Sky News decision led to 'hostage death' in Edinburgh simulation

Sky News has been accused of being “extremely irresponsible” in its handling of breaking news by the head of BBC television news.

Peter Horrocks was responding to comments made by Sky News editor John Ryley during a Edinburgh Television Festival session debating how to handle live news.

As part of a reconstruction, Ryley revealed that he would broadcast footage which organisers of the experiment claimed would have led to a hostage being killed.

Horrocks told Press Gazette: “I thought that what John Ryley said was extremely irresponsible and showed that Sky isn’t interested or concerned with being responsible – it just cares about being first.”

The experiment, “Terror Tapes: Broadcast or be Damned”, revolved around a rapidly changing set of circumstances at which end the editors had to decide whether to broadcast a live-rescue attempt of the hostage.

The editors were aware the hostage takers watched their broadcast; Sky chose to go live with the footage, which resulted in the hostage’s death.

From the outset, Ryley said he would run the piece and maintained his position despite changing circumstances within the fictional scenario.

“The key thing is transparency,”

he said. “If we didn’t know for sure if it was true, we’d be totally transparent. We’d tell people that and I don’t see any reason why we wouldn’t. We’re in the business of telling people information.”

When the Sky News coverage tipped off the hostage takers, Ryley said it was not his fault. “I’m not in the business of trying to rescue hostages.

I’m a broadcaster, I’m a journalist. I’m in the business of disclosure not censorship.

It’s [the police’s] job to rescue the guy.”

The BBC’s News at Ten editor Craig Oliver stuck to BBC editorial guidelines by putting a delay on the footage.

Rolling news came in for sharp criticism at the television festival. Newsnight presenter Jeremy Paxman slammed the “vacuousness” of content that filled constant coverage, while novelist Lionel Shriver said that news was in danger of succumbing to what she termed “the hyper narrative” – the willingness by the media to inflate a story up using exaggeration, rumour and conspiracy.

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