Lord Northcliffe’s famous dictum : “news is something someone somewhere doesn’t want printed. Everything else is advertising” came to mind recently when the Independent on Sunday reported the death of Alan Henning on a plain black background with the words
On Friday, a decent, caring human being was murdered in cold blood,” it says.
“Our thoughts are with his family. He was killed, on camera, for the sole purpose of propaganda. “Here is the news, not the propaganda.”
The Sun was equally concerned “We refused to give his killers the publicity they crave.
“Instead we choose to remember Alan Henning, the taxi driver from Eccles. A hero.” It showed a picture of him at home before he went to Syria.
It was the PR team for the Islamic State (IS) who wanted it printed while the newspapers that didn’t want to publish but reluctantly felt that they must because otherwise news was being suppressed or withheld to deny IS a PR opportunity.
This story brings to the fore an issue that has been behind the news for a while. For, many of these hostages have been in captivity for more than a year but the news has been suppressed, I imagine, to deny IS publicity as well as to keep the pressure off the government from those who want negotiations even military action to help free the hostages.
This approach to news is now being challenged by some MPs and by hostages’ families.
One of the questions that arises is – has the policy of refusing PR to IS for taking the hostages now driven them to challenge the media by dramatising the story further by the beheadings? Would they have gone so far if the hostage taking had been publicised earlier?
This is not a issue that is unique to this situation. On a different scale, the Police and media have similar issues to reconcile when a serial killer is around, a hostage taken or a trend developing for racist or homophobic crimes. They want public help to find the criminal but have to avoid encouraging the perpetrator to repeat the crime or for copycat villains and fake claimants to complicate their investigations.
To conclude, here are some questions to consider.
Do we have a fundamental human right to at least be given outline news, even if much of the detail is suppressed?
If someone is ramping up their PR actions to an outrageous level to force media attention and editorial coverage, how should the media respond?
These are two important debates for the media and PR.