The Media, Politicians and The Press

A thoughtful analysis from Matthew d’Ancona in today’s Telegraph in which he warns that politicians’ obsession with news cycles assists terrorists put me in mind of an article I wrote back in July 2002. I run it here complete — it still holds up…

“Combating terrorism is a desperate undertaking for any democratic government. Fight with merely military might and the struggle can be lost – as the Reagan administration belatedly learned in Central America in the 1980s and the Russians have found in Chechnya.

As every successful antiterrorist expert knows, an essential ingredient in defeating an insurgency or terrorist group must involve mounting an effective, two-pronged, hearts-and-minds strategy that aims, on the one hand, to wean supporters away from the terrorist opponent and, on the other, to maintain the morale and backing of your own people. Repression or overreaction and curtailment of civil liberties risks undermining the hearts-and-minds effort.

The Bush administration did a fine job on the keeping-up-morale front in the immediate aftermath of Sept. 11, steadying jittery Americans and urging them to get back to business. The speedy toppling of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan certainly helped to convince Americans that the Bush administration knew what it was doing and was on the right track.

But in its efforts to ensure the continued support of Americans and to garner backing for proposals such as the establishment of the Department for Homeland Security, the administration risks falling into the trap that other democratic governments fighting terrorism have slipped into to their cost. Bush officials are giving the terrorists what Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s liked to call the “oxygen of publicity.”

Thatcher had in mind more the media’s role during the troubles in Northern Ireland – troubles which, of course, spilled over to mainland Britain in the form of car-bombings and assassinations. She blamed the media for over-covering the Irish Republican Army [IRA]and other paramilitary groups.

As far as the Iron Lady was concerned, the media and the terrorists became locked in a symbiotic relationship. The terrorists needed the coverage; reporters and TV producers needed the stories. She had a point. The aim of terrorists is to prompt fear; by closely covering their actions, foiled plots and threats, the media in Britain became a hugely important element in scaring the British public and even in sapping the political will of the British establishment.

But shutting off that oxygen supply can be a tricky thing for a government to pull off. The attempt can lead to a greater enrichment of the terrorist atmosphere, as well as leading to an undermining of the very values a democratic government purports to be defending.

Take the Iron Lady’s bid to “suffocate” the IRA by prohibiting British broadcasters from transmitting the voice of paramilitary leaders such as Gerry Adams. The ban, of course, merely prompted the broadcasters to seize on a loophole and guaranteed the Sinn Fein president even more airtime, albeit with a voice-over enunciating his words.

Nowadays, with 24-hour news cycles, cable and satellite TV and editorial standards that allow too much speculation and ill-informed analysis to pass as news, the pernicious side of the media’s role in confrontations with terrorists has increased. With its voracious appetite needing to be satisfied, the TV media remain in hyperactive overdrive, giving the impression that the United States is on the brink of turning into a Belfast or a Beirut at the height of their troubles. The public is being scared witless.

But it isn’t all the media’s fault. In recent weeks, the administration, led by Attorney General John Ashcroft, appears to have done everything it could to ratchet up the scare factor, too. The disclosure in early June of the May 8 arrest of the feckless terrorist wanna-be Abdullah Al Mujahir, otherwise known as Jose Padilla, is a case in point.

Few experts believe Padilla was anywhere near capable of fulfilling his dirty-bomb mission. Nonetheless, that didn’t stop the administration from speaking in apocalyptic terms. The manner of the announcement by a live TV linkup for Ashcroft in Moscow and a star-studded news conference at the Justice Department added massive drama. With the surprising exception of Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, aides and officials appeared determined to talk up the dirty-bomb threat.

Ashcroft subsequently was criticized for hyping the radioactive menace by the White House [via off-the-record briefings to the press, of course]. But the disclosure nonetheless fits into a recent pattern of dramatic statements from senior administration figures that have only added to widespread public alarm.

Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and FBI Director Robert Mueller all have made startling comments of late. All have endorsed the idea that it is inevitable terrorists will get their hands on nuclear weapons. The media, of course, add to the hype.

It is hard not to have sympathy with some Democrats when they argue that the Bush administration seems intent on deflecting attention from the claims of pre-Sept. 11 intelligence lapses and laxity. Others maintain the administration has increased its warnings of future terrorist outrages to help garner support for major measures, such as the establishment of the Department for Homeland Security.

Arguably there is nothing wrong with a massive public-relations effort – the United States needs to prepare to defend itself and to prevent future attacks. But hyping the risks, whatever the motives, remains a dangerous game to play as public fear easily could swing out of control and force the government into more extreme actions at home and abroad. Governments can provide the “oxygen of publicity” for terrorists as well as the media.”