“….The terrorist uses force because he knows he will never get his way by democratic means.

Through calculated savagery, his aim is to induce fear in the hearts of people. And weariness towards resistance.

In this evil strategy, the actions of the media are all important. For newspapers and television, acts of terrorism inevitably make good copy and compelling viewing. The hijacker and the terrorist thrive on publicity: without it, their activities and their influence are sharply curtailed. There is a fearful progression, which the terrorists exploit to the full. They see how acts of violence and horror dominate the newspaper columns and television screens of the free world. They see how that coverage creates a natural wave of sympathy for the victims and pressure to end their plight no matter what the consequence. And the terrorists exploit it. Violence and atrocity command attention. We must not play into their hands…….

And we must try to find ways to starve the terrorist and the hijacker of the oxygen of publicity on which they depend. In our societies we do not believe in constraining the media, still less in censorship. But ought we not to ask the media to agree among themselves a voluntary code of conduct, a code under which they would not say or show anything which could assist the terrorists’ morale or their cause….”

Margaret Thatcher
Speech to American Bar Association
1985 Jul 15

Margaret Thatcher: Terrorism (1985)

16 thoughts on “Margaret Thatcher: Terrorism (1985)

  1. […] ….extracted from a discussion on Terror and Publicity. […]

  2. Bill says:

    She seems to be implying that the media should not report on the business in Paris otherwise they are somehow ‘helping’ terrorists. Personally I would much rather know what is happening in the world.

    The counterpoint is that the media failed miserably to report the bombing in Beirut and the hundreds of other mass murders that happen in the Arab world on a daily basis. This “starving of oxygen” has not helped in that area, and why would it convince people who are murderous nutters bent on war, most of whom can’t, or wouldn’t, read the western press anyway?

    • ColinTwiggs says:

      If you want to know what is happening in the world, you are looking in the wrong place. News media nowadays is more about entertainment — attracting eyeballs — than about information. There is more coverage of Kim Kardashian’s sex life than analysis of major events. And if it bleeds it leads — the more shocking a story, the more eyeballs it will attract. News media and terrorism have evolved a mutually beneficial relationship.

      Information on the other hand is boring and does not sell newspapers.

      According to the WHO 153,000 people died yesterday. Most were from non-communicable diseases (104,000) with cardiovascular disease the top cause of death (20,000 from ischemic heart disease and 18,000 from stroke). Of communicable diseases (33,500) HIV accounted for 4000 deaths yesterday, the same number as diarrhoea, while tuberculosis accounted for a paltry 2500. Death from injury accounted for 13,500, the leading cause being road accidents (3500). Death from terrorism, fortunately, is too insignificant to even deserve a mention in the WHO tables.

      Eradication of diarrhoea would have far greater impact than eradication of terrorism. And potable drinking water costs far less than bombs and missiles. Unfortunately it just doesn’t get enough media coverage to warrant attention.

      • ColinTwiggs says:

        …it just doesn’t make a good front page splash šŸ˜‰

      • ColinTwiggs says:

        Death from terrorism accounts for roughly 90 deaths per day according to a recent article in the Sydney Morning Herald.

      • frankaquin0 says:

        Great stuff Colin – do you mind if I repost this (your 3.23 pm post) on my Facebook page?

      • ColinTwiggs says:

        Sure Frank. Thanks for asking.

      • frankaquin0 says:

        Thanks Colin. It’s on my Facebook page now. Here’s the link, but who knows if it will work. Who understands the workings of Facebook?

      • frankaquin0 says:

        I thought I would reproduce what a friend of mine said when she read the (WHO quote) above. It was so well composed I thought it worth reprinting.:

        “Truly, if the world’s media paid much less attention to ISIS and their horrible and destructive machinations, and just got on with trying to counter it quietly and in a systematic and professional way, it would stop fuelling the attention they clearly need to keep their cause alive and appealing. The constant blow by blow ‘spectator’ descriptions (figuratively speaking), the endless vigils and scenes of public emotion do not really add anything useful to the outrage. As a global society we have totally lost perspective.”

      • ColinTwiggs says:

        I am stunned by the callousness of the act.

        If you wanted to promote your campaign against world poverty, for example, or the fight against malaria, the best way to get media coverage is to kill someone. Even better kill a whole lot of people.

        The Weathermen movement in the 1960s discovered that blowing up buildings wasn’t enough. That only gets you on page 6. But blow up a building with a few people in it and you get front page headlines.

        The media are just as callous. They know that coverage encourages further terror. But, what the hell, it sells newspapers.

        To paraphrase Liam McCurry: Both terrorism and the media sell fear — and business is business.

    • frankaquin0 says:

      Hi Bill,
      My take on Mrs Thatcher’s speech is that perhaps the media could tone-down the hyperbole and sensationalism. It really irritates me when they show images of terrorists (usually after they are dead – but not always) gloating or supposedly “looking cool” straddling their AK47s, or giving rap-speeches etc. Words and phrases like “mastermind”, “well coordinated and executed tactics”, “well funded” etc are all positive statements that elevate the status of terrorists into a class above the thugs they are. I suspect this was the oxygen she was talking about. Not only do such admirable statements pump up the celebrity status of the next bunch in line, but the repeated presentation of their violent acts on HD TV surely fans the flames of wannabe terrorists still on the cusp. Last night I lost count of how many bloody times SBS showed knucklehead’s cousin blowing herself up, even though they’d shown it the previous night at least 3 times in the one news bulletin.

      Part of the problem (I think) is that reporters, journalists and editors are mostly about the same age and maturity as the terrorists, and have as little regard for the consequences of their actions as each other. You see this in other non-terrorist reporting too:
      eg.”
      …fifty kilos of drugs worth $5 million dollars were discovered today…”
      Giving it a dollar value is sensationalist, and useless knowledge unless you’re a drug dealer keeping tabs on the street value of drugs.
      The report should say
      “…fifty kilos of drugs were taken off the streets today saving the mental health of thousands of people…” or something along those lines.

      Some years ago I wrote to the ABC to ask them to report in a less sensationalist way. I think the issue that time was about how the field reporter kept banging on about the dollar value of homes lost to arsonists in Perth (where I live), while ignoring the abject misery the survivors faced as a result of the loss of their homes. The ABC’s response was so defensive as to be laughable – indicative of an organisation incapable of improvement. And the ABC is miles better than the commercial stations.

      Yes for once – perhaps the only time ever – I agree with Mrs Thatcher.

  3. frankaquin0 says:

    Whoever wrote this for Mrs Thatcher knew what they were talking about. Perhaps smart people could work out a formula that links media coverage to “oxygen provided”, which would allow Governments to prosecute media organisations according to how much they are aiding and abetting the terrorist cause. Slippery slope comes to mind, but anyone got any better ideas?

    • ColinTwiggs says:

      Frank, We don’t want to end freedom of speech (or religion) but the media need to recognize they are part of the problem and develop strategies to counter this.

      • frankaquin0 says:

        Yes, I hear you Colin, and I wish such a thing were possible, but self regulation generally means no regulation at all, or at best hovering around the lowest common standard. Worse still, self-regulation legitimises whatever loopholes are embedded in the wording making it harder and harder to claw your way back after defiance-creep becomes endemic. You just have to watch Media Watch to see how well self-regulation works.

        My original suggestion was to somehow drive media behaviour using the only driver that matters – profit. I admit it was a pie-in-the-sky suggestion but I couldn’t really see Rupert suddenly developing a conscience because of some of UN code of conduct to limit sensationalist, paper-selling, headlines.

        As a writer myself, I agree we don’t want to end free speech (whatever that actually means these days – try discussing bombs on an aeroplane). Even so, a decent society requires boundaries, or it isn’t likely to be decent for very long. Speech must have boundaries (this blog has them for good reason) and religion must have boundaries too, otherwise my religion (don’t laugh!) will happily and legally advocate the death of your religion, or at the very least, advocate killing people who threaten it. The fatwa to kill author Salman Rushdie and the papal bull to kill Queen Elizabeth (the first) are notable examples of many.

        Religious boundaries are challenging, so my suggestion to the religious is, by all means worship your higher power if it humbles you and helps you through the day, but don’t pretend for one second its voice is speaking back. That voice is your own.

        Oops, I’ve strayed back into religion – must stop doing that. But it’s hard to dissociate terrorism from religion. Even the Romans thought of Christians as terrorists.

        Have a great day in this great land,
        Frank

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