Dominic Timms | October 22
BBC – The BBC has tonight decided not to use disturbing video images just released of Iraq hostage Margaret Hassan, arguing it had no merit other than to play into the terrorists’ hands
It is part of a recently-hewn policy at the BBC to reflect the growing concern that kidnappers are exploiting western media as part of a bid to “spread terror”.
The CARE International director was seen pleading for her life on a videotape that has been shown by al-Jazeera this afternoon.
Shown in an acute state of distress, Ms Hassan, who has been in Iraq for 30 years, calls on Tony Blair to pull troops out of Iraq, pleading “I don’t want to die like Bigley”, in reference to the British hostage who was murdered earlier this month.
Head of news Roger Mosey said the decision was taken this afternoon by senior management, including head of editorial policy Stephen Whittle and head of news Helen Boaden.
He said the corporation had not issued a blanket ban on hostage videos but had decided to review them on a case by case basis strictly for news value.
“What we have to do is, on a case by case basis, balance the news value against the level of personal stress and duress the person is under. I think what we have here is someone who appears to be in a state of acute distress, therefore we have to ask what is the merit of playing it on national TV? There is no gain to see a woman in acute distress.
“What I have said personally is that the wider journalistic community needs to have a debate about this and ask: by playing these videos and showing people in such a state of distress, are we playing into the terrorists’ hands.”
Sky News has already shown a clip from the video this afternoon, including the words “please help me”, but voiced over most of the barely audible tape.
ITN said it too was showing some of the footage but said it was constantly reviewing how much it should broadcast
“We are taking the view that we will show as little of the video as is necessary to tell the story. We are very aware that we must contextualise the story to avoid the propaganda effect,” said a spokeswoman for ITV News.
Ms Hassan, who was seized by unknown gunmen on her way to work on Tuesday, said in the video that time was running out.
“Please help me. This might be my last hour,” she said.
Channel 4 presenter Alex Thompson tonight said the video footage put all broadcasters in an “invidious position”.
In an email to Channel 4 viewers he said: “It’s upsetting stuff from a hostage in no way involved with the military occupation. The British-Iraqi head of the aid agency CARE International’s Iraq operation is in tears, begging for her life and begging for British troops to leave Iraq and – in an apparent reference to the Black Watch – not to come north.
“These videos put the TV media in an invidious position. Do we censor and not show the video and prevent viewers from knowing what is going on? Or do we show it in full and effectively become used as publicity outfits by the kidnappers?
“If there is an easy answer out there, it eludes me thus far. The issues raised here are not exactly the same as for the awful and gruesome footage of beheadings, which more clearly are not showable on grounds of taste, decency, and the fact that children might be watching – but this is trickier stuff.”
Earlier this month Mr Mosey attracted internal criticism for ordering staff not to use footage from a video in which Mr Bigley urged Tony Blair to intervene to save his life.
Mr Mosey however defended the decision, saying in an internal email that the aim of the Bigley video was to “gain publicity for the spreading of terror”.
The BBC head of news has called on broadcasters to engage in an ethical debate on the use of such videos.
Earlier this month CNN’s international chief, Chris Cramer, said the growing use of hostage tapes and use of websites was putting news organisations under pressure from terrorists, who are using digital technology to “manipulate” the news agenda.
Since the kidnap and murder of Wall Street Journal correspondent Daniel Pearl two years ago, “nearly each and every kidnapping has been accompanied by websites offering an array of pictures of the victims first pleading for their lives, surrounded by their captors, and then, in many cases, their murder,” said the CNN chief.
“If I can access the website, see the pictures or video, read the text, then those parts of the media who don’t offer me this facility must be engaging in censorship, suppressing the news, keeping me in the dark… If you run the images, report the information contained here or on the terrorist websites, then others say you are engaging in irresponsible journalism,” he said.