The Propaganda of the Deed: A Perspective from the Media

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Following John Mackinlay’s earlier post regarding the media’s complicity in the use made by insurgents of the propaganda of the deed – which focused in particular on the coverage of the recent Taliban attack on the National Day parade in Afghanistan – the following response has been contributed by Nick Walton, who edited the Newshour programme on BBC World Service radio which covered the Taliban attack in depth.

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From the point of view of an informed layman, I understand and largely agree with your analysis of what happened, from the motives of those attacking, to the resultant images broadcast around the world without a caveat attached regarding POTD.

However, speaking as a journalist, things are a lot murkier! POTD is one layer of context (albeit a vital one) that allows us to understand an event such as this attack. Inevitably much of the context has to be stripped out on the day to day reporting of events such as attacks, actions etc…

For news programmes (with varying degrees of analysis) and other media, the first thing to do is to report what happened – in this case, for instance, we conducted an interview with an MP who was on the podium when it was attacked, along with sounds from TV footage to tell the story of what happened.

Some forms of media stop there. Newshour, for instance, has room to continue further, so we used an interview with our correspondent – the key question being asked was to be brought up to date with any reaction from both within Afghanistan and outside. This added more of the ‘what happened’, and allowed us to touch upon the analysis, although quite superficially. I gather that our focus was on the security-failures aspect of the attack.

We cannot bombard the listener with full analysis and context every time, so, on issues such as this, we generally try to visit certain areas of questioning to provide a narrative over time that helps people to understand or at least interpret what is happening. Tactics such as POTD fit in to this, but will not be brought up at every instance.

Other media, obviously, are less able to spend even the time that we spend – but that does not mean that they are not doing their job. For the six o’clock news, for instance, much of what they do is predicated on the assumption that for those who wish there are other sources that allow people to access the context and so on as appropriate.

One of those sources would be an in depth programme such as The Age of Terror – and I agree with your point regarding that series. But then I would never look to TV for anything too intelligent or subtle.

Ah, but the one thing that I have signally failed to address is why do the insurgents’ jobs for them by showing the attack at all (in particular without the context of the POTD)? On that count, why show, on the day that it happened, September 11th? Well news is sensation, news is things happening, news is stories with beginnings, middles and ends, that fit the medium. The attack made an interesting start to the programme – it was vastly more engaging than most other things happening on Sunday – and thanks to the TV sounds and the MP eye witness, it made engaging radio.

No one would seriously argue that it was not news – the motives involved are a consideration, but we cannot self censor an event such as this attack on the grounds that those carrying out the attack did it for the publicity. If Greenpeace dress up as rabbits and hold a protest to draw our attention to the rainforest, that’s not news for me – but if they gain publicity by means of a terrorist attack, I’m afraid it is (provided it is treated responsibly).

Obviously we need both awareness of any motives, and sensitivity while dealing with the material. This certainly does not happen, as there is very little understanding or awareness of such unfashionable military concepts in journalism these days (as there isn’t understanding of areas like economics or science – too many bloody English Lit graduates in journalism, if you ask me).

This is only a partial defence, and probably only a surface explanation of the media’s actions regarding Sunday’s attack. After all, I am only an accidental journalist, and mostly a reluctant one too. There is more to say, but a skimpy e-mail would not do it justice…

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