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Police chief calls for Samaritans-style media protocol on terrorism reporting

Posted on: November 12, 2019 by Mariella Brown

THE UK’s head of counter terrorism has called for closer co-operation between the media and police and new guidelines on the reporting of incidents.

Speaking at the Society of Editors’ 20th anniversary conference at the Stationers’ Hall, London, Met Police Assistant Commissioner for Specialist Operations, Neil Basu, told delegates he is awaiting the outcome of research into the extent to which people may be influenced by media coverage of terrorism.

Acknowledging social contagion or so-called ‘mimetic theory’ is controversial, Basu wanted to achieve a better understanding: “Extensive media coverage of terrorist events is understandable given the public interest, but what is, or is not, featured in that coverage could inadvertently amplify that threat.”

He gave several examples of how this might happen: streaming footage from the scene could ‘serve to provide the kind of platform many terrorists crave, but would otherwise never achieve’; publishing terrorist manifestos to provide context, could prove counter-productive by acting as justification or a trigger to a vulnerable few; referring to chat rooms ‘might unwittingly lead tens of thousands of people to material that would otherwise have only been seen by a handful’.

Basu said that with MI5, police have disrupted 24 attack plots – 16 Islamist and eight Right wing plots, and the threat level has been lowered. But he sounded a note of caution – 800 live investigations are still in progress, more than double the volume handled in 2014.

“I have spoken about the level of threat we face and the number of thwarted plots. But they all seem like goal-line saves, and I want fewer goal-line saves. That’s why I speak publicly about the importance of intervening early to stop people becoming terrorists in the first place, with a safeguarding and not criminalising approach. And it’s why we need the whole of society, including the media, to play its part.”

Basu would like to see the media and police working to establish guidelines in much the same way as the successful work conducted between the industry and the Samaritans on reporting of suicide.

“The risk of influencing suicides significantly increases if reports include descriptions of methods, if the story is placed prominently, and if the coverage is extensive or sensationalised,” he said.

“Samaritans have never suggested high profile suicides should not be reported – only encouraged change on how they are reported… The positive relationship between Samaritans campaigners and the media has helped shape how suicide is reported and has almost certainly saved lives. Now, if reporting can be seen through this lens for suicide, then why not for terrorism?”

Anthony Longden

The speech in full can be viewed here

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