As (I think) this blog’s resident Londoner, I thought I would write a few words about yesterday’s events, in particular, ITV News’ decision to air a video of the men suspected of killing a soldier in the minutes after the attack.
Yesterday, in the 6.30pm bulletin, ITV news aired a video of a man with bloodstained hands, carrying weapons that I think everyone watching assumes (with reason) were just used to decapitate a soldier in the street, explaining his actions. The footage was, in the words of one journalist I used to work with, “jaw dropping.” But I think we need to re-phrase the above statement somewhat. Rather, it should probably read: Yesterday, someone at ITV signed off on the idea of airing a video of a suspected murderer, aiding and abetting the act of violence that he had just committed. What I want to know is who signed off on that decision, and why. Let’s work these two questions backwards for a second.
I am a staunch advocate of a free press. Not in the Guardian “Oh hey guys, let’s let the government regulate us, because it won’t look so bad that we cocked up our scoop that killed the News of The World” sense, but in the sense that the press should be free to dig dirt wherever it can find it, and if, as a cabinet minister, you can’t be bothered to change the pin on your voicemail, then that’s your own damn fault. Since such a position isn’t too popular these days (and is mostly abused to provide lurid celeb stories with no public-interest justification) please read the rest of this with that in mind, because I think ITV News was wrong to air that video when it did, and in the manner that it did so.
Why was it wrong? For a number of reasons. It was, to be sure, a momentous scoop. I doubt there was a news room in England, or, perhaps, the world, that wasn’t glued to the TV to watch it. But it was also wholly irresponsible. Let me count the ways:
1) The intent of the man speaking in that video was to alter the political calculus of the British government, and, by extension, the society we live in. In airing the video so near to the attacks, ITV is now complicit in this. In fact, ITV has probably changed the playbook for terrorists. Anyone of the same mindset watching that video now knows that ITV, and any similar media organisation, is now a hotline to disseminating a message.
2) The purpose of making that video is probably the same as the purpose for killing someone in a brutal fashion – to sow fear. In airing the video, at peak broadcast time, ITV knowingly aided and abetted this. Show a video like that to the world within hours of a terrorist attack, and you can be sure that people will be scared. There is no way that a news organisation can break unwritten rules about imagery involving blood without knowing that it will have a psychological effect on the public.
3) One of the key aims of small scale attacks is to provoke a response. ITV acted as a banner for that response, in the form of the EDL. Knowing the type, it’s likely that some would have shown up to Woolwich to cause trouble, anyway, but airing a video like that, at that time, is effectively a call to arms for those people. Tell me, ITV, when did you last hear of 100 men involved in running battles with police in the aftermath of a UK terrorist attack?
The standard reaction would be, I think, “We’re a news organisation, it was the scoop of the year, and you can’t censor us.”
ITV didn’t have to show this video. If it was out there, it is likely that someone else would have published it. This is the race to the bottom of British press standards in action. But, I think we can add the fact that it was the scoop of the year into the equation, with media organisations, it would be stupid not to. This leads us to more questions, however. Precisely, why that format, and why at 6.30pm? Why did they air the man’s statement, and not paraphrase it? Did anyone, at any point, put some basic thought into this question? Could they not have demonstrated a shorter clip, and then had the presenter outline the rest of the statement? Same scoop, different output, different impact. Similarly, was there a precise need to release it immediately? If ITV had the rights to the footage, could they have sat on it and aired it at a later hour? Even if they were adamant in their right to screen the whole thing, how about sanitising it slightly for prime time, and showing the full clip at 10pm? It would modify some (not all) of the adverse consequences above.
This is, above all, not a question of press censorship, but press responsibility in emergencies. As a kid, I remember actors talking over videos of Gerry Adams speaking, so I know that censorship doesn’t work. Furthermore, it shouldn’t work, as above, I believe in a free press. But we expect media organisations to be something more than an uncensored feed of the world around us. Anyone who wants to watch soldiers get blown up by IEDs can do so, thanks to the internet, but media organisations by and large don’t show grisly footage for a reason. Editorial control, not content, is what differentiates ITV and other media organisations from Reddit/Twitter. That’s why I want to know who made the call to air that footage yesterday. Not least for the reasons above, but also because I would quite like to see the two men prosecuted for their crimes to the full extent of the law. One of the notable things about the footage is that ITV did not mask the man’s face in the initial video, but started to do so later. Did ITV’s legal department sign off on broadcasting the unaltered footage? Those two men are now murder suspects. We may all consider them guilty as hell, but the rule of law states that until they enter a guilty plea, or a jury of their peers finds them guilty in a court of law, they are suspects. In such cases, any inch of space gives the defence room to manoeuvre. Maybe a legal expert reading this could tell me how prejudicial to a fair trial the decision to air the unaltered footage was. ITV cannot have aired that footage ignorant that the man in the video was a murder suspect. If either of those men get a day off what they’re due, then that’s ITV’s fault.
I’d like to wrap this up by saying that such footage shouldn’t be buried. In the age of the internet, it is doubtful that it would remain so. But the press isn’t the internet, as much as the advent of the digital age has altered journalism. We assign them considerable freedom and latitude to hunt down stories precisely because we (maybe unwisely) expect that they will treat information with care and a sense of social responsibility. There is no legal sanction for irresponsibility in this case, I think, but there is a moral one. I’m a pessimist, I think there is little to prevent something like this happening again. I only hope that ITV works out a way to respond to its competing priorities in a more responsible manner in future.