The joint Commonwealth and NSW Review into the Martin Place siege released last month has a section on public communication. Among its findings, the Review praised the media for a job well done during the rolling coverage of the 16-hour siege.
The crucial overall liaison between NSW police and the media during the crisis was found to be excellent. The Review judged that the media well understood the risks and responsibilities of mature public reporting during the incredibly difficult circumstances of the siege. And it concluded that the media’s live coverage about the situation, a major news story by any standard, was ‘measured and responsible’.
In reaching that key judgment, the Review noted, for instance, that radio presenters pulled callers off air if they expressed racist or inflammatory anti-Islamic views. The ABC and other stations didn’t follow Man Haron Monis’ demand that the ABC broadcast that the siege was an ISIL incident. The 2GB radio station received calls from people claiming to be hostages, but those calls weren’t put to air.
The Review highlighted that media contacted directly by Monis or the hostages went immediately to police before responding to the requests. Monis made unsuccessful attempts to issue demands and speak directly to the Prime Minister via the media. Cooperation between media outlets and the NSW authorities, observes the Review, ‘ensured these attempts were unsuccessful and the messages he did broadcast on social media were not further broadcast on mainstream media’.
The Review found that the media understood its duty not to put people’s lives at risk by revealing police locations during the crisis. It noted, for example, that while some tactical information was filmed early on during the siege, the media cooperated with police to ‘manage this appropriately’.
Indeed, the Review makes just one recommendation regarding the media. It points to the importance of media representatives being offered access to government-led training exercises to further improve cooperation in the event of future terrorism incidents.
I’d endorse that recommendation. Currently professional journalists aren’t invited to participate in counterterrorism exercises. Instead, they take their guidance from the media officers from government agencies.
There’ve been official concerns that real journalists’ participation may affect the way officials behave, with the added worry that journalists may report on the activity following (a hypothetical) incident. But the media’s cooperation with authorities during the Sydney siege crisis showed their willingness to respect official advice and act with professionalism: they were focused on reporting, not inflaming, a difficult situation.
Media participation should, as the Review suggests, be the norm in counterterrorism exercises. That’s critical in order to build trust with crisis managers and first responders, particularly, for example, in rehearsing the establishment of media centres during a crisis. The integration of media representatives into domestic security exercises would improve the preparedness of both journalists and first responders.
On the flip side, omitting media professionals from those exercises would put at risk essential communications in the event of a future terrorist incident. In addition to journalists and photographers, it may be appropriate to include news directors and editors who have a crucial role in filtering and making key judgments on stories prior to publication.
As the Review itself points out: ‘While cooperation between the media and the police during the siege was very good, it is important that this not be taken for granted’.