No logic in police request not to show bomb suspects' faces

Pictures were already in wide circulation before the BBC showed them in evening broadcast, argues Jon Williams

Here at the BBC, we’ve got pretty thick skins. In the days since 7
July, Fox News has accused us of being “almost a foreign registered
agent of Hezbollah” and “endangering the lives” of its US viewers – and
that from a channel whose motto is “Fair and Balanced”.

Then last week, in Press Gazette, the head of Sky News – Fox’s UK
cousin – claimed the BBC was “mad” to show photographs of three of the
failed London bomb suspects in reports of the men’s first court
appearance.

Presumably Nick Pollard thinks the publisher of these
pages is also mad – Press Gazette used the same pictures of Muktar Said
Ibrahim, Ramzi Mohammed and Yassin Hassan-Omar to illustrate its front
page story. So too did ITV News in its report of the court case. The
truth, of course, is that none of us are mad – or bad.

For two
weeks, the pictures of the three men, along with the fourth suspect
arrested in Rome, had been on the front pages of newspapers in the UK
and around the world, to say nothing of the thousands of leaflets
distributed on the public transport network. For a fortnight, the CCTV
images had rarely been off our TV screens, the suspects had become some
of the most familiar faces in Britain. On the day they appeared in
court, they were pictured on “wanted” posters in dozens of tube
stations.

So when the Metropolitan Police asked the BBC and other
media organisations to stop showing these images, we were faced with
the likelihood of viewers of the 10 O’clock News returning home from
work having seen the faces of the suspects on tube trains, in station
concourses, and in the windows of hundreds of shops, but not on their
television.

There was no logic to the request. Far from “defying”
the Metropolitan Police, we spoke to senior officials at New Scotland
Yard and to the Crown Prosecution Service before broadcasting the
pictures. Neither had any “strong” objection.

The relationship
between police and media is vital to both and it is one that is built
on trust. It’s not unusual for the police to ask the media to withhold
certain information for operational reasons. Since the blasts of 7 July
and the failed attacks of 21 July, the Metropolitan Police have made a
number of such requests, which the BBC has agreed to.

Indeed, BBC
News and the other broadcasters approved a rare “news blackout” in the
early stages of the raids in West London on 29 July, which resulted in
the arrest of three of the suspected bombers. However, such requests
need to be exceptional, we need to start from the position of: why
shouldn’t we tell our listeners and viewers what we know?

When
the BBC’s US partner ABC obtained exclusive pictures of some of the
devices found in the car abandoned in Luton by the 7 July bombers, the
police asked British broadcasters not to show the images in the UK. At
that point, only those involved in the bomb plot would have known what
the bombs looked like. There was a clear operational reason why we
shouldn’t show the pictures.

In a series of late-night
conversations with the police, the BBC agreed to pull its overnight
News 24 broadcast of ABC’s World News Tonight to ensure we didn’t
jeopardise the police investigation.

We subsequently decided
against using the pictures in our own output until Sky put them into
the public domain by running them in its 5pm newscast, in defiance of
the police request. Odd then, that Sky’s boss should choose to
criticise others, particularly in view of his comment that
“broadcasters are mad to ignore police requests, particularly
operational ones”.

Maybe all this has something to do with the
fact BBC News 24 has been the viewers’ news channel of choice since the
London bombs. In July, 15m people watched News 24 compared with 13m
people who viewed Sky News. Each week, the BBC’s lead over Sky has
increased. More than 30m in the UK watched the BBC’s coverage of 7
July, so perhaps Nick Pollard has other reasons to be “mad”.

But
there is a more fundamental issue here. Pollard is right to suggest
that the media needs more guidelines on contempt, particularly in the
age of 24-hour news. I’m no barrack room lawyer: the BBC has a team of
first class legal minds better qualified than I am to pass judgment.
But there is a question mark over what creates “a substantial risk that
the course of public justice will be seriously impeded or prejudiced”.

The
timeframe is also vital, as the longer the gap between publication and
trial, the less the substantial risk of serious prejudice is likely to
be. It’s that lack of clarity that makes for confusion.

The
events of 7 July, the aftermath, the sieges and the arrests have
brought out the best in the broadcast news teams. It has been the
finest hour for the BBC, Sky and ITN. I’ve no reason to doubt Nick
Pollard’s motives, for more than most, he can claim credit for setting
the standard for 24-hour broadcast journalism. He says that while Sky
News doesn’t “agree to all police requests, we do consider each one
very seriously”. But so does the BBC. All the UK broadcasters recognise
they have a broader responsibility over and above the next headline.

And we would certainly be mad to jeopardise that.

Jon Williams is BBC home news editor

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