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Coverage of IS attacks helps fuel propaganda, says terror chief

14 November 2017


Mainstream media coverage of terrorist attacks helps to fuel Islamic State propaganda, the sell-out Society of Editors conference was told yesterday.  

Assistant Commissioner Mark Rowley, the national lead for counter-terrorism, told leading industry figures that a “fine balance” was needed in coverage of terrorism because Isis tries to use events as propaganda to “radicalise and influence”.

He said: “We have a terrorist threat that is driven by propaganda. The old terrorism of Al Qaeda and the IRA was about secret networks plotting atrocities but a lot of what we see today is about propaganda and about trying to radicalise, influence and instruct the vulnerable and the violent in our communities. The message and the communication of it is more fundamental to the terrorists’ purpose than it ever has been which changes the balance.  

“I do think there are some ways that you can rein back what you do and still report the news. There is a fine balance. If [Isis] are looking to influence, you have to ask, are you helping them to influence or are you reporting the story?”

Speaking to 150 delegates as part of a panel discussion on reporting terrorist atrocities, he added that it was disheartening to see the media publishing quotes from the terror group’s official Amaq propaganda arm and reprinting detailed guides on how to carry out truck attacks that counter-terrorism officers were actively seeking to remove from online platforms.

He added: “There are some extreme cases where I see the Amaq news agency being quoted which is basically the Isis spokesperson organisation. It is odd that mainstream news organisations will quote them. I sometimes see the instructions on how to commit terrorist attacks which we work really hard to get off social media being copied verbatim on mainstream media websites. There is a different balance to think about when terrorism is, more than ever, being driven through propaganda.

“You need to think about how you [report terror] without helping the cause of those doing it. You don’t need to be copying that material out, that’s not necessary. You can report the generalities, you don’t need to help them and do their work.”

Rowley’s comments were supported by former London Evening Standard editor Simon Jenkins who said that terrorism relied on media reporting to be effective and that journalists have a responsibility to not over-report and supply those responsible with the attention they crave.

He said: “Terrorism is a peculiar weapon because it relies upon us in the media for its effectiveness. No other weapon does so in quite the same way. It is simply an act requiring a reaction and it is the reaction that makes the act potent.

“Someone once said that terrorism is five percent exposure and ninety-five percent publicity. I genuinely think as journalists that we love the five percent and we don’t really worry about the ninety-five percent which is us.

“I do passionately believe that the press has a very serious responsibility in not over-reporting and in how they do report terrorist incidents. Every time I see it being reported I think we are doing their job for them.”

The panel discussion, part of the Society’s ‘Fighting for Real News’ conference, also heard from James Stephenson, News Editor for BBC News & Current Affairs, Sarah Whitehead, Head of Home News at Sky and Rob Irvine, Editor of the Manchester Evening News.  The debate was chaired by Jackie Ashley, President of Lucy Cavendish College in Cambridge.

In discussing the Manchester Evening News’ coverage of the May 2017 terrorist attack at Manchester Arena, Irvine said that he had made an editorial decision not to publish the photograph of the perpetrator of the atrocity on his front page.

He said: “I’ve not used Salman Abedi’s picture on page one of the Manchester Evening News and while I am editor I never will.

“He would love to be on our front page but the feedback we were getting from our readers was that he did not deserve to be on our front page and he certainly does not deserve to be pictured next to the people he murdered.”

Both James Stephenson and Sarah Whitehead argued that there was a significant public interest in reporting the activities and speeches of the leadership of the terrorist group and that careful consideration was given by the broadcasters as to the extent of their coverage on the issue.

Whitehead said: “We do have lots of discussions about coverage. It is important to understand [and inform the public] where an act has come from and what it is about. This is not about glorifying terrorists but finding out where an act has come from.”

Stephenson added that the advent of social media meant that journalists could not prevent the dissemination of information related to terror attacks being published online and that the audience’s need for information after an attack meant that it rightfully dominated their news agenda in the aftermath.   

He added: “Clearly there are a whole host of challenges and the point about not covering excessively is well made but once an incident has occurred there is a huge amount to unpack – what’s happened, why has it happened, who perpetrated it, what their motivations where and doing justice to the lives of the victims. There is a lot for us to get through and it does loom quite large on our output at those kind of moments.”


Watch the full session online here

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