FREEDOM TO KILL
Paul Johnson on the help
television lends to terror
MORE important to him than the gun or the bomb, the terrorist's most potent weapon is the television camera — ours. Terrorists need human victims, but they need publicity even more: publicity for their cause, their arguments, above all publicity to stress their power and their status as a negotiating partner, to confer on them a spurious legitimacy, as though they were a government of a kind. We have seen this happening in Ulster, with televi- sion crews in effect collaborating with the IRA over 'incidents' and at all stages giving the killers maximum air-time; and of course with television reporters (especially from the BBC) interviewing IRA killers to give them a chance to put their case across, just like any other politician. Television gives the terrorists exactly what they want; and in return it gets free drama and high ratings.
More recently a new phase has opened in the collaboration between television and terrorism: joint exploitation of the victims. Shi'ite terrorists, in particular, show great, informed skill in using the resources of the big three US networks. This first became apparent during the 1980 hostage crisis in Teheran. Terrorists learnt a lot from this, and it may be that the primary aim of the TWA hijacking was not so much the release of the Shi'ite prisoners held by the Israelis, most of whom will not be held much longer anyway, as the manipulation of the networks to put across the Shi'ite- Arab case, bamboozle the US Congress and people, and influence American policy in the Middle East.
The networks have co-operated happily in this joint exploitation of the hostages and paid the bill (about $300,000 a day) for the privilege. People who are frightened willingly do what their captors ask if they see a chance of freedom. Every hostage ever held, from the former prime minister of Italy downwards, has endorsed terrorist demands. Most people in fear of their lives are cowardly and selfish. They put their survival and freedom first. So it was the easiest thing in the world for the terrorists to get some of their wretched victims to spout Arab demands and arguments, and even to assert they had been well treated — though they had seen one of their Lumber brutally beaten and then mur- dered. Putting the hostages' spokesmen' on US prime-time television thus became one of the chief objects of the whole terrorist operation, and an outstanding public relations victory. The networks joined in the Shi'ite terrorist game with a clear conscience. They were just reporting the news, were they not?
So we return again to the unique ability of television to lie while seemingly telling the truth. That is what enables the unscru- pulous to take advantage of its blind power. Pop singers and the more garish elements in showbiz exploit it; so do religious leaders, when they are allowed to; and even politicians. But it lends itself most readily to the purposes of political criminals, because of its insatiable appetite for real-life drama, violence and the spectacle of humanity in distress. Televi- sion is the ideal propaganda medium, a mendacious monster, not primarily out of malice but from its amoral nature. The hostages saying they were well-treated were on tape; so they were shown. The spectacle of the US Marine frogman being beaten to death was not on tape, so it was not shown. Television presentation is not determined by the truth as a whole, but by the partial truth, often the misleading truth — even the untruth — of its selected images. The terrorists know this and that is why they plan their crimes with the net- works in mind. Television is the hand- maiden of terrorism, the easy lady asking to be raped.
How to deal with this unholy alliance? It would be possible, I suppose, to argue that television is an accessory after the fact of murder, kidn aping and aerial piracy, in that it undoubtedly helps the criminals to
secure the object of the crime — satisfac- tion of their demands. But I cannot see a state prosecutor, in any free country, making such a case stand up in court. In the US it is hopeless, because television journalists can always plead the Fourth Amendment. The obvious good of society has shown that, in such a conflict, it is always press freedom which wins. Without the free media, terrorism would be a very marginal problem: publicity is its lifeblood. The reason why terrorism has had no impact on Soviet Russia is not the ferocity of the punishments terrorists receive there, but the fact that their activities get no publicity whatsoever. Silence and darkness are the one response of organised society against which terrorists have no weapon. Alas, it is only possible in those regimes which forswear civilised values; regimes which themselves were founded in terror and survive by it.
Certainly where television does break the law in its relations with terrorists it is in the public interest that offenders should be prosecuted. It would do all the good in the world for us to jail a television reporter or producer who interviews a terrorist and conceals evidence from the police. We should also give some thought to enacting legislation which punishes anyone who helps to further the ends of terrorism, if we can devise a formula which protects legiti- mate freedoms. But I suspect that in the end the necessary restraints can only come from within the medium, as a result of some hard thinking by its own philosophers about its nature.
Television is new and is quite different to the printed word or any word. After all we have been writing for over 5,000 years and during these millennia we have learnt something about the power of words and the ways in which they ought, and ought not, to be used. This knowledge was easily and naturally absorbed by radio, which is about words too. But television is really not about words at all. It is not only new and different; it has come at precisely the time when the notion of censorship in any form has been precipitately abandoned in the West, and when the ability to do what you like with any means of communication available is regarded as a natural, inalien- able right. Moreover, television has from the first been aimed at the very largest public; it strives to achieve the highest ratings by any means available. The people who run it are obsessed by technology and ratings to the exclusion of almost any other aspect. So television has not produced its own school of moral philosophers. It has no moral philosophy. Its only watchword, endlessly chanted by such intellectuals as it can muster, is unlimited freedom, and it is that which has made it the willing accom- plice of the cruellest and most dangerous criminals of our time.