Media emergency plan for UK terror attack drawn up

Report says accrediting journalists will be vital after terror attack

A blueprint of how UK journalists could best cover a major catastrophe like the September 11 terror attacks has been drawn up by a working party representing the media, Government and emergency services.

It has produced a report based on an analysis of the lessons learnt by the events in the US last September when up to 8,000 journalists, many from overseas, attempted to cover the attacks on New York and Washington.

The Media Emergency Forum joint working party, which met for the first time in March to discuss issues arising from September 11, has made a series of recommendations. They include:

lWays to speed up accreditation of journalists at the scene of a disaster.

lPlans for a media centre capable of handling thousands of journalists.

lA call for all media organisations to review urgently their own contingency plans in the event of a major incident.

Journalists on the working party have welcomed the way the vital role of the media in informing the public after a major catastrophe has been acknowledged by the Government and emergency services and say the co-operation offered is unprecedented.

At the heart of the working party’s recommendations is the importance of a system to accredit the thousands of journalists wanting to cover a major story like September 11.

Its report reflects the frustration of journalists who covered the World Trade Center attacks and had to queue for up to 10 hours before being given accreditation. The working party recommends a twin-track approach, based on the UK press card and specific event accreditation.

It says access to controlled zones would continue to be at the discretion of the police "who would regard the UK press card as the primary source of accreditation for British media".

It recommends raising awareness of the press card system among British journalists to increase their uptake and encouraging UK-based foreign journalists to apply for cards.

The report also suggests that accreditation facilities should be set up capable of quickly producing photo passes at the scene of an emergency.

BSkyB executive producer Simon Bucks, joint-chairman of the working party told Press Gazette: "News organisations that covered September 11 in New York all reported back that it was a very difficult story to cover, not least because of the huge number of people who turned up.

"The lessons that were learnt from that should be shared and acted upon here. It is a great stride forward for the media, the Government and the emergency services to sit together around one table and talk about how best the media can be served on major stories.

"If half the things in the report get acted on then it could be translated into better coverage not just of catastrophes but other stories that we cover on a routine basis."

The report proposes a draft protocol between media, Government, police and other emergency services at the time of a catastrophic incident.

This would involve journalists having access to a media centre as close to the incident as possible, which would allow live broadcasts, provide regular briefings and interviews with emergency services, and access to victims willing to give interviews.

The report suggests material could be pooled by news groups in the first few days after the incident, but adds that it should be negotiated at the time rather than in advance. It says consideration should be given to requests for news blackouts of sensitive information, like agreements that already exist with police on kidnap victims.

Working party member Bob Satchwell, executive director of the Society of Editors, said: "The experience of September 11 shows you do need to plan in advance, which is something that journalists don’t usually do. They usually react to a disaster. This is, in effect, joined-up thinking between the media and the Government. "

Despite the co-operation, Bucks said the media was "still in the business of turning over stones. We’ve not sold out."

Lucian Hudson, director of communications at the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs, and the other joint-chairman of the working party, said the aim of the report was to raise awareness. Comments on the report can be sent to Sarah Charman, secretary to the working party at sarah.charman@cabinet-office.x.gsi.gov.uk.

By Jon Slattery

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