The media has had a double warning this week not to raise public fears nor give away military secrets in the face of an impending war on terrorists.
The Daily Express headline on Tuesday – "I’ll nuke Britain says evil bin Laden" – was the obvious catalyst for a Downing Street admonition to the media about responsible coverage of terrorism.
The Prime Minister’s spokesman said in a Lobby briefing that there was no evidence of a specific threat to the UK and called for the media not to raise fears unnecessarily.
Commenting on the ‘media fest’ in recent days over the possibility of chemical and biological attacks, he said: "It’s important that the reporting isn’t too over the top. If bin Laden’s hatred of the West is translated into, ‘He’ll nuke the UK’, it’s understandable people should be worried."
The warning was augmented by a letter from Rear Admiral Nick Wilkinson, secretary of the DA-Notice Committee, telling the media it would be helpful if they "minimised" speculation about plans for military action in case it put troops in danger.
"It would be operationally helpful and a reassurance to those going into action … and even greater care could be exercised in considering information which could be of use to terrorists," he wrote.
The pleas came on the day the World Health Organisation said the use of killer diseases was no longer unthinkable and Western Governments must ensure they are prepared for such attacks.
It is, Mirror editor Piers Morgan told Press Gazette, "a delicate line" that newspaper editors must tread. "We do have a duty to be responsible but we also have a duty, for historical purposes, to record what is happening.
"We ran a story on Saturday that the SAS was moving over the border of Afghanistan which was proven to be completely true by coverage in the Sunday papers that they were engaged in fire. But it was denied by the Government over the weekend.
"There is an issue here – we don’t want to jeopardise any ongoing operations and we understand there is a reluctance to give operational detail, but that is a different issue from sensationalist headlines.
"My view to my staff is straightforward. When you have the US vice-president saying, ‘I want bin Laden’s head on a platter’, or the president saying, ‘Wanted: dead or alive’, then you have a story you don’t need to spin.
"Our headline on Tuesday, ‘Crush the Infidels’, might seem utterly sensational but it’s a direct quote from bin Laden’s own words. That is perfectly legitimate tabloid reporting."
The Government had made a valid marker, he thought, but it had to be tempered by the fact that it "mustn’t try to suppress genuinely accurate news reporting as it unfurls".
Sun editor David Yelland believes Downing Street was right to criticise some papers for stating as fact that a chemical or biological attack was imminent. A Sun leader on Wednesday said: "The media has a responsibility not to do the terrorists’ work for them."
Mark Damazer, BBC deputy director of news, said the need to avoid giving away valuable and privileged information that the enemy couldn’t otherwise have was "perfectly understood and very reasonable".
He added: "But it wouldn’t be realistic to suggest that we couldn’t talk about broad strategic options because that’s part of our service." Nick Pollard, head of Sky News, said information from the Pentagon and the Ministry of Defence about plans for military action had been "pretty tight".
"What speculation there has been from all the broadcasters has been perfectly fair and reasonable," he said. "There has been a lot of speculation about the effectiveness and the impact of the different types of military action, and all that is perfectly legitimate."
Richard Tait, ITN’s editor-in-chief, said Rear Admiral Wilkinson’s letter was unlikely to alter the way the news organisation operated.
"You expect a bit of this at the start of military conflicts," he said. "We understand the rationale that it’s necessary to protect people, but it won’t really change the way we operate."
Independent editor Simon Kelner said it was a matter of conscience for individual editors. "In general, the media’s coverage has been responsible, with one or two exceptions.
"Where there isn’t any military action, a lot of coverage is based on rumour and speculation and what we are being told by various spokesmen. And there’s obviously a tendency to go looking for stories that are going to cause a bit of a splash. But by and large, the coverage has been exhaustive and responsible."
Editor Paul Dacre’s spokesman at the Daily Mail said: "We thoroughly welcome the call from No.10 and we believe most titles have shown tremendous professionalism over the past two weeks."
By Jean Morgan and Julie Tomlin