Isis video: We must report the facts – but not be the conduit for gruesome propaganda

This is not about ignoring the gory details, but about refusing to bend to the narrative of lunatics

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It has been a hallmark of Isis’s brand of terrorism, that its medieval barbarity is accompanied by a very modern understanding of propaganda and its dissemination. The vision of Isis fanatics may be utterly one-eyed, but it is beamed Westwards with obvious deliberation across multiple platforms.

For traditional media companies, this presents a dilemma. Do we fulfil a simple function as news providers and recount every detail of the staged threats, the fluttering flags, the despicable murders? Or should we decide, in effect, to create a kind of news blackout on the basis that, by publishing stories about the depraved acts of fanatics, we are furthering their cause?

The second option seems absurd, parochial. The non-reporting in Britain’s mainstream outlets of terrorist activity in the Middle East would not prevent it happening. In any event, the world has moved on from the time when the morning newspapers and the BBC could determine what the public was allowed to know.

And yet, however much it has become fashionable to demand no-holds-barred press freedom in the wake of the recent murders in Paris, there are limits to what we should and would wish to report. True, there is no right here not to be offended. And yet all media companies regularly decide that to publish a particular piece of information, especially an image, is likely to be so offensive or so upsetting that publication is just not tolerable. We have the right to offend or to distress; but it is the ability to exercise restraint that defines liberal democracy. 

Every story should result from judicious decisions about what material to include – and to omit. But when we face the kind of monstrous fanaticism displayed by Isis, a considered response by the media takes on added significance. Unspeakable acts frequently need to be given a voice by the media. This is not about ignoring the gory details, but about refusing to bend to the narrative of lunatics. 

Will Gore’s ‘The Only Way Is Ethics’ column appears each Monday in The Independent