Propaganda, The BBC And Al Queda
Admittedly, news that a phone number showing up in numerous captured Al Queda operatives' address books belonged to someone at the BBC is not conclusive proof of anything. But this latest Wikileaks revalation raises a number of questions about journalistic ethics when it comes to reporting on terrorism.
To get the full story, journalists have to dig deep into the muck, occasionally getting up close and personal with criminals, thugs and warlords. Journalists sometimes have to work with the scum of the earth in the data-gathering process. And one-on-one interviews with infamous villains are undoubtedly newsworthy. That said, given the BBC's well-known reporting biases, this leak is a bit... creepy.
Nefarious organizations and individuals reap a propaganda value when they are featured on television. International terrorists get a bonus, potentially using the broadcast as a means of recruitment or activation of existing operational terror cells. Wikileaks calls attention to a disturbing decision at the BBC.
A leaked account of the meeting showed that executives admitted they would broadcast an interview with Osama Bin Laden, the founder of al-Qaeda.
They said they would give him a platform to explain his views, if he approached them.
There are a couple of problems with this executive decision, even if it's a hypothetical (and exceedingly unlikely) situation.
First of all, it's not very likely that the most wanted terrorist in the world is going to walk into the BBC office in London for a chat. The only way such an interview might proceed is in a cave or hidden tunnel in the middle of some jihad-happy backwater.
In these circumstances, it would be impossible for any BBC reporter to provide a "Hard Talk"-style interview without fearing his disembodied head would wind up on the floor. It's a virtual certainty that any interview, even subjected to serious editing, would serve as self-serving propaganda for the jihadist cause.
It's also hard to see the "news value" in it. Do we really need to hear Osama bin Ladin's personal "views" about why beheading Infidels is such a great hobby for pious Muslims? Why Jews, Christians and pagans (I'm not sure, but that last one might be a catch-all for every other non-Muslim group out there) will burn in hellfire for eternity? Why the USA, Israel and all of the other "little Satans" of the West are to blame for all the troubles of the Muslim world? Seriously, can't we just get all of that information by clicking over to the website of Muslims4UK or reading the curriculum of a Saudi-sponsored private school in Britain?
There's a bigger problem here, though. Osama bin Ladin is not just a terrorist; for many people, he is the terrorist -- the embodiment of a global jihad that has provided upwards of 16,000 terror attacks since 9/11. At the risk of someone invoking Godwin's law, one thinks of the classic coffee table or Internet forum science fiction scenario: if you could go back in a time machine, would you kill Adolf Hitler?
Journalists are not robots. They are human beings with emotions, histories and more than most people, the capacity to make history. More than most, they have a firm understanding of the freedoms we have in the West, most of which Bin Ladin and his legions want to do away with. And it's a good bet that any BBC reporter who got picked for this assignment would know someone who had been on the receiving end of the violence that Osama's cult of personality has inspired -- whether in New York, London, or the backstreets of Kabul.
There are plenty of good reasons why it's wrong to kill. There are even more reasons why it is wrong for people acting as journalists to become assassins (not least because it makes every other journalist in the world's job a lot harder). But would it be wrong for a BBC journalist to kill Osama bin Ladin (or at least alert British special forces to the man's location)?
To put it another way, would it be wrong for a journalist to not kill the world's most infamous terrorist leader, given the chance?
Perhaps further investigation will reveal a more tangible link between the BBC and those captured jihadists. It will be interesting to see if a BBC journalist takes on the project, or whether management tries to bury the story. Whichever way it plays out, this little embarrassing episode for the BBC has proven to be a bit of a teaching moment for journalists involved with the global jihad story. Ethical journalism or propaganda -- what is the BBC serving up now?
Jonathon Narvey is the Editor of The Propagandist