A picture was taken recently and its significance was not understood straight away; it led to the downfall of Britain’s most senior security official, Scotland Yard’s counter-terrorism chief. This image also meant that a major security operation had to be brought forward to arrest terror suspects quickly out of fear that the names of the wanted men or their whereabouts would be revealed as a result of this image being published.
This incident raised a number of points that should be considered, the most important of which is the resignation of the counter-terrorism chief and the fact that the media was not criticized for publishing this image. In fact, numerous British MPs commended the security official although admitting that it was difficult to defend him.
It is also interesting that the photo journalist who took the shot said that he did not feel like a hero and that he hesitated to publish the picture until he realized that another photographer published a similar picture that was less clear than his own. The photographer also said that he had previously advised officials at the government headquarters to tell their guests to beware of the cameras.
But who is it that draws the moral line and the security line within the media, as with the tense security situation, terrorism has become rampant in numerous countries around the world? However the issue does not only relate to terrorism; the image of a dying Princess Diana, which showed her in a horrific condition, was not published in Britain due to ethical considerations.
Regarding the security issue, there was another important story; the story of secret ‘ghost’ prisons in Europe, which the American press was kept from publishing for a long time as requested by the White House. The story was not published until after news was leaked from Europe.
Well what about our Arab world? As part of the Arab press, we experienced a situation in Saudi Arabia a few years ago. During the hunt for an Al Qaeda leader in Saudi Arabia, the terrorist network set a deadline for the assassination of an America hostage and it published images of the hostage on the internet.
At the time, we discussed the content of the electronic images and we found that they were being carried by a Kuwaiti music website. Immediately, our colleague Mowaffaq al Nowaisir contacted the owner of the website, who surprised us again by showing another image that had not been published. It was apparent that the image had been uploaded onto the website by mistake. We received the image and it was of the wanted Al Qaeda leader. I contacted a senior security official at the Saudi Ministry of Interior and I told him about the picture. Soon after, somebody came and looked at the picture and made a copy of it.
Then I received a call from the security official and this is where the importance of the story lies. The security official said to me: “I know that the paper has to go to press at a certain time, but we have a security operation that might end before or after [that time]. We might make you miss out on an opportunity to publish [the story] but tell me, what is more important here, a scoop or the success of a security operation?”
“The success of the security operation of course,” I said.
“Then the decision is down to you,” said the security official.
The security operation was carried out and ended that evening and we decided not to publish the story on that same day. We published the image along with the story around two days later. I have never forgotten the controversies entailed in this story.
The question was, and still is, where does morality begin and the media’s job end and what are the boundaries of national and regional security?
I believe that the key to answering this question lies in the hands of the security authorities; when it respects and understands the nature of the media’s work it encourages the media to cooperate with maintaining the security of the people and this is what is most important above anything else.