Call for 48-hr ban on media contact with survivors

The UK’s largest press regulator has said the media must be able to report “freely and in the public interest” as survivors of terrorism called for curbs on reporting.

Survivors Against Terror wants the media to abide by a “voluntary agreement” not to contact the bereaved or survivors for at least 48 hours after a terror attack.

However, the founder of the Ethical Journalism Network told Press Gazette this would be impossible to impose and “very worrying for press freedom”.

The survivors group similarly wants the media to agree not to publish images of the bereaved or seriously injured without family permission, and not to use pictures of or congregate outside family homes.

“Images of the deceased should not be used on the same page as any images (if used) of perpetrators,” the group added.

The recommendations came in a report entitled A Second Trauma, based on the views and testimony of 116 survivors of terror attacks including those at Manchester Arena, London Bridge, Westminster Bridge and Parsons Green in 2017, the mass shootings at a Tunisia tourist resort and a Paris concert venue in 2015, and the 7/7 London Tube and bus bombings in 2005.

Data company Kantar helped survey the survivors between 2019 and 2021.

Of the 116 terror attack survivors and bereaved family members surveyed, six in ten (59%) experienced what they considered to be media intrusion, half of which (48%) came within 24 hours of the attack.

Despite this 55% of the respondents had positive experiences with the media.

The report also suggested the creation of a publicly funded Survivors’ Support Hub which would help people in dealings with the media as part of its remit.

“This, we feel, would be beneficial to both survivors and the media, creating a body trusted by both,” the report said.

It said the hub – or, alternatively, the police – should be able to publicly name outlets who are harassing survivors to the relevant regulator and ban them from attending press conferences or events such as planned interviews.

In addition, news outlets should agree not to name any victims until it has been confirmed their loved ones have been told. A new system run by local police forces should carry this out, the report said, with a recognition that the information should be provided in a timely manner.

The group is calling on broadcast watchdog Ofcom and press regulators IPSO and Impress to agree and publish new guidance, including the recommendations shared in the report, to be incorporated by all media outlets with a “zero-tolerance approach” adopted by editors.

Each of the regulators already has its own widely adopted code of practice. In IPSO’s case, this is supported by guidelines for reporting on major incidents published in 2019 after journalists were accused of behaving “very badly” in the aftermath of the 2017 Manchester terror attack.

Journalists should report ‘freely’

A spokesperson for IPSO told Press Gazette it supported the report but said journalists must still be able to report on events “freely and in the public interest”.

“As the independent regulator of most newspapers and magazines in the UK, IPSO works closely with external organisations where they have concerns which intersect with the Editors’ Code, the set of rules it regulates,” they said.

“IPSO worked with Survivors Against Terror on their recent report to provide information about how we can help victims, survivors and their families after a terror attack or major incident. We recognise the first 48 hours after an attack are crucial and we are working closely with first responders and others to let them know how IPSO can help in these situations.

“IPSO’s guidance for editors and journalists and information for the public on reporting of major incidents focus on how the Editors’ Code applies in these situations and highlight services such as privacy notices. We are supportive of the report’s recommendation for a Survivors Hub as we know in the aftermath of an attack it can be difficult to find information.

“While of course some of the situations described in the report are difficult and upsetting, it is very important that journalists are able to report on these events freely and in the public interest, in line with the standards set by the Editors’ Code of Practice.”

Ed Procter, chief executive of Royal Charter-recognised press regulator Impress, told Press Gazette he had been contacted by Brendan Cox, the husband of murdered MP Jo Cox who is one of the bereaved leading the report, ahead of its publication.

Impress is already undergoing a review of its Standards Code and Procter said the report’s recommendations would be taken into account in areas such as privacy, harassment, and how the public interest test is carried out. Standards should cover the entire newsgathering process and not just published material, he added. The reworked Standards Code is due to be published next summer.

A spokesperson for Ofcom said: “Consistent with the right to freedom of expression, there is clear public interest in the reporting of terror attacks, and, in line with our rules and guidance, the privacy of victims and their families must be respected.”

Dawn Alford, executive director for the Society of Editors, said: “This is a timely response on an important and sensitive subject. We will of course be studying the report in detail.”

‘Dangerous to prohibit investigating’

Aidan White, founder of the Ethical Journalism Network, told Press Gazette he felt sympathetic for the survivors and that it was right to call out “intrusiveness and bad behaviour” of the media, which should be “as sensitive as they possibly can be”.

But he said banning journalists from asking questions, particularly in the immediate aftermath of an incident when there is a “great deal of public concern”, would pose the “real danger that the public interest won’t be served at all” and even amount to censorship.

“I’m not saying media have carte blanche to ride roughshod over people’s feelings but it would be dangerous for the media to be prohibited from investigating, asking questions and talking to people,” he said.

White added: “The reality of it is sometimes immediately after a disaster like this survivors will want to talk. They will want to tell their story. To have a quite arbitrary ban on media operating and to be able to talk to survivors and to ask questions would be absurd and very worrying for press freedom. It really isn’t something we would support at all, but we do have sympathy for the concerns that have been expressed here.

“We’ve got to ask news media and journalists to show restraint and be careful in the way they work and be sensitive to the needs of survivors… but we should not be shackling them with rules that will stop them being able to tell the story.”

A number of individual journalists also expressed a mixture of support and hesitations about the report’s recommendations.

Mail on Sunday reporter Michael Powell said the proposals were “well-meaning” but “unworkable especially in the age of social media”.

“I fear it will lead to an information vacuum which allows conspiracy theories to thrive after such attacks,” he tweeted.

AFP’s former editor-in-chief Eric Wishart said: “Journalists have a duty of care to victims but also have a duty to inform, and setting arbitrary limits on coverage is not the answer. Responsible media must respect their codes of ethics, but graphic images and terrorist propaganda are often spread unfiltered on social media.”

‘It has to be done’

Press Gazette editor-in-chief Dominic Ponsford wrote in 2017 after the Manchester Arena terror attack in which 22 people were killed that it would be “disrespectful” to write a story about someone’s death or serious injury without contacting their family.

“It is a task which no journalist…

Read More:Call for 48-hr ban on media contact with survivors

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