is a term that cannot be given a stable defintion. Or rather, it
can, but to do so forstalls any attempt to examine the major feature
of its relation to television in the contemporary world. As the
central public arena for organising ways of picturing and talking
about social and political life, TV plays a pivotal role in the
contest between competing defintions, accounts and explanations
frequently try to limit the terms of this competition by asserting
the primacy of their preferred versions. Jeanne Kirkpatrick, former
U.S. represenative to the United Nations, for example, had no difficulty
recognising "terrorism" when she saw it , arguing that "what the
terrorist does is kill, maim, kidnap, torture. His victims may be
schoolchildren.... industrialists returning home from work, political
leaders or diplomats". Television journalists, in contrast, prefer
to work with less elastic defintions. The BBC's News Guide for example,
advises reporters that "the best general rule" is to use the term
"terrorist" when civilians are attacked and" guerrillas" when the
targets are members of the official security forces.
term is used in any particular context is inextricably tied to judgemements
about the legitimacy of the action in question and of the political
system against which it is directed. Terms like "guerrilla" "partisan"
or "freedom fighter" carry positive connotations of a justified
struggle against an occupying power or an oppressive state; to label
an action as "terrorist" is to consign it to illegitimacy.
most of the television age, from the end of World War II to the
collapse of the Soviet Union, the deployment of positive and negative
political labels was an integral part of Cold War politics and its
dualistic view of the world. "Terrorism" was used extensively to
characterise enemies of the United States and its allies, as in
President Reagan's assertion in 1985, that Libya, Cuba, Nicaragua
and North Korea constituted a "confederation of terrorist states"
intent on undermining American attempts "to bring stable and democratic
government" to the developing world. Conversely, "friendly" states,
like Argentina, could wage a full scale internal war against "terrorism",
using a defintion elastic enough to embrace almost anyone who criticised
the regime or held unacceptable opinions, and attract comparatively
little censure despite the fact that this wholesale use of state
terror killed and maimed many more civilians than the more publicised
incidents of "retail" terror--assasinations, kidnappings and bombings.
relations between internal terrorism and the state raise particularly
difficult questions for liberal democracies. By undermining the
state's claim to a legitimate monopoly of force within its borders,
acts of "retail" terror pose a clear threat to internal security.
And, in the case of subnational and separatist movements which refuse
to recognise the integrity of those borders, they directly challenge
its political legitimacy. Faced with these challenges, liberal democracies
have two choices. Either they can abide by their own declared principles,
permit open political debate on the underlying causes and claims
of terrorist movements, uphold the rule of law, and respond to insurgent
violence through the proceedures of due process. Or they can curtail
public debate and civil liberties in the name of effective security.
The British state's response to the conflict in Northern Ireland,
and to British television's attempts to cover it, illustrate this
tension particularly well.
journalism in Britain has faced a particular problem in reporting
"the Irish Question" since the Republican movement has adopted a
dual strategy using both the ballot box and the bullet, pursuing
its claim for the ultimate reunification of Ireland electorally,
through the legal political party, Sinn Fein, and militarily, through
the campaign waged by the illegal Irish Republican Army. Added to
which, the British state's response has been ambiguous. Ostensibly,
as Prime Minister Thatcher argued in 1990, although "they are at
war with us" "we can only fight them with the civil law." Then Home
Secretary, Douglas Hurd, admitted in 1989 that, in his view "with
the Provisional IRA...it is nothing to do with a political cause
any more. They are professional killers....No political solution
will cope with that. They just have to be extirpated". Television
journalists' attempts to explore these contradictions produced two
of the bitterest peacetime confrontations between British broadcasters
and the British state.
Soon after British troops were first sent to Northern Ireland in
the early 1970s, there were suspicions that the due process of arrest
and trial was being breached by a covert but officially sanctioned
shoot-to-kill campaign against suspected members of Republican paramilitary
groups. In 1988, three members of an IRA active service unit were
shot dead by members of an elite British counter terrorist unit
in Gibraltar. Contrary to the initial official statements, they
were later found to be unarmed and not in the process of planting
a car bomb as first claimed. One of the leading commercial television
companies, Thames Television, produced a documentary entitled Death
on the Rock, raising questions about the incident. It was greeted
with a barrage of hostile criticsm from leading Conservative politicians,
including Prime Minister Thatcher. The tone of official condemnation
was perfectly caught in an editorial headline in the country's best-selling
daily paper The Sun claiming that the programme was "just
representation of the Provisional IRA was at the heart of the second
major conflict, over a BBC documentary entitled At the Edge of
the Union. This featured an extended profile of Martin McGuiness
of Sinn Fein, widely thought to also be a leading IRA executive
responsible for planning bombings. The programme gave him space
to explain his views and showed him in his local community and at
home with his family. The then Home Secretary, Leon Brittan, (who
had not seen the film) wrote to the Chairman of the BBC's Board
of Govenors urging them not to show it, arguing that "Even if [it]
and any surrounding material were, as a whole, to present terrorist
organisations in a wholly unfavourable light, I would still ask
you not to permit it to be broadcast". The Governors convened an
emergency meeting and decided to cancel the scheduled screening.
This very public vote of no confidence in the judgement of the corporation's
senior editors and managers was unprecedented and was met with an
equally unprecedented response from BBC journalists. They staged
a one-day strike protesting against government interference with
the Corporation's independence.
his letter, Brittan had claimed that it was "damaging to security
and therefore to the public interest to provide a boost to the morale
of the terrorists and their apologists in this way". Refusing this
conflation of "security" with the "public interest" is at the heart
of television journalism's struggle to provide an adequate information
base for a mature democracy. As the BBC's Assistant Director General
put it in 1988, "It is necessary for the maintenance of democracy
that unpopular, even dangerous, views are heard and thoroughy understood.
The argument about the 'national interest' demanding censorship
of such voices is glib and intrinsically dangerous. Who determines
the 'national interest?' How far does the 'national interest' extend?"
His argument was soundly rejected by the government. In the autumn
of 1988, they instructed broadcasters not to transmit direct speech
from members of eleven Irish organisations, including Sinn Fein.
This ban has since been lifted, but its imposition illustrates the
permanent potential for conflict between official conceptions of
security and the national interest and broadcasters' desire to provide
full information, rational debate and relevant contextualisation
on areas of political controversy and dispute. As the BBC's former
director general, Ian Trethowan, pointed out, the basic dilemma
posed by television's treatment of terrorism is absolutely "central
to the ordering of a civilised society: how to avoid encouraging
terrorism and violence while keeping a free and democratic people
ability to strike this balance is not just a question for news,
current affairs and documentary production however. The images and
accounts of terrorism offered by televsion fiction and entertainment
are also important in orchestrating the continual contest between
the discourse of government and the state, the discourses of legitimated
opposition groups, and the discourses of insurgent movements. This
struggle is not simply for visibility--to be seen and heard. It
is also for credibility--to have one's views discussed seriously
and one's case examined with care. The communicative weapons in
this battle are unevenly distributed however.
the saturation coverage that the U.S. news media gave to the Shi'ite
hijacking of a TWA passenger jet at Beirut in 1985 demonstrated
very clearly, spectacular acts of retail terror can command a high
degree of visibility. But the power to contextualise and to grant
or withold legitimacy lies with the array of offical spokespeople
who comment on the event and help construct its public meaning.
As the American political scientist, David Paletz, has noted, because
television news "generally ignores the motivations, objectives and
long-term goals of violent organisations" it effectively prevents
"their causes from gaining legitimacy with the public". This has
led some commentators to speculate that exclusion from the general
process of meaning making is likely to generate ever more spectacular
acts designed to capitalise on the access provided by the highly
visible propoganda of the deed.
Lewis, one of America's leading experts on the Arab world noted
in his comments on the hijacking of the TWA airliner, that those
who plotted the incident "knew that they could count on the American
press and television to provide them with unlimited publicity and
perhaps even some form of advocacy," but because the coverage ignored
the political roots of the action in the complex power struggles
within Shi'ite Islam, it did little to explain its causes or to
foster informed debate on appropriate responses. As the televsion
critic of the Financial Times of London, put it; "There is
a criticism to be made of the coverage of these events, but it is
not that television aided and abetted terrorists. On the contrary,
it is that television failed to convey, or even to consider, the
reasons for what President Reagan called 'ugly , vicious, evil terrorism.'"
is a relatively closed form of television programming. It priviledges
the views of spokespeople for governments and state agencies and
generally organises stories to converge around officially sanctioned
resolutions. Other programme forms, documentaries for example, are
potentially at least, more open. They may allow a broader spectrum
of perspectives into play, including those that voice alternative
or oppositional viewpoints, they may stage debates and pose awkward
questions rather than offering familiar answers. Television in a
democratic society requires the greatest possible diversity of open
programme forms if it is to address the issues raised by terrorism
in the complexity they merit. Whether the emerging forces of technological
change, in production and reception, channel proliferation, increased
competition for audiences and transnational distribution, will advance
or block this ideal is a question well worth examining.
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on the Rock