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The challenges for media, 30 years after my hostage ordeal

May 4, 2010

Thirty years ago this Wednesday, I was sitting, chain smoking, in the basement of a children’s needlework school in Kensington, London. It was a few doors away from the Iranian Embassy, which for six days had been under siege as six Iranian dissidents held two dozen hostages captive. Five days earlier, on April 30th, I had been released from the embassy after suffering what the hostage-takers, and myself, thought was a heart attack, though it was probably self-induced through terror and self survival.

The needlework school had another function that day – it was the HQ for the police and  military preparing to break the siege. I had been summoned there to assist in the hostage negotiations, though as I arrived the Iranians dumped one dead hostage onto the street. They had shot him in the head and threatened to shoot another within the hour.

Within minutes members of Britain’s Special Air Services (SAS) were given orders to storm the embassy and break the siege. They did so in 43 minutes, rescuing all but one of the hostages and shooting dead five of the six dissidents. The sixth later stood trial at the Old Bailey and was jailed for life.

It was history in the making. The SAS’s finest hour. All covered live on television (though, remarkably, the interruption of regular programming – a John Wayne western on one channel, the final of a snooker contest on the other – was considered a bold move on the part of the programmers, subject to much criticism from viewers in the days after.)

Three weeks later, on June 1st, 1980, CNN was launched and a revolution in continuous news began. As a former hostage, and a newsman for more than 40 years, I am conflicted.

How would the modern-day media cover a siege such as the 1980 one?  How would the relentless, frequently breathless and opinionated media of 2010 report on the delicate, terrifying negotiations that went on 30 years ago this week?

There was at least one television set inside the Iranian embassy, though for some reason it was not working. There was a radio – and the hostages and their captors sat around it like attentive children, sobbing, laughing and occasionally arguing as broadcasts were made. The slightest error or nuanced report was a cause for distress.

These were pre-Internet days. No texts by phone – telephone pagers were considered state of the art. No Facebook, no Flickr, and absolutely no Twitter.

As a journalist that seems terrible. As a former hostage I am not so sure.

What might have been the outcome if insensitive, speculative or just plain bad reportage had been provided and available to the hostage takers? Supposing clandestine filming of the preparations to break the siege had been transmitted on the BBC, CNN or Fox?

Experience tells me there is no such thing as a complete news blackout. The very best intentions by responsible media organizations can be confounded either by screw-ups or by commentators sitting outside what used to be a cozy circle. And social media contributors have their own take on information flow – mostly innocent chatter, sometimes rabid or with a fixed agenda.

It’s a good time for media outlets to plan for the next siege. And to determine, in advance, what their response might be.

It’s also a good time to reflect on our reporting of the victims of terrorist acts. My ordeal was a brief one, though sufficient to write my Last Will and Testament and leave me with long-lasting after-effects. It ended my ambition to be a dashing war correspondent and started me thinking about the effects of trauma on members of the media.

Thirty years on, responsible media organizations –Reuters, AP, the BBC, CNN and others – take for granted the duty of care they have for their own staff. Other media organizations might care to examine their own consciences.

Comments

Incompetent police combined with over-curious journalists and onlookers ruined the Israeli athletes chances of survival at the 1972 Munich Olympics.

A more recent mountain-climbing accident saw mountain rescue teams unable to safely approach a mountain in their helicopter because news crews were busy buzzing the scene in theirs.

In this day and age, with mobile phone cameras, Twitter, Facebook, and armies of irresponsible “citizen journalists” all out for the latest “scoop” or quick buck from the tabloids; we are living in a dangerous world.

Half the time, when there’s a serious accident on one side of the freeway, curious onlookers slow down to have a closer look and cause an accident on the other side too.

I can’t forget how I once collapsed in the city centre. I fainted and dropped to the floor on the pavement. When I came around, I saw two dozen people stooping and staring at me, asking the rather disingenuous question,
“Are you all right?” Not one of these curious onlookers knew any first-aid skills. I was still slumped in the position I fell in. At the back of the crowd somewhere, trying to get through, was an off-duty nurse. Quite a frightening experience, overall.

IF a similar siege happened again in 2010, like the Iranian Embassy siege, I would like to see an exclusion zone enforced as I believe it was at the time – both for pedestrians and for aircraft e.g. helicopters. Seriously now, if any curious onlookers or well-meaning “citizen journalists” try to get through, I should like to see them shot at the perimeter with a tranquilliser dart from a silenced rifle, and carried away to sober up in a cell.

We should seriously have much stricter laws w.r.t. things like this. Anyone regarding themselves as a “citizen journalist” should consider themselves subject to the most of the same laws that professional journalists are subject to. It comes down to common sense and thinking through the consequences of your actions, which any sensible adult can do. Whether journalist or “citizen journalist”, any curious onlooking or active “journalism” that results in the death or serious injury of any other person, should be subject to the strictest penalties.

Posted by compsci | Report as abusive
 

I was there in UK when it happened and it was real exciting to see live coverage of the event on TV. CNN since then has proved the need for real time fixes. As to whether the outcome would be different now compared to then, I think not as the Sept 11 hijacking showed. What would be different, I think, is the higher expectation of the public and the conspiracy theories that would crop up suggesting that this sort of thing should have been anticipated and completely avoided had the security services been more vigilant.

Posted by elshaman | Report as abusive
 

I get from this article that Facebook and Twitter potentially gum up the works for people who take hostages – or people who kill people who take hostages – or hostages who get killed – or hostages who are ‘saved’ – I am not quite clear on what the writer is getting at but it is clear that the incident reported is the first of many live broadcasts of ‘rescues’ that seem chillingly well scripted by the ‘heroes’. How did those pigs get into Britain to cause the chaos they did? We know how they get into the United States – they apply for a visa and the Immigration Service hands it to them.

Posted by cranston | Report as abusive
 

The attacks on Mumbai in 2008 just goes to prove what has been stated here. Despite cameras showing the positions of army personnel and what they were doing there was no attempt made to muzzle the networks as they broadcast live for almost 60 hours.

Posted by Rambler | Report as abusive
 

@compsci, I will gather your collapse was not within the past few years otherwise I am sure you would have come to with a bunch of cell phones in your face as people tried to take your picture or record the events.

Posted by iflydaplanes | Report as abusive
 

@iflydaplanes – you are correct. My collapse in the city centre was some time around 1993, when very few people had mobile phones.

Posted by compsci | Report as abusive
 

American governments do not negotiate with terrorists… on TV. Much.

That’s why, amidst all the dross that CNN and other simulacra of Lotsa Really Important Things Going On All The Time represent, there’s so little real news coverage of any political events these days. Television viewers have become the least informed people on the planet.

The result is that too many people who can’t even decipher their own phone bill think they know how to deal with a hostage crisis, much less what might have caused it. Not that such an event itself would have been too accurately covered by news media.

Twitterism is more of a threat to the intellect than to the occasional political hostage, but the commercial TV networks already boiled America’s brain in oil, so what’s actually left to defend? You got it – freedom of the press.

Now it is up to the Press to actually use that freedom because if they don’t, nobody else can expect to have any either.

Posted by HBC | Report as abusive
 

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