[Media-watch] Is the media a weapon of war? - Sunday Herald - 3/10/2004

Julie-ann Davies jadavies2004 at yahoo.co.uk
Sun Oct 3 12:36:44 BST 2004


Burning question: is the media a weapon of war?
Media: The lingering fate of the hostage Kenneth Bigley has dominated recent 
news reports. Despite criticisms that the headlines are promoting the 
fundamentalists' agenda, last week's footage of Bigley's second plea to Tony 
Blair saw some of the most emotionally charged coverage so far. Steven Vass 
asked news editors how they handled the dilemma

Martin Newland, Editor, Daily Telegraph

The Daily Telegraph has featured the story a number of times on its front 
page, and has carried some additional pieces and comment further in. 
Although it ran Bigley's "Please help me Mr Blair" statement as its page one 
headline on Thursday, September 23, its coverage has been less emotionally 
charged than The Independent and The Guardian.

"Ask me if I like reporting it, no. Ask me if I must and the answer's yes," 
says Newland. "If you are a newspaper, you have to report news, and this is 
big news. But reporting news also runs the risk of playing [Abu Musab] 
al-Zarqawi's game. There needs to be a certain nuance in the way you do it 
in case you can be seen as assisting his political ends.

'There was never a debate (in the editorial conference) about whether it 
should be on the front page. It is the first British hostage and there are 
enormous implications for the government of the day."

But there was some conference discussion over how far the story should be 
extended on the inside pages. Newland says the Telegraph was careful not to 
give it extra space simply to score political points against the government.

Charles McGhee, editor, Evening Times

The Evening Times has run the story mostly on page six, with the exception 
of last Thursday, when it reported Kenneth Bigley's second filmed statement. 
On that day, the story was the front-page splash.

McGhee says the main reason for this low-key approach was that the times of 
day when the story was breaking were not suited to evening paper deadlines. 
"We didn't want something on page one announcing one thing while the radio 
and television were announcing something else," he says.

He adds: "I think all news papers have a responsibility when British 
citizens' lives hang in the balance and their approach could have a 
detrimental effect on how the hostages are treated. We saw that with the 
Mirror over the fake pictures that they published. "

He says it is naive to argue that the coverage will affect public opinion in 
the UK. "The public have pretty well made up their minds on Britain's 
involvement in Iraq and have made it well known."

John Mullin, Executive Editor Of The Independent

The Indy has used its poster-style front covers to give the story maximum 
emotional impact. On Friday September 24, it carried pictures of Iraq's 
interim prime minister Iyad Allawi and Bigley's wife under the heading 
"Parallel Worlds", playing up the differences between the official version 
of events and the situation on the ground. Last Thursday, it carried a 
picture of Bigley helpless in a cage. Underneath it said: "The agony of 
Kenneth Bigley".

Mullin says: "Our tack has been to make it very personal and very much about 
[Bigley], certainly in front-page terms. The underlying issues are covered 
mostly inside."

He says the paper's coverage has "absolutely not" been about furthering an 
anti-war agenda. "We do have a very firm and very clear stance on the war 
and how it's been conducted, but Ken Bigley is completely distinct. I would 
be very dis appointed if anyone thought we covered the Bigley story because 
of our political stance."

Richard Neville, Deputy Editor, Press & Journal

The Press & Journal has given the story at least a page a day on most days 
since it broke. It was the splash on Thursday, September 23, and also on the 
front page on September 24.

Neville says that the reasons for giving the story such prominence were: 
"Sympathy for a man caught in the most hellish of situations, and also the 
visual images of him with his captors and the frank appeals he made to Tony 

"This was a very human way of bringing Iraq back into focus, and the fact 
that [last week] was the Labour Party conference dovetailed with this very 

He says there was not much discussion of the danger of giving the captors a 
platform. "When you have global broadcasters and news feeds and the 
internet, it would be very difficult for editors to square with their 
readers why they chose to edit stories that were available out of some 
patriotic duty."

Jonathan Grun Editor, The Press Association

PA is one of the agencies that supplies feeds of news stories to newspapers 
and broadcasters. It covered as many personal and political sides of the 
story as possible. It left nothing out on grounds of taste or enemy 
propaganda, and included the full text of Bigley's first statement.

Grun says: "We are just a news agency that reports on things as they come 
up. We don't have an editorial line to pursue, and we try to provide 
straightforward, unbiased, unsensational reporting."

He says that the only editorial issues for PA are accuracy and bias. For 
instance it "treaded with caution" over unconfirmed reports that Bigley was 
dead, making sure it was clearly indicated in the report.

Rob Dalton, Editor, The Scottish Sun

The Scottish Sun is one of few papers that has not carried the story on its 
front page. The story has been run as personally as in other papers, but 
there are fewer signs of implied criticism of the government's war policy.

Dalton says The Sun does not generally discuss the reasons for its editorial 
lines, but referred me to a comment piece by Richard Littlejohn on Friday, 
September 24. Littlejohn wrote: "Have we learned nothing since September 11? 
In the wake of the attacks on America, there was plenty of comment about the 
way in which the freedoms we take for granted had been used against us to 
deadly effect . The terrorists couldn't have hoped for a better result than 
they have achieved with the capture and threatened execution of British 
engineer Ken Bigley."

Radio Scotland

The story got top news billing at the end of the week before last, when Ken 
Bigley made his first statement. Last week it remained prominent but was 
pushed down the agenda by the Labour Party conference and the Scottish 

The reports included footage of Bigley and members of his family speaking.

A senior spokesman says: "The danger is you can over-emphasise the human 
drama. It is an incredibly difficult story to get right because you feel a 
natural human sympathy to this man and his family's plight. But the other 
side is the whole widespread misery in Iraq."

However, he says it is an easier story for radio broadcasters than for 
television or the press, because the most provocative part is the visual 

Jonathan Munro, Deputy Editor, ITV News

The story has been the lead in most ITV news bulletins over the past couple 
of weeks. "Undoubtedly the biggest issue for us has been the use of the 
videos, which we have agonised over, viewed and reviewed, and made some 
pretty tough decisions over where it's suitable and where it's gratuitous.

"The golden rule is that the use of the videos themselves has got to be 
genuinely newsworthy and in the public interest."

He says that last Wednesday, on the day of Bigley's second statement, ITV 
used some moving pictures but not footage of him breaking down or looking 

The broadcaster decided the pictures added to the viewers' understanding by 
showing Bigley was still alive, and were also necessary because part of the 
bulletin included a reaction from Downing Street.

On the bulletins the following day, when these justifications no longer 
applied, ITV only used stills. "We make decisions aware of our editorial 
respons ibility to use material cautiously, and probably to err on the side 
of doubt. They are all issues we are wrestling with," says Munro.

Edward Pilkington, Home Editor, The Guardian

The Guardian's coverage was more extensive than most other newspapers, with 
front-page splashes day after day, dramatic headlines and large amounts of 
coverage inside.

Pilkington says there were discussions among the editorial team about how 
much prom inence to give the story. "It's one person's story set against a 
situation where people in Iraq are dying every day. But most editors 
accepted that it's such an extraordinary emotional tale and has become so 
politically important as a result that there is no holding back," he says.

He insists that The Guardian was not seeking to make any point with the 
story, despite running Bigley's direct plea to the Prime Minister as a 
headline on Thursday, September 23.

"It was just a very strong story really," he says. "We are not pres-enting 
news to make a point."

He says The Guardian has decided not to follow the compact Independent's 
more editorialised front pages. The Indy's "Parallel Worlds" front page on 
Friday, September 24 was an example of something The Guardian would avoid 
for this reason, he says.

Understanding the power of the vision thing
The release of videos of Kenneth Bigley and the school massacre in Beslan in 
Russia are the latest signs that television is a weapon of war in the 
24-hour global news culture, according to a panel of media experts that 
gathered to discuss the issue last week.
The consensus at the first in the Royal Television Society's season of 
public debates in Glasgow last Wednesday, sponsored by the Sunday Herald, 
was that the media has been an effective propaganda instrument for decades.

The difference nowadays, as Guy Ker, chief operating officer of Channel 4 
News, pointed out, is that it is no longer just governments who understand 
its power.

Ker referred to the incredible success of the Bigley family at raising their 
profile and trying to keep Kenneth Bigley alive through "very subtle" 
interventions. "When the old lady collapsed after the press conference, it 
was the family who said to the journalists, 'Please make sure it's shown'," 
he said.

Terrorist groups have also learned how to use the media to further their 
causes, the panel said. Ker pointed to the fact that it was not just Western 
news crews but also Chechen separatists who were filming at the school in 

"When I look back at that conflict there are a few shots that linger, and 
some of them are the horror of that room in the video shot by Chechens," he 
said at the event which was introduced by Sunday Herald editor Richard 

Stephen Whittle, controller of editorial policy at the BBC, said that the 
difficulty for news editors was balancing a three-point triangle of 
competing needs: to give viewers uncensored information; the distress of 
victims; and the danger of being used by propaganda groups. Ken Symon, the 
business editor of The Sunday Herald, added that there was a danger of 
journalists being "led by the nose" by terrorists.

Steve Anderson, the former head of ITV news and current affairs, who was 
chairing the debate, said: "Twenty-four hour news channels are truly weapons 
of war. Each war seems to bring a brand new news channel which becomes an 
enormous message carrier for one government or another."

Steven Vass

03 October 2004

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