Today, September 26, something is on the cards that may change the world and I don’t mean the first of the US presidential debates. In London, senior journalists and news managers from three big European countries are calling for the media to rethink its addiction to cheap headlines and scaremongering, to deny terrorists what Margaret Thatcher famously called “the oxygen of publicity”.
Today’s discussion at Chatham House will be recorded and broadcast on the BBC on September 28. There will be another, similar debate next month at Intelligence Squared in London. The concept of recalibrating the way we cover terrorist attacks is going to change our world far more than the debate between bumptious Donald Trump and Secretary Clinton.
First, let’s consider who’s discussing what.
There’s Simon Jenkins, former editor of ‘The Times’ and a respected columnist for ‘The Guardian’. There’s Jonathan Munro, BBC head of newsgathering, Fatima Manji of Channel 4 News, Amil Khan, a former Reuters journalist,sometime advisor to the Syrian opposition coalition and currently a “media consultant” (whatever that means). There’s Sophie Desjardin, head of the French Service, Euronews and Dr Peter Busch of the Department of War Studies, King’s College London. It’s chaired by the BBC’s security correspondent Gordon Corera.
They’re going to be talking about how and when to turn off the lights and attention for terrorist atrocities.
French newspaper Le Monde has already vowed it won’t publish photographs of those who perpetrate terrorist attacks so that they are denied “posthumous glorification”. Is there a case for a similar self-imposed, self-enforced code across the UK and Europe? What is the correct balance between reporting a terrorist attack, suppressing terrorist propaganda and informing the wider public?
Simon Jenkins has a good line on this: “It is not the bomb but the response to the bomb that is the terrorist’s best friend.” Removing the hyperbole – terrorism as an “act of war”, “changing the course of history” – and so on, could detoxify public discourse. As the Intelligence Squared flyer for the debate puts it, “today the barbarous cohorts of ISIS may be losing territory in the Middle East, but they are gaining ground in the headline wars.”
And politicians – Nicolas Sarkozy in France, Donald Trump in the US – jump onto the bandwagon with highly charged commentary and populist scaremongering. Simon’s latest Guardian comment in the aftermath of the crude bombing attempt by Ahmad Khan Rahmani in New York says it all: “It is not Rahami but Trump’s response to Rahami that we should fear.”