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The challenges for media, 30 years after my hostage ordeal
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.