Earlier today Prof Jacobson noted the passing former British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher.
What I remember most about her was a speech she gave in 1985 to the American Bar Association in which she argued against giving terrorists the “oxygen of publicity.”
The more open our society, the more we must be on our guard. Civilised societies cannot use the weapons of terrorism to fight the terrorist. But we must take every possible precaution to protect ourselves: sustained security measures for our aircraft and our airports: constant checking of people and luggage however irksome: combined action to penalise countries which harbour and assist terrorists: and above all the closest possible cooperation on pre-emptive intelligence. Too often in the past our countries have[fo 28] begun well but then slackened and grown complacent, making ourselves easier targets.
We have behind us many fine declarations and communiques of good intent. We need action; action to which all countries are committed until the terrorist knows that he has no haven, no escape. Alas that is far from true today.
And we must try to find ways to starve the terrorist and the hijacker of the oxygen of publicity on which they depend. In our societies we do not believe in constraining the media, still less in[fo 29] censorship. But ought we not to ask the media to agree among themselves a voluntary code of conduct, a code under which they would not say or show anything which could assist the terrorists’ morale or their cause while the hijack lasted?
Most vital of all, we must have the will power never to give in to the terrorist. Your Government and ours are at one on this.
Note that she didn’t argue for censorship but for common sense among the news media. She also qualified her call for restraint “while the hijack lasted.”
Despite these clear limits to her calls for responsibility, Katharine Graham, the legendary publisher of the Washington Post, took umbrage at Thatcher’s remarks.
As terrorism increases, we in the news media are being encouraged to restrict our coverage of terrorist actions. British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, for example, has proclaimed: “We must try to find ways to starve the terrorist and the hijacker of the oxygen of publicity on which they depend.” Many people, including some reporters in the United States, share her view. Most of these observers call for voluntary restraint by the media in covering terrorist actions. But some go so far as to sanction government control — censorship, in fact — should the media fail to respond.
I disagree. I am against any government-imposed restrictions on the free flow of information about terrorist acts. Instead, I am in favor of as full and complete coverage of terrorism by the media as is possible. Here are my reasons:
Terrorist acts are impossible to ignore. They are simply too big a story to pass unobserved. If the media did not report them, rumor would abound. And rumors can do much to enflame and worsen a crisis.
There is no compelling evidence that terrorist attacks would cease if the media stopped covering them. On the contrary, terrorism specialists I have consulted believe the terrorists would only increase the number, scope and intensity of their attacks if we tried to ignore them.
Thatcher specifically said “… we do not believe in constraining the media,” but that didn’t stop Graham from implying that Thatcher called for censorship by associating her with others who did.
The historical background to Thatcher’s speech was important. It came shortly after the hijacking of TWA flight 847 and the murder of Navy SEAL, Robert Dean Stethem.
The reporting of this terrorist act led to popular criticism of the media for providing a platform to the terrorists. At congressional hearings about the media’s behavior, the LA Times reported:
Some of the sharpest barbs were fired at the news media Tuesday by former CBS News President Fred W. Friendly, who complained of “egregious errors” by print and television reporters seeking exclusive stories in a “haphazard frenzy of competition.”
Friendly, now a professor emeritus at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, also warned that “terrorism is the new war, a species of guerrilla warfare whose battlefield is the television screen and the front page.”
Journalists, he added, must send a clear message to terrorists. “We need to get it across that you can’t shoot your way onto our air,” he said.
Friendly didn’t call for censorship, but suggested that it could take place if the media continued to behave irresponsibly.
One small example of the consequences Graham’s arrogance was recently on display.
Last week the New York Times reported:
Prisoners in Israeli custody hold an honored place in Palestinian society, with many Palestinians regarding even compatriots convicted of deadly terrorist acts as political prisoners and fighters for the Palestinian cause.
Reading that you wouldn’t know to the degree that the prisoner issue has been manipulated by the Palestinians and abetted by the media so that it bears no resemblance to what was originally intended.
In a time when Palestinian grievances are treated as fact in the media, Margaret Thatcher’s good sense still resonates.