London terror attacks: Metropolitan Police's restraint must serve as a lesson for the media

It turns out his name was Khalid Masood. Or Adrian Elms, if you'd rather go by his birth name.

Either way, the identity of the perpetrator of Wednesday's abhorrent attacks on pedestrians on Westminster Bridge and a police officer near Parliament Square was out in the open in less than 24 hours after the incident. But, as some have opined, this was apparently not good enough and was tantamount to dishonesty.

The article hyperlinked above continues, and I quote, "Beyond the time required to clear reasonable doubt and investigation compulsions, what purpose is served by going slow in releasing crucial information? The only thing it succeeds in doing is to force media, which must cope with public need for information, by making erratic assumptions of the kind we saw on Wednesday night when Britain's Channel 4 erroneously blamed a hate preacher who is safely lodged inside jail" (emphasis mine).

Therein lie two dangerous assumptions: First, about the role of law enforcement agencies and second, that of the media. But these will be addressed in good time.

 London terror attacks: Metropolitan Polices restraint must serve as a lesson for the media

Armed police officers enter the Houses of Parliament on Wednesday. AP

Mum about Masood

The 52-year-old Birmingham resident was, as The Guardian noted, identified by the police as "a criminal with a 20-year record of offending, who had once been investigated for extremism but was assessed as posing a low risk". Prime Minister Theresa May was quoted as telling MPs, "He was a peripheral figure. The case (of violent extremism against him) is historic — he was not part of the current intelligence picture."

In the wake of Masood's actions, the Metropolitan Police took the conscious decision of not revealing the identity of the attacker and requested the media to do the same.

At the time, Scotland Yard commander BJ Harrington released a statement in which he noted that the attack was being treated as a 'terrorist incident'. He added, "Although we remain open minded to the motive, a full counter-terrorism investigation is already underway... At this stage I will confirm what we know has happened, but I will not speculate." This did not go down too well in some quarters.

But, there are three reasons — listed below in no particular order of importance — that explain this pragmatic and mature decision:

The first is that the need of the hour was to prevent panic and wild speculation among citizens.
The second is the need to avoid witch-hunts carried out by vigilantes or lynch mobs.
And the third is the need to keep obstructions away from an ongoing investigation.

In order to elaborate on these points, let's revisit the two dangerous assumptions highlighted earlier.

The role of law enforcement agencies

It was by keeping away obstructions from ongoing investigations that the police was able to conduct raids on six homes in London, Birmingham and Carmarthenshire in Wales, and arrest eight people in connection with Wednesday's attack. That is the job of law enforcement. It is not, however, the job of law enforcement to be a source of non-stop soundbites to satisfy the needs of bloodthirsty TV news anchors, their assortment of cantankerous talking heads or keyboard warriors itching to rage on Twitter or Facebook. In other words, all those TRPs, clicks, hits, shares, likes and such-like are really not the concern of the law enforcement. In any case, in an unfolding situation, it's always best to err on the side of caution when it comes to disseminating information.

And it is here that we must look at the concept of 'crucial information' that the police is meant to be putting out in a timely manner. Through its social media channels and releases to the press, the police certainly was putting out crucial information quickly. Aside from Harrington's statement in which he highlighted the areas to avoid, the Metropolitan Police's Twitter handle also put out this timely advisory. Late on Thursday night, the police put out some more information, this time relating to the arrests made until that point.

To describe a piece of information as 'crucial' in this context means it should contribute to the safety of citizens. Just how does the name of the attacker immediately after the attack fall under that category? Aside from contributing to the safety of his accomplices who could have potentially made their way to safer pastures and avoided detection by the police, what difference would it have made to the public at large, at that point in time, if his name was Khalid Masood, Adrian Elms or anything else? Your answer may vary depending on what side of the liberal-conservative divide you stand, but it can be safely concluded that this particular bit of information would not have done much to contribute to citizens' safety.

This brings us to a pricklier issue.

In this image taken from video police officers gather around a car adjacent to the Houses of Parliament on Wednesday. AP

In this image taken from video police officers gather around a car adjacent to the Houses of Parliament on Wednesday. AP

The role of the media

A handful of French news outlets took the decision in the wake of the Bastille Day attacks in Nice last year not to publish the images or names of the terrorists. The thinking was that by doing so, these actions and the associated actors would be deprived of the oxygen of publicity that would have otherwise glorified their martyrdom. Or as Simon Jenkins points out rather succinctly in The Guardian, "The terrorist is helpless without the assistance of the media and those who feed it with words and deeds". In fact, this particular oxygen doesn't only sustain the terrorist, it also keeps the Far-Right alive and kicking (see here and here).

In fact, this sort of publicity doesn't just keep them afloat, it serves to further their respective agendas. Unconvinced? Let's look at a hypothetical example around Wednesday's events.

Imagine a scenario where the identity of the terrorist had been revealed right off the bat by the Metropolitan Police. And given the aforementioned media need to 'cope with public need for information', imagine that a local daily had splashed the terrorist's visage across its front page with the words "The New Face of Global Jihad" emblazoned below it. (Note: This simulation cannot account for whether or not those words would be printed in massive letters with flames emanating from them). Now think about the sort of mileage that the Far-Right, the terrorists (whether those already indoctrinated or those on the verge of being indoctrinated) and the sympathisers of either set can claim from this.

This is where the media must show restraint, maturity and dare-I-say-it common sense. The public need for information cannot outweigh the media's responsibility to put out factual and ethical (used for want of a better word to describe information that doesn't endanger the safety of citizens or jeopardise an investigation that is underway or hurt national security) information. And if the absence of credible information 'forces' news organisations like Channel 4 to make erratic assumptions, it's really their own fault. After all, if demand is outstripping supply, you don't go and manufacture knock-off or counterfeit goods — in this context, fake news — to fill the gap.

In closing, confusing the police's discretion with dishonesty and defending the dishonesty of a news channel as desperation to keep the masses happy is not only disingenuous, but sets a dangerous precedent. Let's hope more media houses take a cue from the French media as also the London Metropolitan Police.

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Updated Date: Mar 24, 2017 12:05:15 IST