Ethics,  Israel/Palestine,  Media

A Question of Media Ethics

The BBC Newsnight team tweeted out, with some enthusiasm, the following yesterday:

It is an unequivocal violation of journalistic ethics to interview people about an issue while their relatives are being held hostage by terrorists. Nothing they say can be deemed to be not under duress. In the past, the BBC would have been staffed by professionals who instinctively knew this, but it is now essentially Tiktok with a budget.

The BBC have a 100 years of broadcasting experience. They used to get this right. But standards have fallen and journalists have become activists. They parrot Hamas-talking points, quote Hamas casualty figures, and rush to blame Israel for atrocities which later are proven false, while treating every statement by the Israelis with hostility and suspicion.

I have already written about this idiocy of modern journalists working in the so-called ‘mainstream media’ when dealing with hostage issues. In my previous post on this issue, I asked:

Why did most of the media present the story in this fashion when it should have been clear to any level-headed journalist that this was somebody who was being very careful about what they said in order not to get her husband murdered?

The issue here is the same: Does it not occur to these journalists that the families of the hostages may be “pro peace and reconciliation” because they fear for their loved ones?

In the Unesco Media Ethics Handbook, it advises:

Do not interview the hostages. Agence France-Presse’s Michèle Léridon notes that the media should avoid disseminating “statements made under duress”.

Similarly, the Online News Association provides useful ethical guidelines for journalists. The people reporting our news ought to brush up on these time-tested best-practices in these situations. For example, the guidelines note:

Sometimes hostage-holders offer videos of their hostages. These may simply show that those held are in good condition or may show the hostages giving statements — statements that are clearly made under duress and are designed to advance the hostage-holders’ goals.

Precisely, and it isn’t a huge logical leap to extend this to recently-released hostages and family of hostages while others are still in peril.

Even if what they say is genuine, a journalist should realise that, while their loved-ones are being held captive, their testimony and perspective is tainted, and should be very wary of inadvertently propagandising for the terrorists.

Similarly, the Radio Television Digital News Association (RTDNA), said to be the world’s largest professional organisation devoted exclusively to broadcast and digital journalism, with the help of the respected Poynter Institute, offers the following guidance:

“… be cautious when interviewing hostages or released hostages while a crisis continues. Exercise care when interviewing family members or friends of those involved in standoff situations. Make sure the interview legitimately advances the story for the public and is not simply conducted for the shock value of the emotions conveyed…”

It is clear to me that the BBC interviewed the Lifschitzes – both mother and daughter – because they approve of the narrative. As I said, it may be sincere, but under the conditions, we simply cannot know. What we do know is that it is fuelling pro-Hamas propaganda. Apologists for the terrorists claim that the testimony that Hamas are treating the hostages “humanely” suggests that the atrocities of 7 October are a “fabrication”. That lunatic, Roger Waters, is even flying the “false flag” theory.

The BBC has been criticised before for its handling of hostage situations. Writing for Columbia Journalism Review, Salome Anderson, daughter of the former Associated Press bureau chief in the Middle Easy, Terry Anderson, who was kidnapped by Hezbollah in 1985 and held for six years. She says:

The journalistic mission to be the first to break the most impactful story often does not coincide with the need for extreme sensitivity surrounding a hostage situation, but efforts were made by most news organizations not to put my father at risk by publishing things that would endanger him or make his captors angry.

Thirty years later, our hyperactive news cycle has all but obliterated the systematic, careful consideration of consequences when publishing news.

Writing about her concerns over the reporting around the kidnapping of Jamal Khashoggi, she continues:

On Monday, the BBC aired a conversation with Khashoggi recorded before their official interview, in which he was highly critical of the Saudi government. Presumably, Khashoggi spoke more candidly off-air because he was concerned about the consequences if he were to openly say those things. The BBC didn’t know for certain that Khashoggi was dead, but it still made public an off-air interview that could have put him at risk, with the note, “We wouldn’t normally broadcast an off-air conversation, but we’ve decided to make an exception, in light of the current circumstances.”

A BBC News spokesperson tells CJR, “We took great care in deciding to broadcast Mr Khashoggi’s words and considered the implications carefully. In light of the circumstances, his view that the deteriorating environment for free speech in Saudi Arabia meant he could not return to live there, is important and relevant information. We do not believe this broadcast could endanger him further, especially considering his longstanding criticism of the Saudi authorities, expressed far more stridently in his newspaper columns.”

But Khashoggi chose what appeared in his writings after presumably weighing their potential consequences for himself. What makes this disregard for his wishes even more troubling is that Khashoggi himself was extremely careful not to call himself a dissident and further inflame the Saudis against himself and his family. The fact that he went off the record with journalists for his most severe criticism of Saudi officials like Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (known as MBS), widely seen as the architect behind his disappearance, should be an indication that he was concerned about the repercussions were he to go public with the things he told them.

Khashoggi himself was extremely careful not to call himself a dissident.

As we know, Jamal Khashoggi was murdered.

I’d better make it clear that I’m not necessarily blaming the BBC for Khashoggi’s death – only his killers and their paymasters are to blame for that – but it does illustrate further that the BBC is staffed by people who simply do not have the old-school news reporter’s ethical instincts. What if one of their new Paxman-lite interviewers inadvertently asked a question of a hostage’s family member which solicited an answer the terrorist captors did not want to hear, causing them to angrily murder their captive? Would the journalist or broadcaster take responsibility for this?

They are cavalier and reckless, and worst of all, put pushing a particular narrative ahead of their ethical responsibilities.