British media torn over hostage coverage

The hostage’s pleas and pictures fuel Britain’s coverage.
Friday, October 8, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 11:48 a.m. CDT, Saturday, July 19, 2008

LONDON — In a country where anti-war sentiment is rapidly growing, the British press is facing a daily dilemma: how to cover a British hostage crisis in Iraq amid a torrent of criticism over the country’s role in the global war on terror.

British engineer Ken Bigley was kidnapped on Sept. 16 along with Americans Jack Hensley and Eugene Armstrong. Four days later, members of the Tawhid and Jihad militant group beheaded Armstrong. Hensley, too, was killed within days.

Now that Bigley has been held captive for several weeks, the British media must handle a consistently vocal and angry family, along with plenty of photos from footage of Bigley behind bars in an orange jumpsuit. Much of the attention has focused on Bigley’s appeals to Prime Minister Tony Blair, President Bush’s key European supporter of the war in Iraq.

Broadsheet newspaper headlines in London scream with outrage. “Blair’s silence is ‘kiss of death’”; “Please help me, Mr. Blair. I don’t want to die. I don’t deserve it”; and “Brother attacks Blair’s refusal to act.”

The criticism of Britain’s prime minister marks a sharp contrast with stateside coverage. Although some family members of hostages from the United States have blamed Bush, more often the attention is focused on the hostage and the kidnappers.

Alan Philips, foreign editor of The Daily Telegraph, suggests that America has almost become accustomed to hearing about hostages taken in Iraq, an inevitable cost of the business of war.

“It tends to end up on page 27 of The Washington Post and on the front page of all the British papers, including our own,” he said. “We can explain the difference partly from the fact that Bigley’s our first British hostage. It’s old news in America. I think America feels that it’s at war, and people get killed in a war. The British don’t feel like they’re in a war, at least not our own war.”

A Sept. 24 article in Philips’ paper asserted that the American press has diminished its focus on hostages taken in Iraq. Headlined, “U.S. media give brutality low profile,” the article said the hostage crisis has been a “second-rank story for much of the American media” and that U.S. newspapers had played it down.

The lack of widespread, daily front page vigils about American hostages in Iraq is a far cry from the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis in which 66 Americans were taken captive at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. Media coverage was intense, with many networks counting each day the hostages were held. The hostages were not released until Jan. 20, 1981, the day Ronald Reagan was inaugurated.

Jan Leach, a media ethics professor at Kent State University in Ohio, said she believes newspapers face a challenge when covering hostage situations and writing fair headlines for the stories.

“It’s going to be really hard to give the context,” in a short headline, said Leach, who is also an ethics fellow at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, a Florida-based journalism think tank. “When does Blair get to have his quote in the headlines?”

Editors and reporters must also decide how to frame a story and what effect it will have globally and on local politics and policies, she said. This is particularly relevant in Britain, where Blair’s Labour Party recently completed its conference, and where an election is likely to be held in May.

Brian McDermott, associate editor of The Guardian, said his paper has struggled daily to cover the situation fairly. McDermott said he believes the kidnappers are strategically working to manipulate public opinion in Britain because they have a better chance of success here than in the United States.

“The sort of anti-war feeling in the country here feeds into this,” he said. “The kidnappers have been quite cute in that they’ve politicized it around Blair. They know he’s vulnerable; I suspect they know Bush is less vulnerable for the U.S.”

A large part of the British public expects Blair to at least communicate with the kidnappers, Philips said.

“No one in America expects Bush to have dealings with hostages, but quite a lot of people think Blair should because we don’t feel this is our war,” he said. “It’s a commonly-held view that it’s not a war in which Britain’s vital interests are engaged. Obviously Blair’s not going to negotiate, but he did say he would listen.”

Another part of the challenge, McDermott said, is accurately and fairly handling an emotional story and an articulate family. Bigley’s three brothers, particularly Paul, have spoken to the press frequently, often against the advice of Britain’s Foreign Office.

“You tread a line as not being a sort of mouthpiece for the killers and still presenting the news,” McDermott said. He said the Bigley family has “been very open and gone in for news themselves. They’ve produced almost each day some sort of incremental story to keep it in the papers. There’s sort of a bombardment from both sides you try to pick your way through.”

Many newspapers have oversimplified the situation, said Paul Mason, a lecturer at Cardiff School of Journalism. He said he believes they lack context and tend to take the state’s side rather than addressing complicated questions of the war.

In this case, Mason said he believes the papers have sidestepped the overall war issue and appealed too much to readers’ emotions in their coverage of Bigley’s kidnapping.

“They’re pretty culpable when it comes to overall reporting,” he said. “Even on the BBC Web site they have photos of Bigley in the cage. It’s unnecessary. I’m not sure we need that; I’m not sure it’s useful.”

Karin Wahl-Jorgensen, also a Cardiff journalism professor, believes the situation has received undue attention. She said she would rather see papers focusing on troops dying instead of a single hostage.

Photos of Bigley have been overused and are creating added fear of the enemy among the British, Wahl-Jorgensenadded.

The use of the images, Philips said, is partly a result of the competitive nature of the British press. National newspapers in London do not have monopolies on the reader market. By contrast, many large cities in the United States have only one central daily newspaper.

“The tradition of the British press is to overuse everything,” Philps said. “We don’t do things by halves. … We’re competitive; we’re all chasing the same readers.”

British public support for military action in Iraq has fallen. According to a poll last month by The Guardian, 40 percent of the public believe the war is just, compared to 48 percent who label it unjust.

And while 39 percent of those surveyed said Blair was doing a good job, another 54 percent said he was not.

Mason, though, said he does not believe the hostage situation will lead to Blair losing his job—although the prime minister will continue to bear the scars from Iraq.

“I don’t think it will cost him his job,” Mason said. “I think it will generate even further an anti-war, pull-troops-out sort of feeling.”

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