Hostage taking events, media coverage and government broadcast regulation: striking the right balance

Below is an extended piece my colleague and I authored and from which we’ve drawn for a range of works. With my colleague Nick’s permission I’ve put a copy up here because this really is an important issue that just hasn’t had the traction that it should in Australia. It is not an anti-media piece or an anti government piece; it attempts to highlight the risks and to spur a discussion on what could more can be done to ensure that the safety of all those involved in such incidents is protected. A brief abstract follows the longer series of posts, placed here together for ease of reading.


Survivors of the hostage crisis that rocked Paris in January this year recently filed an unprecedented complaint against French media for endangerment and called for a new legal framework to police live coverage of events. The Paris Prosecutor’s Office is now investigating, while France’s Broadcast authorities are considering further regulatory action. In the aftermath of the Sydney siege, Australia’s media was heavily lauded for its responsible coverage. But it was not without incident or problems, many of which could have resulted in harm to hostages and adversely affected the outcome of the incident. Because they did not, they are unlikely to come to further attention in Australia, but are nonetheless important to consider.

Had events unfolded differently in Sydney, legal action similar to that now underway in Paris could be before Australian courts. This should be cause for concern for Australian media and government. It should also stimulate a discussion between them on whether it is time to codify what type of responsible media practices are required when covering such an event and how these might best be regulated. To date, it has not. In this series of posts we outline the risks of such coverage and look at how other countries have attempted to deal with balancing press freedoms with protecting public safety and order before turning to consider what would be an appropriate response for Australia.

Dr Nicholas Gilmour is a Teaching Fellow at Massey University in Wellington teaching Intelligence, Crime and security and Crime Science. Nicholas is a former British and New Zealand Police Officer and hostage negotiator.

Dr Leah Farrall is a Research Associate at the University of Sydney’s USSC, and a Senior Lecturer in Security Studies at Massey University. She was formerly a Counter Terrorism Intelligence Analyst with the Australian Federal Police.


Hostage taking events, media coverage and government broadcast regulation: striking the right balance

Hostage takings and sieges, particularly those driven by ideational motivations, tend to be planned with securing media attention in mind. Media coverage gives perpetrators access to the broadest possible audience and a mass impact beyond their capacity to inflict violence and coerce the fulfilment of their demands. The frequency with which perpetrators attempt to monitor media throughout an event has resulted in the often-repeated ‘rule’ for dealing with such situations: always assume a perpetrator has access to media reporting.

Many perpetrators not only seek media coverage but also attempt to shape how it is provided and what is reported. They do so by reaching out to make contact with, or demands of media organisations. In the past, some media have responded to such contact or initiated their own, carrying out interviews of hostage takers, and in some instances, publishing their manifestos.

It is, however, not only hostage takers and their victims who capture media attention during such events. Coverage also focuses on police responses, with reporting sometimes showing police tactics and operations that can be of use to a hostage taker. In this respect, by providing coverage a perpetrator wants and often information that assists them, the media does not just report on such events but can become a part of them.

Hostage takings and sieges are not new and neither are debates about where responsibility lies for ensuring media reporting does not jeopardise the safety of hostages, police responders, and the public. However, the nature of hostage taking and siege events is evolving, and with the advent of a 24 hour news cycle, developments in technology and the ubiquity of the Internet and social media, their impact is amplified like never before. So too are the consequences of media coverage. Gone are the days when cutting power and the phone could restrict a perpetrator’s access to media, ability to communicate, and general awareness of outside happenings.

Media coverage is vital to keeping the public informed, and thus assisting with public safety and order. It can prompt members of the public to come forward with information that helps authorities responding to and investigating hostage taking and siege situations. The media also serves as a watchdog ensuring government accountability and performs an important role reporting in the public interest. However, unrestrained and unfiltered media coverage of hostage taking and siege events can pose a number of risks and not only jeopardise the safety of hostages and those attempting to secure their release, but also negatively impact on public safety and order.

Today, a perpetrator with mobile devices can, for long periods of time, access and monitor media reporting via the Internet and make contact with journalists using either their own devices or those of their hostages. They can do so even if involved in a running multi-location event. If unable to access media themselves, perpetrators can maintain contact with an external controller who, so long as they have access to the Internet, can offer real time tactical advice on the basis of what they are seeing, hearing or reading in media reporting. The archiving of news reporting on the Internet also means that perpetrators have easy access to extensive reportage on previous events—from which they can glean valuable insight.

In recent years we have also witnessed events where hostages were taken and demands issued for the purpose of securing media coverage for what perpetrators ultimately sought—which was not the fulfilment of their demands but rather the provocation of government into an armed response against them. The organisers of the 2008 Mumbai siege allegedly had this objective in mind. The perpetrators’ harming of hostages and issuing of demands is believed to have been a ruse designed to increase media coverage and force the Indian government to an armed intervention under the glare of live international media coverage. In this way, media coverage can facilitate stage two of a larger plot by providing the platform perpetrators seek.

In the future there may be attempts to exploit media coverage in similarly calculated ways as part of a multi-stage event in which hostage taking is only one element. For example, a perpetrator’s issuing of demands after taking hostages and efforts to contact media could be specifically intended to attract intensive coverage and gain a platform for a further planned act of violence against hostages to be captured live on air. In this instance, initial media coverage accessed by a perpetrator could assist them to determine areas of highest media visibility when inflicting harm upon hostages.

Given this type of intent cannot be known there is a possibility running live footage of hostages could result in violent acts against them could being aired. This was a real risk in the early stages of the Sydney siege, and had it unfolded differently, violence against hostages could have been broadcast. That such a turn of events thankfully failed to materialise should not result in live reporting of the type that characterised the Sydney siege setting the precedent for future coverage of such events in Australia.

What’s happening offshore

Shortly after the Sydney siege, high profile hostage taking and siege events took place in Paris. Media coverage of these events was at times reckless, and resulted in France’s broadcasting authority, the CSA, reviewing over 500 hours of coverage and issuing 36 decision notices to media organisations deemed to have breached its regulatory regime. This regime includes specific provisions governing media reporting on these types of acts and the CSA was active as events unfolded, contacting media organisations to remind them of their responsibilities and urging them to follow police advice. The decisions issued by the CSA related to media reporting that went against police requests and advice, placed public safety and order at risk, and resulted in the airing of information that adversely affected the safety of hostages and responders, as well as compromised the police investigation.

Following events in Paris, media and police met in the United Kingdom for discussions arising from police concerns about the impact of live coverage on their ability to respond to such events. The regulatory regime in the United Kingdom, like France, also contains provisions that specifically address coverage of such events. In the United Kingdom, the section of the Ofcom code dealing with coverage of these types of events was constructed from consultation between stakeholders and was “designed to ensure that there is no live coverage of events that could assist hostage-takers to frustrate rescue efforts.” The code stipulates that broadcasters need to use “their best endeavours so as not to broadcast material that could endanger lives or prejudice the success of attempts to deal with a hijack or kidnapping.”

Several media organisations, most notably the BBC, also have sections within their editorial guidelines that clearly outline how they cover such events in a good demonstration of transparency, accountability and pro-active self-regulation that purposefully serves the public interest. Clearly, however, in view of renewed discussions between police and media, there are concerns that such provisions and undertakings may not be enough to mitigate the dangers media coverage can pose to those involved in an event, and public safety and order more generally.

Meanwhile, in France, the CSA is also discussing additional inclusions to its regulatory regime. This is taking place against a backdrop of unprecedented legal action by survivors of one of the Paris events who are alleging media reporting endangered their safety. An investigation by the Paris Prosecutor’s Office into the survivors’ charge of endangerment against some French media organisations is also underway. Amid these discussions in France and the United Kingdom is presumably a good deal of debate between government and media on risk, responsibilities, and regulations.

It may be tempting to think media coverage of the Sydney siege showed Australia was immune to such problems and that discussions like this are not needed. However, the Australian media’s reporting on the Sydney siege was not without its problems. Sadly, it might have also reinforced to others who may seek to carry out acts of ideationally motivated violence that they can, with ease, secure ongoing live media coverage.

Curiously, official commentary on the Australian media’s performance during the Sydney siege has seemed at pains to avoid pointing out shortcomings or areas for improvement. Instead, it has almost singularly commended the positives, of which there were many. While praise for media responsibility was, in many cases, unquestionably deserved, lessons are not best learned solely from praise, but instead come from feedback and reflection—some of which may be critical. Very little has been forthcoming. Instead, the focus on praise has resulted in media coverage of the siege being represented as universally responsible, with even the official Martin Place report appearing to suggest this was the case.

Some media did act very responsibly in their coverage of the Sydney siege, but not all. This was recognised by the Chair of the Australian Press Council in a statement released in the aftermath of the siege. It was also apparent to anyone reading, watching or listening to some of the coverage.

Australia’s media was fortunate that the early stages of the siege did not involve acts of violence against hostages while cameras were rolling and that some of its coverage did not come to the notice of the perpetrator and result in harm. This good fortune does not mean reporting was responsible and accepting it as such runs the risk that it sets a dangerous precedent for future coverage practices.

Already there has been a discernible absence of critical self-reflection by Australian media on the siege coverage, or more generally on the impact of media reporting on these types of events. There was also scant media attention paid to the recommendation in the official Martin Place Siege report that media representatives be included in government training exercises “to improve cooperation between media and government.” Even in the aftermath of events in Sydney, editorial guidelines and codes of practice of media organisations in Australia appear to lack specific inclusions relating to their coverage of such events.

It is not, however, only Australia’s media that falls short. Codes that specifically address media coverage of these types of events and the unique challenges they present are absent from the Australian regulatory landscape. Even after the events in Sydney and despite the government’s repeated citing of the changing threat environment Australia faces, there has been no visible movement towards such inclusions or discussions with media on how such events can be better handled.

The Sydney siege is unlikely to be the only incident of its type that Australia faces. Both media and government need to reflect on the safety risks media coverage poses and jointly discuss how to mitigate these risks while also protecting public interest reporting and editorial discretion. A good first step would be an open and frank conversation about the risks media coverage poses.

Consequence and risk

There are a range of risks posed by media coverage of hostage taking and siege events. The most immediate of these relate to the potential consequences of reporting information of use to a perpetrator, which can directly result in harm to both hostages and responders, and impact upon public safety and order. However, it is not only a matter of what useful information a perpetrator may be able to glean from media coverage, there are also risks arising from the media directly addressing a perpetrator, or from how they, their cause and any demands they have issued are depicted, all of which may aggrieve them and spur them on to further violent actions. There are also additional risks posed by the reporting of information that may be of use to those planning to carry out violent events in the future, which can result in dangerous imitation of particular tactics or outright copycat events.

Unfiltered media coverage can lead to the disclosure of information in written, spoken or image form that assists the perpetrator(s) in a number of ways. Police locations, movements, and tactics for example, can be disclosed either deliberately or unwittingly via these reporting mediums. Unrestrained media coverage of an event site or disregard of a cordon around it can prevent police from using capabilities to get additional insight on what is taking place inside a siege location, which can hamper their ability to assess the situation and plan an appropriate course of action. This can impact upon the range of operational options available to authorities.

Media coverage can result in a loss of initiative for responders by taking away the element of surprise needed if a situation is not able to be peacefully resolved. When a hostage taker can easily know what is going on outside, and from where they can expect an intervention force to enter, this leaves them better able to act inside. For example, hostage takers can use information they glean from media coverage to defensively plan against resolution efforts. Media coverage can give hostage takers information not only on where to place hostages as a defensive barrier but also where to defensively position themselves. This can not only cause harm to hostages but also result in police being directly in the line of fire. In this way, media coverage can disturb the course of a police intervention, and provide a hostage taker with more scope to harm hostages and responders.

Broadcasting live images or reports of police locations, movements and tactics can not only prevent police from having the best opportunity to rescue hostages, it can also prompt perpetrators to pre-emptively harm hostages if they see media coverage indicating police are about to move into their location. Media coverage could assist perpetrators not active in an initial event in their planning or undertaking of subsequent events. It could also provoke supporters of the perpetrators into taking similar actions.

During the events in Paris, we sadly saw many such things take place. These events also served to highlight the dangers of reporting on attempts to resolve one incident while another was still unfolding. Media coverage of the Paris incidents included live broadcasting of police movements in response to the Charlie Hebdo massacre as well as the broadcast of footage of the perpetrators’ execution of a police officer while on the run. Media reporting also focused intensively on the police manhunt for the perpetrators, who were identified and publicly named, despite police requests for the media to refrain from doing so.

Collectively, this media coverage affected public safety. It also influenced the tactical decisions of an additional perpetrator who was friends with the first perpetrators, and who over the course of the next two days, undertook a series of violent actions. These included the shooting of a police officer and the taking and killing of hostages with the declared aim of securing the release of his friends, the Charlie Hebdo perpetrators, who, as a result of blanket media coverage, the perpetrator was aware were involved in a hostage taking siege event of their own.

Media coverage can also facilitate external command and control of a hostage taking or siege event. During the 2008 Mumbai siege, rolling live broadcast of Indian government forces attempting to enter a location where perpetrators were holding hostages was watched by controllers operating from another country. The controllers were in telephone contact with the perpetrators and provided them with real time tactical advice on where to position themselves and how to target government forces as they entered the premises.

In the Sydney siege, media coverage provided the public, potentially including the hostage taker, with insight into both the tactics and real-time location and movement of police officers. Images were broadcast that showed the location of police around the Lindt Café. At least one image was also broadcast that showed a police sniper in a tactical position.

Providing detailed coverage of the tactics a perpetrator is using to hold hostages and fend off police efforts to safely recover them also poses contagion risks. It can cause a single action to turn into a multi-event scenario, when the actions and tactics of perpetrators are mimicked by those already known to them or who support their cause. More generally it can also spur copycat actions by persons unrelated to the initial perpetrators and their cause.

Words count too

It is not only live broadcast of images from the scene that can reveal response tactics to a hostage taker. Unfiltered remarks by journalists or commentators used by media can also give hostage takers valuable insights. During the events in Paris, a retired General providing commentary on France 24 gave a breakdown of tactics and capabilities likely to be used if government forces attempted to gain entry to a location where hostages were being held.

Sometimes these remarks are unsolicited; other times the media directly asks commentators to discuss their knowledge of police or military tactics and what course of action or capabilities might be utilised. There is often push back on such requests, but not always. The risks here also include detailing what tactics a perpetrator is using to hold hostages and defend against police intervention efforts, which could be mimicked by others in a multi-event scenario, or in a future act. The danger of commentary is therefore that discussions on tactics, capabilities and potential courses of action that could impact upon events are not filtered, and can come to the notice of a hostage taker monitoring media. This, coupled with information on real-time police movements a perpetrator may be able to access, can give the perpetrator a defensive planning advantage that can result in the harming of intervention forces and hostages.

Media reporting of information not obtained via official government channels and therefore not approved for public release can hamper police responses and endanger hostage and responder safety, as well as public safety more generally. Perpetrators can hear information reported that reduces the ability of negotiators to do their job. For example, reporting by media on who a hostage taker might be or is in contact with, could not only impact upon negotiation strategies being pursued by police but also lead to a more violent outcome.

While the media acted responsibly during the siege in Sydney by withholding information about the perpetrator after becoming aware of it, the French media covering events in Paris did not. Suspects were publicly identified despite police requests this information be withheld. In Sydney, although the identity of the perpetrator was withheld by media there were repeated reports stating members of the media were aware of his identify, which could have potentially inflamed the situation.

The identification by media of hostages or persons in hiding from hostage takers also poses risks. It can potentially lead to their execution, cause others in hiding to be sought out, found, and harmed, spur on more violent action and hamper negotiation and rescue efforts. During the Sydney siege live images of hostages were widely broadcast—with most media failing to make any attempt to protect them from being identified by pixelating the images. Aside from the privacy and trauma related implications the broadcast of such images has, were circumstances to have unfolded differently the widespread broadcasting of such images could have affected hostage safety.

In Paris, as events unfolded there were media reports that people were trapped in a location and hiding from a hostage taker. These reports were issued despite police requests for details to be withheld and jeopardised people’s safety and interfered with negotiation and rescue efforts. Reporting like this in both incidents could have also had a significant impact on public safety and order. There are also risks that information made public can prejudice police investigations and future judicial outcomes.

Depiction, characterisation and address

How a hostage taker is depicted or characterised in media coverage can also pose risks. On air discussions and speculation about a perpetrator’s tactics, justifications, motivations, affiliations, demands and their likelihood of success can cause them to take more drastic action. It can also incite members of the public to react either in support of the event, or against it, both of which pose risks for public safety and order.

In the past deriding a perpetrator’s character, capacity for violence, the legitimacy of their demands or the likelihood of them getting out has resulted in situations deteriorating and in some instances, injury and death to hostages. However, it is not only representations by journalists that can lead to this type of situation unfolding. Remarks by government officials during addresses, press conferences or briefings have been broadcast live and also resulted in situations deteriorating.

During the Sydney siege, on Sky News, which ran rolling live coverage, television personality Paul Murray, acknowledging the hostage taker may be watching, directly addressed him several times; and on at least one occasion told him his demands would not be met. Channel Seven News reporter Chris Reason tweeted updates about what he could see taking place inside the Lindt Café—including the state of the hostages and the hostage taker—despite there being by that time an exclusion zone in place and no footage being released from his vantage point.

Collectively, these reports could have directly contributed to, if not outright triggered a change in the hostage taker’s calculations or actions and led to a more horrific outcome. One need only imagine what might happen in an instance when a hostage taker hears on television their demands will not be met, reads a real time media account from those observing the situation inside their location and becomes angered, particularly if the hostage taker may have also seen footage of police taking up position on broadcast media. It goes without saying that both media figures clearly did not have the intention that their reporting might contribute to such an outcome, however, it is raised here to illustrate that a confluence of unfiltered and unrestrained reporting can cause things to very quickly go wrong.

Dangerous imitation

Most hostage takers are first–timers, and how they perceive what is likely to unfold, particularly for those who have not received training, is most typically drawn from media coverage of sieges and television shows and film. How an event is covered can therefore be an important influencing factor on future attacks. It can provide useful insights to those planning future events, which consequently shape their actions or more directly spur ‘copycat’ events. The risk of dangerous imitation of particular events or actions is already a problematic dynamic for television, as reflected in broadcast regulations and in several media codes of practice. While largely restricted to coverage of suicides, it can also extend to ensuring materials are not broadcast in such a way that inspires dangerous imitation, for example, footage showing the construction of explosive devices.

Thus far, however, it seems the potential for dangerous imitation in relation to coverage of hostage taking and sieges has been overlooked in codes of practice and regulations. Particular care needs to be taken to ensure that images, broadcasts, commentary and other media material does not give too detailed a breakdown of tactics of either the hostage takers or police responders, particularly given coverage is now easy retrievable from the Internet and can be used in real-time or for future planning of events.

Coverage of events where what effectively constitutes suicide by perpetrators might be involved requires particular care because of the risk of imitation of particular methods. Caution would also have to be exercised if these acts were associated with terrorist groups who espouse martyrdom narratives in propaganda they release, which also often contains calls for their supporters to undertake violent acts in their name (including those of the type through which ‘martyrdom’ can be obtained.) These materials are influential in their own right–as are materials produced by these groups which report on and cover the execution of violence in pursuit of or resulting in ‘martyrdom’. These materials and even reports of others obtaining ‘martyrdom’ have a demonstrable contagion effect. Additional media coverage is likely to intensify a contagion effect, and might not only result in further radicalisation but also activation to violence—including that which is carried out through self-harm by those susceptible to a terrorist group’s propaganda and influence.

Situational awareness and sensory excitement

An extensive media presence outside an event can cause sensory excitement to a hostage taker with potentially adverse outcomes. Media activities at the scene can also divert police responses away from an incident, particularly when cordons are not respected. In the future it is possible that gatherings of media might be targeted for violence as they attempt to cover the initial event.

A hostage taker’s general situational awareness as a result of media coverage can lead to more adverse outcomes and erode the ability of hostage negotiators to do their job. If media coverage is highlighting a hostage taker’s efforts to communicate with the outside world (even those that are unsuccessful) they might keep trying and use violence against hostages as a way to force compliance. For example, word leaking that media is receiving but not broadcasting a hostage taker’s demands can antagonise a hostage taker and spur them on to carry out action to try to force their demands to be met. Greater media attention can also reinforce the value of hostages to the hostage taker making it harder for negotiators to secure their release.

In sum, there are a range of consequences that can arise from unrestrained and unfiltered coverage—many of which might result in harm to hostages and responders and impact upon public safety and order. Implementation of the Martin Place report’s recommendation that media be involved in training exercises may go some way to reducing risks arising from media coverage. It would provide select media decision-makers with a greater understanding of how such events can transpire and the range of factors that impact upon safe resolution and public order and safety. It might also assist government to improve its National Security Public Information Guidelines, how it interacts with media and what types of information and guidance it makes available to media. This would in turn support better media-government cooperation during an incident. However, by itself the recommendation is insufficient to ensure media coverage practices that might result in a more adverse outcome are not repeated in a future event.

The solution, however, is not blanket censorship. It is neither possible nor advisable to try to stop media coverage of such events. A solid argument could be made that regardless of the prevalence of media coverage would-be perpetrators can glean a significant amount of information and inspiration from watching movies and television shows. However, there is a special responsibility on media because its role is to report and inform, not to entertain.

Arguments have also been made that because members of the public can now easily capture and disseminate footage through social media this negates holding media to account for its reporting. Some French media made this argument after the CSA issued breach notices for uncensored airing of footage of the execution of a police officer, which was obtained from social media sites and broadcast even after its removal from those sites. While members of the public can capture and disseminate footage, what distinguishes the media is its reach, role and responsibilities. This reach can involve the interruption by media of regular broadcasting or reporting to cover such events, which puts its actions and the material it reports more firmly in the public eye and therefore makes it more accountable.

So what should be done, and what is a reasonable way forward to ensure public safety and order is not jeopardised by media reporting while protecting press freedoms and editorial discretion? Is there a need for a consultative process on how such events are to be covered—similar to that which informed the United Kingdom’s additions to the broadcasting code? How would such a process take place? What stakeholders should be involved and what issues should be up for discussion? Should the media formulate its own guidelines? Should these guidelines or codes of practice be incorporated into a regulatory regime? What would be the objectives for putting regulation in place and how would it work? What type of government regulation would be appropriate in an Australian context?

What to do?

Following events in Paris one might be tempted to argue that the existence of a regulatory regime in France did little to stop irresponsible and dangerous media coverage. It would not be unreasonable to question whether Australia’s experience would be any different when faced with an event of that scale. However, at the very least an open discussion needs to take place between government and media on whether live coverage should be stopped once it is clear a hostage taking or siege event is underway and whether time delay protocols should be made compulsory for all such incidents.

Considering these issues involves asking a range of questions about public safety, public interest, and the threshold for reporting causing harm or dangerous imitation. Should live footage be allowed only after police have specifically provided permission? What happens if media reach the scene first? Should live coverage continue once it is clear it is a hostage taking and siege event? Why? What public interest would this serve? Who makes that decision and according to what protocols? What if such reporting could cause harm? Who is responsible for making a determination about potential harm? Can a determination on harm be made by media in a live coverage situation when factors that contribute to harm in these events cannot necessarily be identified in real time or even known to them?

Should there be a blanket ban on the airing of footage during an incident where hostages are able to be seen? How about afterwards? Should media rights to film in a ‘public space’ be upheld when persons are being held against their will and forced to stand in view of cameras, and when the airing of footage of them could further jeopardise their safety? What about consent, rights to privacy and harm issues for victims of such incidents? Should notions of harm be expanded to include the re-broadcasting of images of hostages after an event, which may cause victims further trauma and impact upon their recovery?

What is the relationship between harm and public interest reporting in this context? How can the two be balanced? Is making a determination on this best left to editorial discretion? In what instances should the potential for harm override public interest reporting, and vice versa? Should these be clearly and transparently outlined in live coverage protocols and codes of practice? Should they be regulated?

If government are expected to have publicly available guidelines, should the same expectations exist for media too? Should the public be able to access a clear breakdown of how media organisations make decisions in such an event and their chain of command, given that what is reported can significantly impact upon the safety of hostages, responders and public safety and order more generally? This type of information is available from government.

A table top scenario exercise for both media and government decision makers might be useful to frame such discussions. It would undoubtedly assist media, who it must be said, are often operating without instruction or guidance in such events. Australia’s National Security Public Information Guidelines, for example, dictate how the government handles information in a national level event (such as the declaring of a national terrorist situation) and how it should set up to liaise with media to ensure effective public communication of information. But they do nothing to assist media, which is the crucial transmission element in this process.

It would be unreasonable to put regulatory guidelines in place for media coverage without also making sure media are fully aware of the potential consequences of their reporting and providing readily accessible guidance on what to do if a hostage taker contacts them, makes demands of them or looks to be using their coverage to secure maximum visibility for further harm against hostages. There is, however, no such readily accessible guidance from government. Nor is there information for media on how public information processes are coordinated and run in large scale incidents at both the state and federal level, despite clear protocols existing. This is a significant deficiency

A table top exercise would also be a useful way for both government and media to reflect on what the public needs to know in these types of situations and when, balanced against what could potentially come to the notice of a perpetrator and the consequences of them becoming aware of particular information or aggrieved by reporting. It is here too that there is room for improvement by government, not only in terms of updating the National Security Public Information Guidelines (and their State equivalents) but also in terms of putting protocols in place to better manage live question and answer sessions with media in a major incident.

Media can ask questions in a live briefing that even when unanswered can potentially compromise investigational avenues of inquiry, or resolution efforts if a hostage taker is watching. Potential issues arising from a lack of protocols in this area were present during Sydney siege, but because it was contained, the consequences and risks were not so apparent. The formulation of a document of that addresses these deficiencies and perhaps derived after a table top exercise might help protect public safety, allow the media to better do its job and improve media-government communication—all of which serves the public interest.

Moving forward

The media and government are unlikely to ever reconcile their differing views on what serves the public interest. However, a proactive undertaking by Australian media to consider these issues and update industry codes of conduct and in-house editorial guidelines would be a powerful show of responsibility, accountability, and its ongoing determination to serve the public interest. More pragmatically too, if Australia’s media was to proactively self-regulate it might give the industry more scope to protect editorial discretion, and room for negotiation if Australian regulatory authorities choose to go down a similar path as their French and British counterparts and institute specific codes covering how such incidents are to be reported.

A balanced and consultative formulation of guidelines and codes that protects press freedoms would serve the public interest. So too would an open and frank discussion focussed on coming to an understanding on how to minimise harm and protect public safety and order when covering hostage taking and siege events. Both are initiatives the Australian public would rightfully expect of its media and government.

  1. Richard S
    06/10/2015 at 4:52 pm

    Excellent piece highlighting very real issues with media coverage of such events. Living in Australia I followed the Martin Place events and was amazed at the coverage the main stream media were able to provide – particularly the imagery. There appeared to be no effort made by NSW authorities to obstruct clear camera lines ( and dare I say it fire lines – both responder and offender) from the scene to nearby streets. I was left wondering if this was a deliberate decision by authorities to allow vision of their actions, as counter-intuitive as that thought was to me.

    Unfortunately, given the battle within the main stream media for ratings I see little hope for self regulation. I agree bans and censorship are unlikely to help either. Perhaps technology needs to be deployed to supress electronic signals within the immediate vicinity of a scene to frustrate both media reporting and offender awareness, not to mention the potential for accomplices to be nearby feeding directly to the offender(s). Furthermore, perhaps investment is need in physical screening capability to help prevent vision and fire from escaping a central city scene such as Martin Place.

    A very useful discussion, my thanks to the authors.

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