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Naming the dead

Peter Horrocks Peter Horrocks | 08:47 UK time, Thursday, 19 June 2008

The newspapers in the UK are today full of detail about the first woman soldier to be killed in the Afghanistan war. She was first named by the Daily Mail and the other newspapers subsequently named her as well. However BBC News has not given her name.

Late last night, following the Daily Mail's publication, the BBC received a request from the Ministry of Defence not to publish details until members of her close family had been informed of her death. This meant we needed to hold back information for a few hours and we decided to agree to the request.

Our instinct is always to publish information once it is in our possession. However we need always to be sensitive to the personal impact our news can have. Broadcasting reaches into people's lives in a way that newspapers do not. We would usually prefer to hold back information for a few hours rather than run the risk that a relative hears of the death of a named loved one over our airwaves.

UPDATE 11.50AM: BBC News has now named Corporal Sarah Bryant as the female soldier who died in Afghanistan. We named her at the time by which the MoD told us they would have contacted her relatives.


  • Comment number 1.

    Clearly there must be no 'cover up' of deaths, casualties or other aspects of this war.

    However, the BBCs decision to DELAY release of the name, but not the fact, of the death is responsible.

  • Comment number 2.

    Hi Peter,

    You are right, this is a sensitive subject and I feel your approach is right.

    However, it just seems factually a little problematic. It's 2008. I can get a message to people in milliseconds.

    So, I ask myself, how does it take the MOD so long ensure that "close family had been informed of her death"?

    There is, therefore, a small problem in giving the MOD the power to stop the BBC reporting the soldier's name: it gives away BBC News' independence.

    I know you're trying, but there is sensitivity, but I feel the MOD are "playing the man, not the ball".

  • Comment number 3.

    Yeah, fine. But what I can't understand is this. If you say that a woman soldier has been killed in Afghanistan, then does not every parent of a female soldier in Afghanistan go into a blind and terrifying panic? Surely you get the same thing with male soldiers too; all those people sitting beside the telephone, waiting until it rings and they're given dreadful news, or watching the telly until someone else is named.

    Thus, there seems to be an illogicality in the policy of not naming the person, just reporting a death. Also, there might be a case for releasing the name immediately, since that is good for the vast majority of the families, worried for no reason.

    I think, therefore, that no reports of any deaths should be broadcast until the family has been informed, and then you can put the name immediately alongside the report of the death.

  • Comment number 4.

    Did the MOD send a request to all media outlets to not publish details? What is their normal policy?

    After knowing about the death, how long did the MOD take to send out this request(s)?

    Do you regard the Daily Mail and other newspapers as insensitive and irresponsible in publishing this specific info?

  • Comment number 5.

    I once read that a friend of mine had died (walking in the Indian mountains) in a morning newspaper, before hearing that ‘he was missing’ from friends later that day. At that point none of his family and friends had given up hope that he might be found alive as search parties were still being sent out. Even though his body was never found I think the paper was premature (and insensitive) in reporting his `death`.

    A comment above states: `However, it just seems factually a little problematic. It's 2008. I can get a message to people in milliseconds.`

    I don’t think the family (there will be more than one, probably at several addresses) would appreciate receiving the news by text, email or call to their mobile.

    Information also has to make its way through a human chain, the name etc from Afghanistan to the MOD and regimental HQ; they then have to locate next of kin addresses etc, someone has to be briefed and sent with the news etc. It does take time, even in a well structured organisation like the army.

    In instances when a civillian has died then these things can take longer. Just getting an absolutley positive identification of a body can take time, particularly if no ID was being carried, or if the body has suffered disfiguring injuries. Locating close relatives can also take time.

    As for causing panic to families and loved ones. How was Dunkirk, the Blitz and D Day reported during the second world war. News has to be reported, even if the families haven’t been all informed at that time. I’m afraid it is part of military life.

  • Comment number 6.

    I think the BBC acted correctly.

  • Comment number 7.

    Peter, whilst 99% of the time, I'd agree with you, I have to disagree this time.

    The Times had on their front cover this mornign a photograph of the Cpl who tragically died two days ago in Afghanistan. The photo was provided by her father. Clearly, in this tragic case, if her father had provided the photograph (which you were using before the photograph of the Cpl in front of the Union Flag), then it was acceptable to name the dead.

    It is very well to follow protocol, and something I accept is necessary - no family should find out about their loved ones through the media. In this case, I feel you got it wrong.

  • Comment number 8.

    RE: #2

    I disagree with your comment on MoD inefficiency on this matter.

    To prepare and deliver an appropriate and sensitive message on a matter such as this takes time.

    Although "you can get a message to people in milliseconds", this is NOT one of those daily messages. The family just lost their loved ones, the feelings and reactions all need to be fully taken into account.

    I believe both BBC and MoD have displayed a sensible and professional constraint on this matter.

  • Comment number 9.

    If people are seriously holding that they should have the ability to know about someone's death before that person's family has been properly notified, then those people are in serious need of empathy.

    Official notification periods have multiple uses - making sure that the person who died is actually the right one, for a start.

    People should think about it for a moment. Which would you prefer, that everyone in your neighbourhood or at work (or, in theory, the world) knows your loved one has died before you find out about it, or that someone come to you and tell you and give you a chance to compose yourself before the vultures (read: media) descend on your doorstep, and you start getting the so-fake sympathetic looks from everyone?

    The BBC holding that information back on request of the MoD isn't "a threat to its independence" - it's bloody manners and common decency.

    I guess it's not that common any more?

  • Comment number 10.

    #8, #9 Your comments perhaps misunderstand what I said.

    I am not saying that the MoD *ARE* inefficient. I am saying that they *CAN* be.

    If the BBC is *beholden* to these requests *by rote* then the ball, so to speak, is in the MoD's court.

    How come, given the name being printed on national newspapers and being online already, the MoD can't get someone to knock on the door.

    If you ask what is morally correct, the MoD should notify immediately. I didn't say that the actual notification should be done by SMS, even though people were notified by telegram in the past.

    I also did not say that the current process is "a threat to [BBC] independence", I said gave it away. There is a difference: the former would be intolerable government interference, the latter is the BBC doing it for themselves.

    Anyway, however sensitive everyone wants to be we are AT WAR in TWO COUNTRIES and in this situation SOLDIERS DIE. These people were not conscripted so a death, however unpleasant, is not surprising or unwanted.

    BBC News should be primarily about reporting the news. It should not be holding back the news. That is not what the License Fee is for.

  • Comment number 11.

    As an aside to the naming of Military personnel the comment made by jon112uk

    'Clearly there must be no 'cover up' of deaths, Casualties or other aspects of this war'

    Leaves me wondering if there are different rules about reporting on the deaths of civilian security contractors by all media organisations.

    I have it from reliable sources that there is a considerable and ever growing number of UK fatalities from this grouping but rarely hear, see or read anything reported about them?

  • Comment number 12.

    I agree 100% with Moonwolf. Its a very delicate and sensitive matter and I would say the decent thing to do is let the family know before all and sundry find out. I also think the media should hold back on releasing any details of (un-named) fatalities until such time that the family concerned deem suitable.

  • Comment number 13.

    Sorry "unwanted" should be "unwarranted"

  • Comment number 14.

    Mantelope: 'until such time that the family concerned deem suitable'.

    The people who died are adults. What justification is there for allowing their relations to stop the news?

    Does this only apply in the UK for you, or worldwide?

  • Comment number 15.

    For some context, which other organisations or individuals have contacted you directly to ask you to hold back information?

  • Comment number 16.

    What exactly is the difference between "4 soldiers died today" and "4 soldiers - w, x, y, and z died today"?

    Is it that important to everyone else that they know their names?

    Is this voyeurism at its finest, that people *have* to know the names too?

    The news doesn't "change" with the addition, or omission, of the names.

    In fact, one could make the case that publishing the names is an unwarranted *intrusion* into the grief of the families.

    It may be said that publishing the names allows the population to honour the soldiers "better", but let's be honest here - the population doesn't want to honour them, it's more likely to appropriate the names into its own agenda, one way or the other.

    The media doesn't publish the names of rape victims, neither does it publish the names of juveniles charged with criminal offences. Is this, too, "holding back news" - and if it is, is it justified, and if it is, where's the difference?

    Dying doesn't make you, nor your family, a public figure, public property.

  • Comment number 17.

    I hope that Briantist never receives an e-mail, sent in a millisecond, to inform him of the death of a relative or friend.
    The MOD is required to inform next of kin in person.

  • Comment number 18.

    A woman has died in combat - I am personally embarrassed for the UK. First we are fighting wars for the Americans. Cpl Sarah Bryant is a Hero - the press should always ensure that the loved ones of a fallen hero find out before the rest of the world.

    When will Mr Brown put right one of Mr Blair’s mistakes - get us out of this war. I am an ex serving member of the armed forces. They are professional and very efficient troops, but Mr Blair made a mistake - this ladies blood is on his hands. Mr Brown - you can not and will not beat people who are willing to blow them selves up. How many more husbands need to loose wives, how many more children need to loose a dad.

    Sarah - god bless you - I live within 5 miles of your camp - i hope you are never forgotten.

    Give yourself a chance of being re-elected Mr Brown - make a radical decision - pull out!

  • Comment number 19.

    Ummm ... "A woman has died in combat - I am personally embarrassed for the UK."

    You got a problem with women doing the job?

    You think it's embarrassing for one to die doing the job?

  • Comment number 20.

    I personally hate the phrase "and we have breaking news of military casualties" The same as when my dad was in Ireland we got reports of "an explosion has been reported in Northern Ireland" My heart stops, I feel relief that my loved one isn't there but then guilt that someone else will be getting the dreaded knock on the door from the Military CO. I believe that all communications go down when there have been casualties to allow the commanders to contact the relatives and then the news is released to the media. The delay requested by the families is to allow them to phone all the relatives. When the BBC reports that "Next of Kin have been informed" you feel relief that its not your relative who is dead but the guilt is terrible. It doesn't matter that Dad is no longer serving all the old fears come back. Please don't be in such a rush to report possible fatalities - you only scare the service families.

  • Comment number 21.

    Peter - I think the BBC acted correctly on this.

    Moonwolf - #9 and #16 - very well said. I completely agree.

  • Comment number 22.

    Jordan, there's something your point about the photograph makes me wonder.

    Normally, notification happens pretty fast. Yet, by the timeline you describe, the Times had a picture at least the night before they went to print (going to print the same day the name was officially released) ...

    How did they get it so fast?

    Did they decide to descend upon the family as soon as *they* (the Times) found out about it, push into the family's grief, start cajoling for a picture (so they could scoop everyone else)?

    I'd *really* like to know how they got the picture in time to go to print, and how much "respect" they paid the family in their quest to get the information before the name was "officially" released.

  • Comment number 23.

    this is the ONLY situation i can think of where 'publish and be damned' shouldn't apply. if someone has been killed by anything - let alone a soldier in action - it's the bare minimum decency to inform the bereaved in person

  • Comment number 24.

    Surely there is a serious issue here and that relates to the SAS. I always thought that the MoD never comments on activities by our special forces and no reference is being made by the families of the other SAS members who died. Were they asked by the MoD not to comment, is there an agreed news black-out.

    We know that at least one of the dead was soon going to leave the army. Why is there no huge press coverage by the media on this important issue. Has there been an MoD embargo, similar to the one which the appalling media allowed in respect of Prince Harry. We are being manipulated, and I for one don't like it.

    If the MoD are going to remain silent, and consistent, on certain issues then the way the death of the intelligence officer must be subject to a news black-out. I know that this is contentious but we seriously cannot hide behind the emotional black mail as exerted by the now notorious MoD press manipulators.

    It is illuminating to note the case now going through the courts of the soldier who died as a result of alledged 'beasting' by his superiors. Surely, I cannot think that the news of the deaths in Afghanistan is meant to divert attention from this other case.

  • Comment number 25.

    Once again I'm more interested to know why the media have focused on Cpl. Bryant's gender, and why the fact she's female has affected both the extent and tenor of the coverage given to her death. There seems to be an implicit assumption that it's somehow worse that a young woman (and a conventionally attractive one at that, as the pictures of her on her wedding day attest) should be killed in action than one of her male colleagues. I'm sure she was just as aware of the risks of that particular theatre of war as any male recruit, and after all, roadside bombs don't discriminate - neither should the media.

  • Comment number 26.

    "The newspapers in the UK are today full of detail about the first woman soldier to be killed in the Afghanistan war."

    Not to seem picky and yes, the BBC is a British institution, but I would like to point out that the above quote is not entirely accurate, based on this 2007 story from the CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation)

    Admittedly the CBC article's headline is equally nationalistically focused, saying that Goddard was the 16th soldier killed in Afghanistan, when in fact she was the 16th Canadian soldier killed, but, still, Bryant was not the first woman soldier killed in then Afghanistan war.

  • Comment number 27.

    Peter Horrocks:
    It is better to wait to tell the world the names of a dead soldiers.....


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