30 Jan 2015

Does live TV aid terrorists?

Scotland Yard has asked TV stations not to “expose tactics” by broadcasting live images in the middle of a terrorist siege. Are such fears founded? Channel 4 News weighs up the arguments.


Argument 1: it can give remote commanders ‘eyes’

Aside from Paris, much of Scotland Yard’s fears appear linked to the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks. That 62-hour siege was broadcast on India’s rolling television network almost continuously – a move that came under intense criticism and has prompted calls for changes in broadcasting policy.

“Television channels airing live feed of commandos being air-dropped on to a building captured by terrorists not only compromised our safety but also took away the element of surprise,” sources from India’s National Security Guard later said.

The fears and fury were not unfounded. It later emerged that planners of that attack were watching rolling news coverage from their headquarters in Pakistan and giving instructions to the gunmen via mobile phones in real time.

Argument 2: it gives much wanted publicity

The 16-hour siege at the Lindt Chocolat Café in Sydney’s central business district last year saw hostage-taker Haron Monis attempt to exploit several social media and TV channels to extend his messages and demands.

There are suggestions that the shop was deliberately targeted because of its proximity to the Channel 7’s newsroom directly opposite. The flag in the window and his demand for an Islamic State flag are thought to have been politically and televisually motivated.

Audio recordings of the hostages were released after an initial attempt by Monis, 50, to have his messages broadcast by Australian media.

When that failed to elicit a response, four YouTube videos appeared online apparently framed, filmed and uploaded by his hostages. But advised by police, a blanket decision was taken by executives for them not to be broadcast at all.

Argument 3: it can interfere with police tactics

The final hour of the Paris attacks earlier this month played out across two very different venues. In the rural north east of Paris, Chérif and Said Kouachi were stationed inside a printer’s warehouse, with one main road leading to the premises and very limited access otherwise.

Police could therefore keep the press and eyewitnesses away from the scene – and the media had a very limited detailed visuals.

It was in stark contrast to the the kosher supermarket in eastern Paris where Amedy Coulibaly held hostages. That was a widely accessible public area with multiple camera viewpoints. Unsurprisingly, the siege played out in almost full public view.

Picture: Indian National Security Guard (NSG) commando abseils from a helicopter onto the rooftop of Nariman House at Colaba Market in Mumbai on 28 November 2008. The NSG later suggested that incessant detailed TV news coverage hampered operations and “took away the element of surprise”


Argument 1: news is for editors – not the state – to arbitrate

Thus runs the democratic argument: editorial decisions should remain the decision of editors – not the police or intelligence services. But there is always scope for guidance and sensible broadcasting restrictions to apply, where appropriate.

During the denouement of the Sydney siege, Sky News opted not to show live footage of the shootout, while the YouTube videos framed and uploaded inside the shop were hardly shown anywhere at all.

Similarly BBC News reporting guidelines state: “We install a delay when broadcasting live material of sensitive stories, for example a school siege or plane hijack. This is particularly important when the outcome is unpredictable and we may otherwise risk showing distressing material that is unsuitable for live broadcast.”

Some news channels have taken guidance rather than instruction.

Argument 2: there is little evidence of TV’s usefulness to a hostage taker

Aside from the Mumbai attacks, there is little cast-iron evidence suggesting terrorists are in a position to scrutinise TV reports in real time – especially when acting in a “lone-wolf” capacity.

Conversely, rolling news coverage in a developing story allows a crucial public accountability that a “blackout” policy could easily obfuscate.

But Nigel Somerville, a security expert who has advised governments on hostage policy, told Channel 4 News: “There is no doubt modern media can endanger a hostage rescue operation if there is accurate and timely footage showing what stage a rescue mission is at.

“One should assume that acts carried out in a European stronghold like Paris, Sydney or London will be monitoring TV, radio and social media, as they will expect a story to generate headlines. Broadcast of troops, cordon and capabilities definitely jeopardise operations.”

Argument 3: digital technology has made live streaming inevitable

When the Iranian embassy hostage crisis played out on the BBC back in 1979, it was gripping and important political television.

But the world has moved on. The rapid advancement of digital technology means that, even if broadcasters adhere to stricter rules, viewers will inevitably be able to find footage elsewhere.

As live newscasting becomes cheaper, faster and more accessible, it will become more difficult to impose state broadcasting bans.

Apps such as Jumicam and Ustream have made it easier for anyone to live-stream – a trend that is only going to be more prevalent in the years ahead.