calm, but some
politicians have also criticised TV news for contributing to a febrile
atmosphere of fear and anxiety.

I don’t think this is fair, nor
do I think you can have “too much information” in the public domain
when it comes to terror threats.

Without information the fear
factor can only be amplified, and without public support and vigilance,
the police are unlikely to gain the intelligence to identify, let alone
capture, suspected terrorists.

The most extraordinary images of
the London terror story so far are unquestionably those videoed by an
alert neighbour of the surrender and arrest of the Notting Hill terror
suspects a fortnight ago.

ITV probably broke its own record for
exclusive news footage, paying in the region of £65,000 for this
breathtaking sequence. In my view it was worth every penny; in fact I
think it was probably worth more than that.

Within 24 hours, ITV News (and the Daily Mail) got credited all over the world on all media. That’s priceless.

Irresistible images of that kind are exceptionally rare and keep their value as archive for quite some time.

Less
valuable, but almost as powerful, were the mobile phone images taken on
that day and during the bus and tube bombings on 7 July.

Much has been written about the “citizen journalist” armed with a phone camera.

Although
it isn’t a brand new phenomenon, everyone who has watched a TV news
bulletin is now aware there’s a market for this stuff.

Quick cash and 15 minutes of fame are available to those accidental news tourists who witness and record events as they happen.

Of course, this phenomenon does raise interesting issues about editorial veracity and context.

It
didn’t take long for people to start manufacturing blooper videos for
Jeremy Beadle and it probably won’t be long before people work out they
can fake news images too. Just think of the fake photos which were sold
to the Daily Mirror of British soldiers apparently abusing Iraqi
prisoners.

TV newsrooms are absolutely desperate for this kind of
eyewitness material – so much so that they’re actively appealing for it
on their websites and on air.

A letter in last week’s Press
Gazette from the Chartered Institute of Journalists highlighted the
activities of London Tonight, which is appealing on air and on its
website for mobile video footage or stills.

Viewers were told “we want you, the viewer, to feel a part of the exciting world of newsgathering”.

The
CIoJ asks if news organisations making this kind of appeal are actually
encouraging a form of electronic rubbernecking, which is both risky to
the public and potentially to the emergency services.

A
professional camera operator is trained to understand the risks as they
peer through a viewfinder; a member of the public with a mobile phone
camera is not.

It may seem improbable, but if the human flight instinct is replaced by a film instinct then people could get hurt.

A
final observation on ITV News’s exclusive arrest images. I’m told that
during the bidding process involving all the major news broadcasters,
there was significant pressure on the ITV News department to share the
amazing scoop with its ITN stablemate Channel 4 News rather than the
Daily Mail.

On this occasion it chose not to buddy up with its colleagues down the corridor.

An interesting dilemma when you’re about to renegotiate your news supply contract with a key customer such as Channel 4.

Chris Shaw is senior programme controller of Five

Next week: Robin Fletcher

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