Some obstacles to winning the war on terror and some recommendations for action


This a part two of two-part article series based on a presentation to the 2015 ASIS NSW Conference. This series examines three obstacles to winning the “war on terror” and it finishes with some ideas on how to build up national resilience. The three obstacles are: (i) recognizing that we are in a “long war” and that quick fixes will not work (ii) seeing terrorism as a “black swan” event (dealt with part one), and (iii) the role of the media in “providing oxygen to terrorists”.

CaptureThe media are vital to terrorism. “Kill one and scare a million” – there have to be mass media to do the scaring. In a sense there is no “terrorism” in a dictatorship (such as the old Soviet Union or present day North Korea) – the government can keep the lid on any adverse publicity.

Margaret Thatcher (then the UK Prime Minister) set out this matter in 1985 when dealing with the IRA:

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 on 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 while the hijack lasted?

Mrs Thatcher’s suggestion was not that outrageous. The media do follow a self-limiting code when dealing suicides. Unless the person is very famous (celebrities are famous in death as well as life), no publicity is given to a suicide (such as a school student) for fear of triggering “copy cat” deaths.

If anything, the situation has become even worse in the last three decades since her speech. For example, the current Islamic State leader wrote about the “management of barbarism” in 2004, where he foreshadowed executions broadcast via the Internet. He knew that executing foreigners in a barbaric way would attract attention and add to his international status.

Three developments have added to the media’s significance for terrorists. First, there is the use of emotions in the media. In the old days journalists asked: “What happened?” Now we live in a “tabloid media era”; we have moved from facts to emotions: “How did you feel when you saw what happened?”  This increases public anxiety.

Second, life in many developed countries is easier now that (say) in the 1930s; there is less public interest in “serious” stories, and so the audience is found and retained via entertainment. Therefore the language of war has entered sport, and the language of sport has entered politics: people are less interested in who is right or wrong – but who is going to win. It is more difficult to explain the background (say) to Middle East politics. People don’t want too much “serious” stuff.

Finally, there is the rise of 24/7 media coverage, driven initially by satellite communications and the rise of CNN. We no longer “feed” on the news (such as the traditional 6pm and 9pm news programmes); we “graze” on it, moving in and out of news coverage. The continuous news cycle means that news programmes have to be tweaked every few minutes to keep the existing viewers interested and to attract new ones. But what happens when there is no “news” to report; no new developments? 24/7 media coverage is wonderful for breaking stories and deadening if there aren’t any: just endless (and often pointless) anxiety-making speculations (as with the December 2015 Lindt Cafe tragedy for the first day of the siege)… Click HERE to find out more about this article