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Should we ever follow police advice not to interview?

22 February 2016

Chris Myant, member of the NUJ ethics council

Do we need to think twice as journalists before trying to interview 'British jihadis'? The phrase, of course, is a police euphemism for a decision not to interview them. In the wake of the seizure of the laptop of Newsnight reporter Secunder Kermani by Scotland Yard in the autumn of 2015, various reports indicated that the police would rather we don’t make contact with 'jihadis' (whatever exactly that term may cover). So what should members do if they are approached in this way by the police?

No one has a proper handle on how frequently such requests or interventions may have been made. The union's ethics council wants to hear from members and chapels about whether they have any experience of being asked by the police, either directly or via their editors, not to pursue lines of inquiry or interviews.

We want to explore these issues in more depth so we can provide appropriate advice, support and assistance to members. The intention is not to lay down hard and fast rules for every conceivable occasion, but to explore the options under the union's ethical code of conduct as well as what the union might need to do to safeguard journalists.

Each situation or context has its own problems and possibilities. Journalists need to approach these afresh each time. To try to create detailed rules, removes any individual responsibility from a journalist or their editor when it comes to thinking through how they are structuring and sourcing the information and opinions contained within each story, and the degree to which the particular structuring and sourcing adopted can be seen as legitimate.

So here is some guidance drawing on the existing NUJ code:

Journalists should endeavour to - 

  • Ensure that the public has access to independent information from a range of different points of view about any issue whether it is a specific event, situation or experience, and whether this is done in the context of a single report or across a range of reports;
  • Refuse instructions, requirements or restrictions from third parties as to whom may be interviewed, whose activities may be reported and whose opinions included;
  • Identify any source to the point at which a member of the public can reasonably recognise their validity as a witness, observer, expert or participant but only to the extent that this will not compromise the safety of those sources, maintaining that approach when contacting possible sources, visiting contacts, recording and communicating the results;
  • Indicate clearly the context in which the content of the story has been gathered and individuals interviewed, including the relationship between the author of the story and any relevant players in the situation described, including those public or private bodies that may have an interest in influencing the final content of the story.

One can think of a wide range of circumstances in which such principles might be relevant. Presenting or analysing the views and argumentation of 'jihadis' is just one. The public has a right to know their arguments, their personal histories and the things that brought them to their point of view. Without that there can be no comprehension. Without comprehension there will never be adequate solutions to the problems they create or that created them. Comprehension does not mean approval or support, but is the key step in any democracy toward an informed public and effective official response or practice, whatever that might be.

Police have also argued that too much direct contact with 'jihadis' could put journalists in danger. The argument is rather difficult to follow.

If there are possible dangers for a journalist, their sources or others, competent agencies exist who we can turn to, independent of the state and its different agencies. NGOs with experience in the relevant field, other journalists who have trodden that particular path before, the lawyers working for the media outlet for which we are reporting as well as our own union or the IFJ - can all help.

And, yes, we might well listen to the police, to the embassy official or the minder of the particular lobby we are part of. We might even, in the end, decide to take their advice. But we should never do so on the basis of that advice alone. Just as we should never run the view of the world we present to readers, listeners or viewers on the basis of one source, one view point only – unless, of course, that is the explicit and stated purpose of the particular report.

The truth is that the journalist is endangered, not by the act of making contact with the 'jihadi', the revolutionary, claimant or delinquent, but by the behaviour of the state that may follow. If those we are interviewing think that one consequence is that the authorities will have greater information upon them, then we become potential targets. 

Or, if the military, police or intelligence services use journalism as a cover for their intelligence gathering operations, then legitimate journalists become a target.

As a final question, consider this: when exactly does a 'jihadi' become a 'jihadi'? At what point on the route to that final dénoument might it become illegitimate to interview them? When they have simply started to criticise the bombing of an MSF hospital in Kunduz, in the Yemen? When they have begun to attend a particular mosque? When they have started to go online and read certain websites? Only when they have joined the training camp in Raqqa?

Ironically enough, at that point things become easier for all concerned, as the BBC's Justin Rowlatt demonstrated when he interviewed an Islamic State leader in Afghanistan by phone. This 'Jihadi' had crossed a final Rubicon and declared themselves outside the law of other states. The journalist did not need to be physically near them as all could done over the internet or by mobile phone. No permission or advice needed there.

Calling the new branch of IS – in Afghanistan: BBC magazine.

Phil Moore was in a different situation to Justin Rowlatt. The British, but Berlin-based photojournalist was detained by the Burundi military while on an assignment in Bujumbura with a Le Monde correspondent. They had made contact with opponents of the country's current president. Not Islamists, but people who had decided to take up arms after accusing president Pierre Nkurunziza of rigging the electoral process so he could stay in power. For Nkurunziza his opponents are terrorists. The risks he ran were from the regime, not its opponents. If he, and his French colleague, had not dared those risks, we would know less about the why and the wherefore in a country slipping into civil war.

Society at large needs to dialogue with all within it who find themselves out of sorts with its social norms, rules and behaviour. Without that dialogue, society will never be able to learn how to respond and some individuals will continue to see isolation and violence as the only way forward open to them, however reprehensible the overwhelming majority around them may think that way is.

As journalists, we have the crucial role to play in this democratic process, a process that is the surest defence of the democracy in which we live. It is a role we have often to play in defiance of those in power.

To contact the NUJ ethics council email: ethics@nuj.org.uk

Tags: , ethics, code of conduct, interviews, guidance, guidelines, terrorism, protection of sources, police