"Terrorism" 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 of terrorism.

Politicians 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.

Which 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.

For 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.

The 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.

Television 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 IRA propoganda."

The 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.

In 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 properly informed."

Television's 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.

As 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.

Bernard 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.'"

News 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.

-Graham Murdock


Alali, A. Odasu, and Gary W. Byrd. Terrorism and the News Media: A Selected, Annotated Bibliography. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 1994.

Alali, A. Odasu, and Kenoye Kelvin Eke, editors. Media Coverage of Terrorism: Methods of Diffusion. Newbury Park, California: Sage, 1991.

Alexander, Yonah, and Robert G. Picard, editors. In the Camera's Eye: News Coverage of Terrorist Events. Washington D.C.: Brassey's, 1991.

Dobkin, Bethami A. Tales of Terror: Television News and the Construction of the Terrorist Threat. New York: Praeger, 1992.

Livingston, Steven. The Terrorism Spectacle. Boulder, Colorado: Westview, 1994.

Miller, Abraham, editor. Terrorism, the Media, and the Law. Dobbs Ferry, New York: Transnational, 1982.

Nacos, Brigitte Lebens. Terrorism and the Media: From the Iran Hostage Crisis to the World Trade Center Bombing. New York: Columbia University Press, 1994.

O'Neill, Michael J. Terrorist Spectaculars: Should TV Coverage Be Curbed. New York: Priority Press, 1986.

Paletz, David L., and Alex Peter Schmid, editors. Terrorism and the Media. Newbury Park, California: Sage, 1991.

Picard, Robert G. Media Portrayals of Terrorism: Functions and Meanings of News Coverage. Ames, Iowa: Iowa State University Press, 1993.

Schaffert, Richard W. Media Coverage and Political Terrorists: A Quantitative Analysis. New York: Praeger, 1992.

Signorielli, Nancy, and George Gerbner. Violence and Terror in the Mass Media: An Annotated Bibliography. New York: Greenwood Press, 1988.

Weimann, Gabriel, and Conrad Winn. The Theater of Terror: Mass Media and International Terrorists. New York: Longman, 1994.


See also Death on the Rock