The Oxygen of Publicity?

In an oft-cited speech given in 1985, former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher argued that newspapers and television helped terrorism thrive because terrorist acts make compelling viewing. ‘The hijacker and the terrorist thrive on publicity’, she said. ‘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’ she said, urging that the media starve them ‘the oxygen of publicity’. Like so many other aspects of her legacy, it was a controversial stance. Recent acts of terrorism and the live broadcasting of atrocity mean that the question is more compelling than ever. Practicing journalists, such as Rahimullah Khan Yusufzai, editor of The News International, Pakistan, are among those who disagree with Thatcher (see YouTube clip below). A recent study, however, suggests Thatcher may have had a point. Michael Jetter, professor at the School of Economics and Finance at Universidad EAFIT in Medellín, Columbia and research fello at the Institute for the Study of Labour in Bonn, Germany, analyzed reports of terrorist attacks published in the New York Times between 1970 and 2012. His findings have led him to conclude that the degree of media attention a given terrorist attack receives is predictive of both ‘the likelihood of another strike in the affected country within seven days’ time and of a reduced interval until the next attack’, according to an interview in the Guardian, and to suggest that a rethink of the sensationalist coverage of terrorism is needed to ‘stop providing terrorists a free media platform’. Three different perspectives on an important issue: that of a political elite, of a journalist, and of a researcher. What do you think?


Photo: Margaret Thatcher at Chequers, 1 September 1993. BBC Radio 4 via Flickr


Watch: Rahimullah Khan Yusufzai, editor of The News International, Pakistan, talk about his views on the topic.


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