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A matter of life and death

Craig Oliver Craig Oliver | 10:25 UK time, Tuesday, 28 August 2007

The decisions news editors take could result in the deaths of innocent people. That was the premise of "Terror Tapes", the session I took part in at last weekend's Edinburgh Television Festival.

BBC Ten O'Clock News logoIt was produced by ITV News' Deborah Turness and the BBC's Sam Taylor and used dry ice, countdown clocks, spotlights and partial stories to create a pressurised atmosphere for the panellists. The scenario was set so that there was a danger of being reckless, but also that we could be overly cautious, not reporting parts of a story that should be told.

The scenario began with a shakily sourced report that a "major incident" was taking place in Wilmslow - there was a large police presence and it was suggested that the local chief constable wanted a news blackout.

After some discussion we were asked if we would report the story - there was a ten second countdown, after which I held up my sign saying "no" - I would want to find out a lot more information, not least about why the authorities wanted a blackout - there could be a very good reason why the right of the public to know could be substantially outweighed by the need to protect people (though I would be making preparations to report the story should I need to).

Others on the panel were prepared to report this information. This obviously complicates things - if information is in the public domain, is it better for the BBC to wait and find out more, or to break a blackout that has been substantially weakened?

In my view I was still not ready to go ahead with the report. Don't get me wrong - I passionately believe that my duty is to report the news unless there is an extremely good reason why not - but it would be irresponsible not to find out why the authorities wanted to stop this story being told.

The situation changed when the police revealed some more information. A statement was released saying that a serving British soldier on leave from Iraq had been kidnapped by a radical, home-grown Islamic group - they asked that we keep his identity secret, but gave no reason why. For me this made the situation more straightforward - we would effectively be in rolling news mode on News 24 covering what would have been one of the major news stories of the year, though we would have respected the request not to identify the soldier.

Things did not stay straightforward for long. A video was delivered to us from the kidnappers - it showed a soldier with a noose round his neck in an orange jumpsuit, surrounded by two balaclava-wearing men pointing guns at him. He said that the men holding him would kill him if the tape was not broadcast within an hour.

The authorities insisted that we should not show the tape because the soldier being held was a senior member of the SAS, who worked on undercover operations in Iraq. There was more discussion and after a ten second countdown we had to decide whether to run the tape or not. This time I held up the "Yes" sign. It seemed absurd to me that the authorities had attempted to impose a blanket ban on running the tape - if the man was killed the fact that his identity needed to be kept a secret for operations would be irrelevant… but here's the really key point: editorial decisions are not always yes or no - they are often compromises. What the kidnappers wanted broadcast was what was being said, not the identity of their captive. I would have run the tape, blurring the soldier's face.

In my view the life of the soldier was protected by the decision, and it was the authorities that were being irresponsible.

You could argue that it would be wrong to broadcast terrorist propaganda, but the truth is people are highly unlikely to be radicalised by exposure to this kind of thing, and if they are, there is plenty of it on the internet.

You could also argue that giving people the oxygen of publicity only encourages them more. There is some truth to that claim - but on balance the real life of this soldier outweighed some hypothetical future situation.

Others on the panel would have run the video without disguising the soldier's identity.

The session climaxed with a live shot of the building where the soldier was being held being stormed. Would we play the pictures live?

This time the audience was asked what they would do - about 70 to 80% said they would run them live. Everyone on the panel except me said they would run them live. I said I would run them, but with a significant delay, allowing me time to stop the broadcast if something horrific happened.

This was perhaps the easiest decision of all - in a situation where almost everyone involved has a gun, you cannot be sure what the outcome will be, you could be presenting your audience with scenes of extreme violence, or something totally unforeseen could happen. It could end well, and our competitors would have the story well before us, but when lives are in danger it is irresponsible to let competitive instinct trump the need to do the right thing.

In the end we were shown a clip of a dead hostage. He'd been killed because the kidnappers had access to television, and had been tipped off by broadcasters other than the BBC that the building was about to be stormed.


  • 1.
  • At 11:02 AM on 28 Aug 2007,
  • Fortescue Highbrow wrote:

And of course, whatever decision you took, you'd get crucified in the Daily Mail for it.

  • 2.
  • At 11:25 AM on 28 Aug 2007,
  • Dean wrote:

Which broadcasters were prepared to run the story without knowing the reason the chief constable wanted a blackout? Or is that information blacked out?

  • 3.
  • At 12:08 PM on 28 Aug 2007,
  • J.G. wrote:

So you decided to broadcast the tape of the soldier in a jumpsuit, after being expressly asked not to by the security forces working for the democratically elected government of this country. In other words you would have broadcast terrorist propaganda which could have put lives at risk, now and in the future.

Who gave you the right to make this decision when asked not to? Who elected you to be able to override the wishes of our security services just because "It seemed absurd to me that the authorities had attempted to impose a blanket ban on running the tape"? Who cares if it seemed 'absurd to you', you are in the business of news/entertainment, you are not the ones tasked with keeping this country safe.

  • 4.
  • At 12:17 PM on 28 Aug 2007,
  • Martin wrote:


Maybe rather than tell us how you spent your weekend maybe you could have used the time needed to write this post to respond to the people who pay you to edit the Ten who commented adversely on the way BBC News presents itself thesedayes.

You can find them on Peter's blog:

Seriously, 260+ viewer comments but not a single BBC response?

2 people complain via to the rescheduling of some piece of daytime tat and there's an official response.

260 more of us comment directly to the editors and there's nothing...

  • 5.
  • At 12:24 PM on 28 Aug 2007,
  • Jim Mckay wrote:

Surprised at desire to air kidnappers video based on "the real life of this soldier outweighed some hypothetical future situation" - no it doesnt. No goverment can be seen to publicly capitulate to terrorist demands (for a whole range of reasons some of which you touch on), should our Broadcasters not be held to the same level of responsibility.
Unfortunately in these situations the persons life is not the exclusive priority and broadcasters should be mature enough to communicate that to the public. Would not have had a problem with the airing of the storming live (from a suitable distance - principlly to protect younger viewers from graphic physical trauma).

  • 6.
  • At 12:29 PM on 28 Aug 2007,
  • matthew wrote:

A drama involving Islamic radicals? Didn't think this kind of thing was politically acceptable.

Actually that's just when it's on TV, for the masses; in private, you put on realistic storylines.

  • 7.
  • At 12:37 PM on 28 Aug 2007,
  • Douglas McLellan wrote:

Where do you get the authority to decide what is better for security than the security forces?

Mind you, the differences in how the BBC reports was demonstrated in the London bombings. For hours Sky told us over fifty were dead against BBCs 2. It was bizzare to watch.

  • 8.
  • At 12:44 PM on 28 Aug 2007,
  • Jon Green wrote:

I'd say you hit all the right notes, at all the right points. The one place where I take issue is over broadcasting the hostage release operation: it may publish, irretrievably, operational details of siege-breaking. So, over and above the immediate risks, you'd be forewarning other terrorist groups, giving them the opportunity to set counter-measures in future attacks. BAFTA News Coverage awards shouldn't be washed in the blood of innocents.

  • 9.
  • At 12:44 PM on 28 Aug 2007,
  • Marc wrote:

I agree with J.G. - you shouldn't report this incident at all, especially if asked not to. It's clear to me that these incidents are fuelled by media coverage and only encourage more. Which, of course, provides for more news stories, more discussion, more fodder for the chat-shows, documentaries and political analysis programmes. The only beneficiaries are the terrorists themselves, unless of course you count the extra viewing figures, increased revenue from magazine circulations and related ad revenue.

If you choose what to broadcast and what not to, then it's self-regulation and behaving responsibly. If someone else decides, it's censorship eh?

Surely the media should have a right to make such decisions independently of the police/security services wishes, the only exception should be if they make it explicitly obvious that they want information withheld due to issues of National Security - which doesn't appear to be the case here - or if it is, the authorities should make it clear that this was the case, and there was a substantially increased risk of the loss of other lives if this was broadcast. The release of the tape shows the broadcaster giving in to the terrorist's demands, as an entity seperate from the government (indeed, I would support a request by the authorities that this is made clear when broadcast).

Something very interesting to think about though.

  • 11.
  • At 12:48 PM on 28 Aug 2007,
  • peter williams wrote:

If the broadcasters got together and agreed that all such material would not be used while current, perhaps the terrorists would be less prone to use such attempts to influence security decisions?

I just want to challenge JG (#3). One of the jobs of the media has to be NOT to follow blindly the requests of the government of the day. Take heed of them, consider them of course, but do not follow blindly. Media is separate from state and always should be, a free press is one of the benefits of living in a democratic country.

  • 13.
  • At 01:06 PM on 28 Aug 2007,
  • Andrew wrote:

I read about this session online.

Apparently Sky News caused the death of the hostage by inadvertantly tipping off the kidnappers.

I think the BBC made the responsible decisions here. Other broadcasters need to learn that security and safety is much more important than reporting every little rumour every two seconds.

  • 14.
  • At 01:09 PM on 28 Aug 2007,
  • J.M. wrote:

J.G.: What gives the government any right to dictate what the press can say (except in the cause of national security)?

  • 15.
  • At 01:10 PM on 28 Aug 2007,
  • Mark wrote:

The terrorists demand their video be shown within the hour, and yet you were all wrong-footed because it turned out they had access to a television?

  • 16.
  • At 01:46 PM on 28 Aug 2007,
  • Mary Urquhart wrote:

How soon they forget. Of course, the kidnappers would have had access to television. This was a problem that was discovered during the 1972 Olympics in Munich when members of the Isreali Olympic team were kidnapped and killed. The kidnappers knew where all the police snipers were because television stations were showing images of their positions.

One thing that seems to be forgotten is that news isn't news until it has happened. Someone was kidnapped - that's news. Someone may die - that's *not* news until it happens. This removes the impact of the kidnappers in this situation because they *have* to kill the person in order for it to be news and get reported. If the emphasis continues to be placed on the threat of violence, then they've won. If the emphasis is placed on punishment for having killed, then the other guys have won, although there is still a person who has died. But only so many people can be killed like this before either the kidnappers are caught and dealt with or before they realize that it's not going to get them anywhere.

I know that sounds cold and is no comfort to the grieving families of those who have been killed, but it seems that people are inclined to willing panic so that they can lose all sense. It's almost like it's the latest fad - the permission to go nuts, being fed by 'as-it-happens' "news" reports that can change by the minute.

The world has been turned into one giant automobile crash and we're being forced to watch as it plays out, against our better judgement. I pine for the day when news was reported after the fact, and we were confident that things had been taken care of by those tasked in that effort. However, with instant communications technology, we get to see _all_ the gory details and witness the brief instances of panicked thought on the face of a commander-in-charge until he has sorted out his decisions. It may not matter that his decisions were right and came quickly. It's that image of brief indecision that will be flashed continuously, undermining public confidence and fueling mass hysteria.

Radical religious types and others have learned well how to use the technology to hold us hostage to our fears. We allow it to happen. The job of a reporter has changed because the emphasis is no longer on good reporting but on good ratings. They've adapted. And it's killing all of us.

  • 17.
  • At 01:57 PM on 28 Aug 2007,
  • Sally wrote:

A member of the SAS with a noose around his neck and guns pointing at him coupled with the fact that whoever broadcast it could claim it was helping save a man's life - fantastic story, excellent footage. Yep, I'd go for it.

  • 18.
  • At 02:36 PM on 28 Aug 2007,
  • nick jay wrote:

If you were a BBC journalist, your first duty would be to demonstrate how Gordon brown is responsible for this, as any other terrorism and how David Cameron and David Davis would have put things right!Next one of the Newsnight team would be called on to show how terrorism is all the fault of the present governement and how the Generals are demonstrating their neutrality by condemning the government!

  • 19.
  • At 02:44 PM on 28 Aug 2007,
  • J.G. wrote:

In reply to Nos 12 and 14
You are right, the media should not follow blindly follow the wishes of the government, but here the request came from the security services not the government. So I repeat again, what right does the BBC have of second guessing those whose task it is to keep us all safe.

  • 20.
  • At 02:50 PM on 28 Aug 2007,
  • Hettie wrote:

Would you have also told the viewers that you aired the tape because otherwise the kidnapped soldier would be killed within an hour?

  • 21.
  • At 03:42 PM on 28 Aug 2007,
  • Jasmine wrote:

Absolutely the right decisions at every step of the way. I may not always agree with the BBC's decisions/broadcast choices but in this instance you got it spot on.

While Sky or CNN would probably have run with the story straight off, a little intelligent thought would be required in a situation like this.

I just hope the BBC practices what it claims if faced with such a situation in the future.

  • 22.
  • At 04:38 PM on 28 Aug 2007,
  • Ian Kemmish wrote:

It's still hard to discount the notion that news coverage is governed mostly by game theory - you choose to run what you think your competitors will run. I suspect what you took away from this session was mostly just greater knowledge of what that might be.

Three points:

1) A member of special forces in jeopardy does not really represent a sufficiently special situation for his life to trump other considerations.

2) Therefore, my inclination would have been to call the kidnappers' bluff and not air the tape, on the fairly safe bet that he would be killed anyway. (Basically, I'm agreeing with Peter Williams comment here, while recognising that such an agreement is unlikely, but I'd probably still act unilaterally along these lines.)

3) Given that this was a scripted scenario, like Star Trek's "Kobayashi Maru" test, I'd say it was 100% certain that the hostage would have ended up dead. Did _nobody_ on the panel spot that? What do they earn the big bucks for, then?

  • 23.
  • At 06:45 PM on 28 Aug 2007,
  • Steve G wrote:

Doesn't this story just show the problems of rolling 24 hour news coverage - a shortage of material and more fear of being beaten by rival broadcasters than of getting the story wrong or doing the wrong thing through pause for analysis and perspective?

How many times do we hear the reporter 'on the spot' doing little more than speculating on the rumours started by the reporter standing next to him? 24 hour news now helps make and shape the news rather than simply reporting it. In the process it misleads, misinforms and frequently tars people wrongly.

Why couldn't you have refrained from reporting until the danger was over and then reported responsibly knowing that you would be merely reporting the news rather than influencing it? Would your viewers really have been so much worse off not knowing anything until the drama had played itself out? Certainly the hostage couldn't have been.

In summary, what's more important - the quick story or the balance that comes from waiting until you can report fully and accurately without hurting anyone or causing them harm?

  • 24.
  • At 09:18 PM on 28 Aug 2007,
  • gregor aitken wrote:

Don't want to sound to harsh here but surely your duty was not to the soldier or the audience but to the truth.

The soldier died ot because anyone broadcast anything, he died because of the iraq war and the 'terrorists' that started it.

Your Job as news editor for our public service broadcaster should involve you making sure the truth of any situation is informed to the public. Surely it is someone elses worries that you have taken on board here.

As a news editor i would hope that your first instinct is to tell the truth not worry about whether we the public are going to be upset by this or not.

You seem to argue that your role of gatekeeper of the truth means you can find out what really happens in such events but you will have to water it down,simplify or just make stuff up if you feel the effects of an event demand it. Is this not like Tony Blair and his "i've seen the evidence" when it came to WMD.

Essentially your blog here seems to be an attempt to justify why and when you can lie to us about what you know about any given thing.

So what you are saying is, you lie occasionally because you have to but its always with consideration to the feelings of the public.

Now my big worry is this. Editors seem to have forgotten how important their role in our democcracy is. i am guessing you all put it down nature of the industry or some other sloppy excuse for why you dont just tell us the truth, as it is.

So our govt lies to us about why we go to war and the media are now admitting that they lie because the government asks them sometimes.

Its really is a world gone mad, I Don't want you guys admitting you tell lies to us just lie to us but admit, i feel almost embaressed for you. Your a Journalist not a Govt spindoctor, do journalism, do your job, tell us the truth when stuff like this happens.


Had they had a dirty nuclear bomb do you not think people might be a bit upset you sat on this for a few hours.

  • 25.
  • At 11:17 PM on 28 Aug 2007,
  • you cannot stop licence fee payers from submitting comments wrote:

So in other words you would end up blaming other media outlets for your own pro-terrorist bias. Standard.

  • 26.
  • At 03:08 AM on 29 Aug 2007,
  • miika wrote:

"the right of the public to know"

There's still no-one can point out exactly where this oft-claimed "right" is actually enshrined as that anywhere.

And even if it was, any such "right" takes a back-seat to someone's right to live - anyone who thinks their right to be up to date on the latest gossip trumps anyone else's right to live has their priorities screwed up.

The media's desire to be the ones to "scoop" everyone else would be no excuse either.

After-the-fact reporting, sure - let people know what, when, why, who, where, how, and the rest. However, while something is going on, if there's a risk revealing information could *cause* escalation, the media's moral responsibility is to those people who might be affected to keep silent.

Yes, I said "media" and "moral responsibility" in the same sentence. Call me an eternal optimist (or wildly deluded that the media recognizes the concept.

Yes, in the scenario the kidnapper's demands to air the video, against the information of the consequences of disclosing the identity of the soldier, created a difficult decision - and the idea of blurring the soldier's identity was a neat way to fulfill both criteria.

But as a group, the panelists showed that the media's desire to get juicy gossip out seems destined to always place individuals and their liberty, privacy, and indeed lives, second.

  • 27.
  • At 10:07 AM on 29 Aug 2007,
  • Rachel wrote:

I must say I'm impressed that you considered the different options and came up with some intelligent responses. However I agree with other comments here that it in general, the news is becoming the gossip / rumour, almost inventing news and in some cases misleading the public, rather than presenting only the facts. An awful lot of news reporting is made emotive in order to hold the viewer - I watch the news for facts, I chose my news channel based on the least over dramatisation. I used to believe this was the BBC but unfortunately no more.

  • 28.
  • At 02:33 PM on 29 Aug 2007,
  • Gareth wrote:

"Everyone on the panel except me said they would run them live. I said I would run them, but with a significant delay, allowing me time to stop the broadcast if something horrific happened."

Probably a contrarian stance to score points against your competitors. I doubt your sincerity Mr. Oliver.

A bit of role playing at the Media Guardian International Telly Festival is ripe pickings for the BBC to flagellate itself in front of competing news organs and it's own news output.

You would show live footage from the scene, just as other channels would. You would pointlessly speculate with the usual 'security' experts, just as the other channels would. You would play any tape handed to you if you thought it would save someone's life, just as the other channels would. You would also, I hope, provide the security services with a copy of that tape to give them as much intelligence as possible, just as the other channels should. You would also solicit on the spot text messages and photographs from the public, just as the other channels would.

You would do anything and everything to be, if not ahead of the rest, then certainly not be left behind by them.

  • 29.
  • At 05:04 PM on 29 Aug 2007,
  • John R wrote:

One must marvel at all the clairvoyant comments indicating what the BBC would *really* have done in this situation, and how well those comments just happen to match up to that commentator's personal opinions of the BBC. Funny how that works out.

  • 30.
  • At 11:26 AM on 30 Aug 2007,
  • Joe wrote:

Mary Urquhart is right, did none of the broadcasters have any knowledge of the history of their industry? I would have thought that after the way the terrorists at Munich used the news coverage of the operation to tell where the police were broadcasters would be more aware of the possible consequences of showing something like that without a delay.

With News 24 being online now as well as on the television it would be very easy for kidnappers to use a broadcast to not only kill the hostage when they were being stormed but kill the would be rescuers as well, they don't even need a television any more.

I think broadcasting with a delay is the correct thing to do, but it would have to be enough of a delay that the footage couldn't be used in any way by the kidnappers.

As for broadcasting the tape, that should have been the decision of the police, just as any responsible news organisation does when they receive messages from serial killers. Tell your viewers it exists by all means, but do we really *need* to see it or is that just a way of trying not to lose viewers to the competition?

  • 31.
  • At 01:34 PM on 03 Sep 2007,
  • Mike wrote:

Please don't broadcast any of these kind of hostage situations, the only people who benefit from publicity generated by this type of news story are the kidnappers.

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