Look away now?


The painful politics of a violent video

James FoleyThe graphic video footage of the murder of photo-journalist James Foley has created a dilemma for newspaper editors, and they have responded in a variety of ways. The Times goes with a picture of Foley’s grieving parents, which isn’t gory but might be seen as intrusive. (Their home, we should remember, is besieged by a dense crowd of journalists and photographers, so they are currently doubly-violated.)  The Scotsman and The Independent have gone with pre-existing portraits of James Foley. The Mail and The Guardian use close-up pictures of the masked executioner, but have cropped out the picture of his victim. The Sun, The Standard, The Telegraph and The Mirror show the terrorist brandishing a knife beside his kneeling victim. The New York Post went further than any UK paper, showing an image of Foley at the point of death.

These front pages don’t happen by accident. They are the result of detailed discussions between editors and picture editors. Similar discussions took place in broadcast newsrooms yesterday, as journalists played and replayed the footage, deciding what to broadcast. How close-up should the images be shown? At what point should the video end, and at what point should the audio be cut? Can you show more on the 10 o’clock news than you would on the 6? Is there a public interest in hearing Foley’s last words? If the statement by the murderer is played, might that lead to his identification and arrest? Or will it simply give him unwarranted publicity, and possibly endanger the other 18 journalists currently missing in Sudan? And if one broadcaster doesn’t show the images, won’t a competitor do it anyway? These are complex judgements, and they are usually made with care by people who have thought deeply about the ethics of their craft.

In the meantime, the raw footage is available on the internet to the 3 billion of us who now have access to the internet. This is a relatively new and game-changing factor. It first arose with the judicial execution of Saddam Hussein in 2006. The state-run Iraqi news station Al Iraqiya released limited “official” footage of the hanging (in video only, with no sound.) But whilst picture editors discussed what they would or would not show, the whole procedure had been filmed by an individual with a mobile phone and released via the internet. If you want to see someone die a violent death, you can. There are countless images and videos available on the internet. And there are many reasons why people choose to access them; from morbid curiosity to political triumphalism to sexual gratification. Nevertheless the images of James Foley have had a different treatment.

One reason is that Foley’s family put out a statement asking that people should not view or share the material out of respect for Foley, and numerous Twitter-users have reiterated the plea. In an age where Twitter is a primary source of news, fine editorial judgements about what is or is not appropriate to publish are being crowd-sourced. Does this represent a welcome democratisation of the role of picture editor, or a surrender to the lowest common denominator of human nature?

Of course, the power of the crowd of social media-users is somewhat illusory. Dick Costolo the CEO of Twitter has said that the company will be “actively suspending” the accounts of people who link to the footage. And the Metropolitan Police have warned that anyone viewing or sharing the footage could be liable to prosecution under terrorism legislation. Perhaps they were using this threat to defend the dignity of the Foley family. But if the police were serious we should be alarmed. It’s not clear how viewing the footage could constitute taking part in or preparing for an act of terror, and the idea that the Police can choose what we do or don’t watch, even – or perhaps especially – if the content is someone else’s propaganda, is a worrying erosion of civil liberties.

With the deepest respect for James Foley and his grieving family we have to ask why this particular instance of video violence been treated with such circumspection by editors, police and public. After all, Foley spent much of his career using his skills as a photo-journalist to show the world the horrors of terrorism in the Middle East in a graphic way. He was all about representing the victims of violence, and the rights of people living under oppressive regimes.

Perhaps this imagery is so gruesome that it crosses a line. And yet the footage of Foley’s death (which I have chosen not to watch) can’t be more extreme than the truly horrendous images in a video game that a teenager was cheerfully playing in the corner of the lounge last weekend, as we adults sat and talked about the weather. Perhaps we take a different view because this particular incident brings many viewers rather too close to home? James Foley looks like your average work colleague. He is young, Western and good-looking. What if the participants were different? What if the victim was an anonymous child killed for political reasons in Israel or Gaza or Syria. What if it were a young black man executed by police in Fergusson? Supposing the police or social media executives stepped in to forbid us to view raw footage. Surely we must be allowed, or even encouraged to look that violence in the face.

Images are powerful, as both James Foley and his murderer knew very well. They are also political. We cannot escape the complex choices that are involved in making, publishing and viewing them. Many images are painful to see, but sometimes it’s wrong to look away.


There are fine examples of James Foley’s journalism at GlobalPost.

The Camera as Weapon


We’ve all had the experience of hitting the “Send” button, then realising to our horror that we’ve sent a message to the wrong person. But few of us have done it in quite such a spectacular fashion as Sir Ian Botham. Yesterday he posted a very explicit image of himself on Twitter. I presume he meant to send his privates privately, so he must have been mortified when he discovered that he had posted his penis for all the world to see. The best we can say now to console him, is that whilst his camerawork leaves something to be desired, his subject was not un-impressive.

You could argue that whatever wounds Botham may have suffered through this are self-inflicted. But what if someone else posted explicit pictures of you online – not by mistake, but as a deliberate act of revenge?

From the earliest coy Victorian photographs to the birth of the glossy magazine pornographers have always been quick to exploit the possibilities of new technologies. All pornography is exploitative, but in recent years the availability of cheap video cameras and high-speed broadband has opened the way for yet another iteration: what has become known as “revenge porn.”

Pixelated faceRevenge porn describes home-made, sexually explicit images or videos that are shared online without the consent of the person shown in them. Typically, a woman has allowed herself to be filmed masturbating for her partner’s pleasure, or a couple have made a film of themselves having sex, either because they wanted to share the moment later on, or because there was an additional thrill in doing it in front of a camera. When idealised, sexualised images are widespread in films and advertising, it’s hardly surprising if some people get their kicks by playing at being a porn star. Nor is there anything wrong with that, between consenting adults. It may even be that the risk of the pictures being published is part of the thrill – a kind of deferred exhibitionism.

All of that is fine in the privacy of the bedroom. But in an era where sexual availability has become wholly detached from the expectation of permanence there’s every possibility that one of the parties will be left with custody of the images when the relationship breaks down. The rise of revenge porn (or, in the typically measured words of the Daily Mirror, the “sick craze” that is “sweeping Britain”) has come about as thousands of such sexual selfies are uploaded to the internet, some through social networks like Facebook, Twitter and tumblr and others through sites dedicated to revenge porn. Once uploaded, films can be copied and redistributed around the web until they are almost impossible to track down. And of course, where there’s sex, there’s money. Some dedicated revenge porn sites can charge the subjects £300 or more to take down images they probably thought they owned in the first place.

Usually the subject of the images knows of their existence. That can mean that they are open to being blackmailed by an angry ex-partner. But sometimes the first thing a victim knows about it may be a message from a friend saying that they have spotted them online. The sense of betrayal, of loss of dignity and of powerlessness in finding yourself paraded in front of total strangers in the most intimate circumstances can only be imagined.

We shouldn’t avoid the fact that this is a highly gendered issue. In theory men can be victims of revenge porn. But in practise, those who appear in the images are almost always female, whilst those who operate the cameras, those who upload the images and those who view them are overwhelmingly male. This is not simply an issue of invasion of privacy, or of personal treachery – though it is certainly that. It is also an issue of justice – of the abuse of power. One might imagine that there is consent in the making of the films (though there may also be coercion in the coition) but by definition there is no consent in the publication of images that were at best meant for private consumption.   Anyone who says that an individual is getting what they deserve for the foolishness of agreeing to be filmed having sex is hugely underestimating the destructive impact of being victimised in this uniquely degrading way.

Uploading revenge porn is not currently illegal, though some think it should be. Last week The House of Lords Communications Committee published a report on abuses conducted through social media. My confidence in the committee wasn’t enhanced by the chair of the committee Lord Best, who admitted on Radio 4’s Today that he and his colleagues “were astonished at the scale of social media.”  Nevertheless they decided that offences committed online were sufficiently covered by existing law. There is an amendment backed by two Lib Dem peers to introduce specific legislation on revenge porn, though that too is rather incongruous for a party that has taken a libertarian stance on pornography for many decades.

There would be serious practical problems with any proposed law. The first is that at present people using social networks can choose hide behind a cloak of anonymity.   In order to introduce a specific law you would have to impose a requirement for traceability on ISPs. Then there’s the problem of defining what constitutes abuse. Many people will be enjoying some time on the beach this Summer. Some will return with photos and videos that would be fine for the family album, but not for Facebook. Where do you draw the line? Should it be an offence to publish an image of your girlfriend if her face is blurred, or if the picture shows only her genitals?

How should we respond to revenge porn? How can we respond effectively? It’s a puzzle to internet companies, many of whom are utterly at sea when considering the moral dimensions of the technology. Facebook, for instance, currently has a policy of taking down images of women breastfeeding, but not of people having sex.

The difficulty is that long ago we seem to have made the fundamental mistake of deciding that moral responsibility in the arts and media lies exclusively with the viewer, not the creator. The unchallenged first law of the internet is – if you don’t like it, don’t go there. Since public broadcasting began in 1921 there have been concerns about its impact on society. These debates have almost always focussed on the impact that content will have on those who (for want of a better word) consume it. We’ve worried particularly about what the media will do to children and others who we conceive as more vulnerable than ourselves. “Of course violence on TV or video games won’t have any impact on me, but what might it do to the kids?” We have put in place fairly crude systems to mitigate the impact, such as the “9 o’clock watershed” for “adult content” on TV, (which is now honoured more in the breach than the observance.) They always put the moral responsibility on the shoulders of the viewer. Provided they are sufficiently warned, viewers are expected to make their own choices. That’s why the TV announcement that “this programme contains strong language” has become almost ubiquitous. We are not supposed to reply “then why are you broadcasting it?”

But responsibility does not start and end with the consumer. A camera has no moral agency, but a camera – any camera – in the hands of a human being, certainly does. The production of content for television, the internet and the art gallery is not a morally neutral activity. It’s become a truism to say that “we’re all TV Producers now.”   But that means we are all potentially pornographers too.

And that brings us back to revenge porn. Just as you can use a paintbrush to paint a masterpiece, or you can use it to poke someone in the eye, so a camera has the potential to create art and tell stories of hope, but it can be used as a weapon. Like most conventional weapons, its power to hurt and destroy has risen exponentially in the last two decades since the dawn of the digital era. Like the shift from conventional weapons to weapons of mass destruction, the internet moves the morality of production into an entirely new dimension. A £30 high street video camera can be used as a weapon that has the power to drive a victim to suicide. If revenge porn teaches us anything, it is that we need to help our society take seriously the human responsibility we exercise when we make images and when we upload them, and not imagine that morality starts and ends with the viewer.



Kellie MaloneyTake a look at this headline, from Monday’s Daily Mirror online edition. Frank Maloney sex change: Secret double life drove boxing promoter to suicide bid (online edition). It has pretty much everything. There’s a celebrity – albeit a fairly minor one. Then there’s sex – always good in a banner. Then there’s a secret double life. There’s sport. And finally there’s drama – a suicide bid no less.

OK, what might be wrong with it? Yes, you at the back…Embley.

Well, for a start, the person in the picture is not called Frank Maloney. She is called Kellie Maloney, and has been for several months. Second, she hasn’t had a “sex change.” Nor has she “becoming a woman.” She’s not “living as a woman” either. All of those terms are offensive to transgender people. She’s the same person who used to be a boxing promoter, but she has transitioned to the gender she believes she has always been.

But she was living a secret double life, right? Wrong. She was going about her business. It wasn’t secret, it was private – before you came along. Understandably Maloney had planned to keep her private life private for another 18 months until she had completed her transition, allowing her family some time to come to terms with any public announcement. But such was the importance of this news that the lethal conflict in Gaza and the plight of the Yazidis trapped on Sinjar Mountain had to be relegated, whilst this week’s Sunday Mirror covered Maloney’s sexuality on pages 1,4,5,6,7,8 and 9. Still, a tabloid is a tabloid, and a scoop is a scoop.

Frank Maloney (or Kellie, as we shall call her from now on) was a minor celebrity, so we shouldn’t be surprised to learn that the means and the timing by which the news was revealed was not entirely of her choosing. A newspaper had threatened to reveal it back in February, and another had repeatedly “door-stepped” Maloney and members of her family looking for comments. Thankfully Maloney had experience of dealing with the tabloids, and enough money to hire lawyers, so she managed to delay the story with a court injunction, and then cut a deal with the Sunday Mirror for the exclusive. But the threat of premature exposure by a hostile newspaper left her “terrified” and unable to leave her house.

You might have thought that editors, who are currently trying to persuade the government that they are competent to regulate themselves by The Editors’ Code, would be on their best behaviour at the moment. But in fact the Code has become almost meaningless. Editors routinely laugh it out of court – or to be more accurate, they refuse to accept any legislation that might take them to court in the first place. Clause 4 of The Code, to which all tabloids are signed-up, says clearly that “journalists must not engage in intimidation, harassment or persistent pursuit.” This clause was formulated after the death of Diana Princess of Wales.

When it comes to stories with a hint of sex, every tabloid journalist wants to come first, using as much pressure as they feel they can get away with. Newspapers know that if they don’t publish a juicy celebrity story, someone else will.

The tabloid story arc will no doubt suggest that coming out last weekend has resolved any tensions Maloney might have felt. It certainly marks the climax for the newspapers. I doubt if much has been resolved for Maloney, or for her wife – from whom she is now separated – and daughters. What is the impact on them as human beings, negotiating what must be a very difficult transition for all of them? How is anyone helped by this coverage? But two days after the revelations the story is already getting old. The door-stepping will carry on for a while yet, with the papers eager to grab photos of them together, apart, in tears, laughing, or anything that will fill another page. But it has been comprehensively eclipsed by the death of Robin Williams.

Just one more thing about that headline. The suicide bid. Maloney told the paper that the stress of coming to terms with her situation, and particularly the impact on her marriage, led her to attempt suicide. Suicide is covered in more detail in the Editor’s Code than almost any other circumstance. In 2006, following a spate of suicides amongst young people in Bridgend, the Editor’s Code Committee tightened the guidelines after research determined that press coverage contributed to imitative acts. Robin Williams The Code now states that “when reporting suicide, care should be taken to avoid excessive detail of the method used.” It’s hard to see how The Daily Mirror squares this with their identification of the precise combination of drugs and alcohol that Maloney used to try to kill herself. Still, maybe consistency is too much to ask at the height of passion. Yesterday ABC News (a US network) ran a story about how Robin Williams’ family had asked for their privacy to be respected…whilst at the same time showing live aerial pictures of their home.



Throughout the second half of the 20th Century Mary Whitehouse fought relentlessly against the coarsening of society. She battled against sex on TV, violence at the cinema, nudity in the newsagent and homosexuality everywhere she saw it. Her targets were varied if not always well chosen. And her weapon of choice was the letter.

Without the aid of a computer Whitehouse marshalled the morally-anxious in their tens and hundreds of thousands, and called in aide the few celebrities and public officials who would write in support. Her technique was to concentrate the anger of her supporters like a laser on the individual at the helm of a corporation. In this way, without a hint of violence and barely a raised voice, she burnt holes in the in-trays of politicians and broadcasting executives on a daily basis for over three decades. The letters reproduced here are long, detailed and demanding. If they were dignified with a reply she would write again. In due course this middle-aged housewife from the Midlands had a public profile that couldn’t be ignored. Prime Ministers and BBC Directors-General from Harold Wilson to Margaret Thatcher were forced to pay her homage. Meanwhile left-leaning journalists excoriated her and satirists mocked her ruthlessly.

A key part of her strategy was to flatter the broadcasters she approved of and praise the programmes she liked. She invented spurious awards to garland the content she admired. She contrived opportunities to engage in person with her enemies, be they broadcasters, politicians or pornographers. The campaigning strategies she developed have become the templates for contemporary protest.

The motives of the Christian right in the 1960s and 70s were hopelessly confused between politics and prudishness, religion and nationalism. They always are. Mary was on a crusade and nothing short of a theocracy would really have satisfied her, though when the institutional church proved non-committal she was happy to make broad alliances outside it. At least the conservative Christians she led were mainly concerned with what they took to be the welfare of the nation’s morals. Equivalent groups today are mostly concerned with the preservation of the rights and privileges of Christians.

Ban This Filth! is written in the mode of a rock star biography. It consists of letters and ephemera from the Mary Whitehouse archive strung together with a self-indulgent commentary by comedy critic Ben Thompson. Thompson would have done well to declare an interest as the son of one of the liberal Anglican Bishops who was deprecated by Whitehouse. But his tone is not that serious. As a biographer he lacks context; as a social commentator he lacks objectivity. There are few hints that the editor, described in the sleeve notes as “one of Britain’s most respected cultural critics”, has the least understanding of what motivated Mary Whitehouse’s concerns. His tone is dismissive and sneering. He laughs at the eccentric characters who rallied round her and cheers whenever a public official sends her a smart reply.

Mary Whitehouse would have been frustrated but not surprised by the lack of understanding revealed here. The quote in the title isn’t even from her. She was unfailingly temperate in the face of opposition from those for whom she symbolised everything that was illiberal and regressive. And the hatred ran deep. Even the BBC fought dirty in the early days, commissioning an episode of The Goodies in which “Desiree Carthorse” destroyed the TV industry through her prurience, and even a whole series called Swizzlewick that was laden with thinly disguised caricatures of Whitehouse, her family and her supporters. Sometimes the level of threat must have been terrifying. At a rally in Trafalgar Square in 1978 gay rights protesters chanted “Whitehouse Kill! Kill! Kill!” But this book fails to explore the human cost. There’s a hint, when she writes (in an anonymous article) that “I’ve failed, and suffered terribly from a sense of defeat and failure.” But most of what we learn about Mary Whitehouse is incidental. Read between the lines and you discover an extraordinary family who had five children (of which two died), adopted another and took in evacuees and an unmarried mother. It becomes clear that her constant round of travelling, speaking and writing were conducted in spite of (or perhaps caused) extended ill-health. Through all of this they were subjected to a level of relentless intrusion and tabloid malfeasance that would have made Lord Leveson blush. The slightest stain on her integrity or the least hint of profiteering would have been the end of her…but none was found.

Mary Whitehouse wasn’t always right, but the mocking tone of the commentary from Ben Thompson doesn’t do justice to her prescience. Whilst suburban viewers guffawed at Benny Hill chasing scantily-clad models round a park, Mary upbraided a newsreader for using the word “birds” to describe women. She was instrumental in the development of the 9 o’clock watershed for adult content on TV, which is only now losing its usefulness with the advance of digital viewing. And she was the driving force behind the 1978 Protection of Children Act which still stands as the main legal line of defence against child pornography.

On a grander scale, she campaigned against the sexualisation of broadcasting at a time when the tide of liberalism was in full flood and cultural leaders were self-consciously dismantling the defences. We have many reasons to be grateful to those who pioneered the social and artistic liberties we enjoy. But this was also the era when Jimmy Savile was in his pomp and Gary Glitter topped the charts. Whitehouse couldn’t have known what we are only just beginning to discover about the dark undertones of the culture of the entertainment industry. But in the light of recent discoveries she deserves a better reappraisal as a courageous whistle-blower in a gale of unqualified free-thinking.

Ban This Filth: Letters from the Mary Whitehouse Archive edited by Ben Thompson is published by Faber, £16.99, 406pp

This review first appeared in Third Way magazine

When is an ad not an ad?


Guardian advert“Let’s get this straight,” said Rabbi Shmuley Boteach as he met me at the door of his cottage on London’s Abbey Road. “You think I’m going to hell and I think you’re going to hell.” It was the first time I’d met the Rabbi, and it hadn’t even occurred to me to think about his eternal destiny, so I was a bit taken-aback that he was so certain of mine. Shmuley Boteach is no ordinary Rabbi, but at least he lets you know where you stand.

Rabbi Boteach lives in New Jersey now, where he runs an organisation called This World: The Values Network. He is a controversialist and a self-publicist, a self-appointed sex guru who calls himself “America’s Rabbi.” He has re-engaged with Britain this week, having placed a controversial full-page advert in yesterday’s Guardian. In between the adverts for posh toilet rolls and discounted mortgages, Boteach’s ad stands out. At the top is a striking image of a man holding a rocket launcher, which he is pointing towards the reader. His face is covered by a balaclava, but a headband makes it clear that he is Palestinian. The headline below reads “Jews rejected child sacrifice 3,500 years ago. Now it’s Hamas’ turn.” It is followed by a strange, rather rambling text, with language that swerves from pacific to highly inflammatory. The gist of it is that Hamas is a “death cult” which is using children as human shields. In doing so, the writer says, they are guilty of child sacrifice. The missiles may be Israeli, but it is clear where the writer places the blame for the deaths of hundreds of children in Gaza. The text purports to come from the 85-year old holocaust-survivor Elie Wiesel – though one can’t help feeling that the Nobel Laureate might have been commandeered into this by the Rabbi. The small print at the bottom of the page makes it clear that the message was “organized, produced and paid for” by Shmuley Boteach’s “This World” organisation.

The same page (in an Americanised form) has also appeared this week in The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Chicago Tribune, The Los Angeles Times and The Miami Herald, butnot in the London Times, which turned it down, saying that “the opinion being expressed is too strong and too forcefully made and will cause concern amongst a significant number of Times readers.”

Rattling your readers doesn’t seem like a good reason for a newspaper to make an editorial judgement but still, proprietors have choices to make. A paper can refuse to run an advert if it doesn’t want to be associated with a product or opinion. So why has The Guardian chosen to run the ad, and The Times chosen not to? Is The Times engaging in “the worst kind of censorship” as Boteach has subsequently complained? Should The Guardian be applauded for its commitment to free speech in running a pro-Israeli piece? Or on the contrary, is it being cowardly in accepting money for an advert that has such a confused, one-sided message?

Advertising is a dark art, and a costly one. A full-page spread in a UK national newspaper costs between £12 and £15 000 to place – more if you want colour. Not surprisingly, ad agencies choose carefully where they spend their money. They want to influence a particular set of viewers or readers, and they want to borrow some of the credibility of the newspaper on whose pages the ads appear. In movies it’s called “product placement” and it often stands out like a sore thumb. But in a serious newspaper one page of print can look pretty much like another. For that reason, the “free speech” argument The Guardian has deployed in its defence doesn’t really work. Whether a newspaper is running editorial or paid copy, (and this ad is not labelled as such) it can’t altogether wash its hands of the content. It must at least be made clear whether that content purports to be journalism or advertising. In any newspaper – or TV station or website for that matter – there’s a crucial difference between the material that the publisher has paid for, and the material for which the publisher has been paid. By carrying the advert alongside its own journalism, it is to some degree endorsing what the advert says. It is at least saying to its readers that these are opinions worth listening to.

Mixing advertising and editorial is a trap that becomes easier to fall into when funds are short. Take religious radio for example. Many stations are a blend of content that has been commissioned by the station, and content that has been paid for by “ministries” that are effectively advertising their views. And on TV, OFCOM regulations mean that outside of peak time, commercial channels can choose to run up to twelve minutes of advertising in a single block. This practice, common in the US and New Zealand, means that an advert for hair remover can look very much like a feature in a daytime programme. It’s a very short step from this to Rabbi Boteach, or anyone else with enough money and chutzpah, buying air-time to express their views on network TV.

The Guardian has form in this too. It regularly produces glossy supplements that look like journalism but are in fact wholly funded by commercial concerns or interest groups. For example, it has a seven-figure deal to provide editorial content about sustainability, all funded by household goods company Unilever. The sponsored content will be labelled as such (unlike today’s pro-Israel advert, which isn’t distinguished from the surrounding journalism.) In fact The Guardian has a substantial department known as Guardian Lab, describing itself as “a branded content and innovation agency which offers brands bold and compelling new ways to tell their stories and engage with influential Guardian audiences”. Like all newspapers, The Guardian is struggling to find an economic model that works in the new digital environment. Like most it is bleeding funds. Accepting this advert seems like an admission that The Guardian’s readership is for sale, and if some confusion arises between what is journalism and what is advertising, so be it.



Words matter. And they matter more than usual when the media report on conflict.

This week is a good example. Are we “marking” the centenary of Britain’s entry into the First World War? Or are we “commemorating” it? We’re certainly not “remembering” it, because there’s probably no-one still alive in Britain who has such a long memory. Not many people would want to suggest that we are “celebrating” it, though some would. The historian Professor Sir Hew Strachan has said that: ‘this is a war… that Britain felt it had to fight and that it won, so I don’t think commemoration should elbow out celebration’. It’s easy to slip into talking about “wasted lives” or a “pointless conflict,” when some people, certainly at the time, felt that the conflict was anything but pointless, and that the lives lost were a necessary price.

Words matter when we are speaking about contemporary conflicts too. Should we speak about the terrible situation in Gaza as a war? Would it be more accurate to call it an occupation? Perhaps we should describe it as a war on Palestine rather than a war in Palestine. The choice of a single letter makes a significant political statement. Likewise when we are reporting casualties. It’s so easy to slip into saying that 20 Palestinians died yesterday, whilst two Israeli soldiers were killed. The two phrases conceal very different meanings. The choice of verb attributes responsibility.

The lead headline on Radio 4’s news at 7am yesterday read as follows: “Israel says it is close to completing its mission to destroy tunnels used by Hamas militants to launch attacks.” At face value that’s precisely correct. That is indeed what Israel says – if we allow the idea that when we say “Israel” we mean the Israeli government. But what about the tunnels? The Israeli Government has invited us to call them “Terror Tunnels.” Since 9/11 the word “terror” has been used and abused to confer moral legitimacy on military reprisals. It is quite accurate for Radio 4 to say that the tunnels are used by Hamas militants to launch attacks. But is that the only thing the tunnels are used for? Almost certainly not. There’s a bigger story here.

Most terrorist groups don’t go to the trouble and risk of building tunnels to attack their enemies. Hamas have done so because Israel has blockaded the border of the Gaza strip by land and sea. Tunnels are about the only way to get goods in and out. They are certainly used to launch attacks now. But before the latest assault they were also used to re-equip Hamas with people and weapons, and to transport food, water, medicines and building supplies for starving Palestinian civilians. Some of the press have happily borrowed the phrase “terror tunnels”, not least because the words are short enough for a banner headline. But you might also see them as “relief tunnels” – examples of resourcefulness from a people being systematically starved. It is likely that Israel wants to destroy the tunnel network, not only because it is used to launch attacks, but also because it circumvents a specific and openly stated strategy to exercise control over the calorific intake of the population.

So the headline could have read “Israel says it is close to completing its mission to destroy tunnels used to carry food aid to the people of Gaza.” Of course that would have been no closer to telling the full story – but no less accurate either.

We can’t assume that every journalist wants to present a balanced picture of the world. Some do, but many don’t. Nor should we necessarily be seeking balance in coverage. Fairness and accuracy are better goals for a journalist. Sometimes fairness means making it clear that the situation is not balanced.

This isn’t only about war reporting either. Another story in the same bulletin reported on Pattharamon Chanbuathe, the Thai surrogate mother whose Australian clients had apparently declined to receive a baby born with Down Syndrome, (an allegation they deny.) The last sentence of the headline said that “she refused to have an abortion on religious grounds.” The subtle implication is that abortion should have been her default response to discovering that her baby had Down’s, but that she made a dissenting decision not to. In fact she “refused”, which suggests that someone had asked her to have an abortion. The way the headline is phrased seems to load some of the blame for the situation on the mother. But by most standards, delivering a healthy baby with Down’s Syndrome is the norm, not an aberration.

Why does this matter? Because journalism has a magnifying effect. It creates a narrative that becomes currency. It has a hypnotic effect on the public imagination. The language of journalism forms the framework within which most of us discuss and reflect on events. That’s why politicians seek to influence the language of journalists, and are in turn influenced by them. Some journalists do this deliberately, because their work reflects their own political or religious stance, or that of their publication or proprietor. Others do it accidentally, through laziness or thoughtlessness. Journalism is a moral task, and demands high standards. The choice of words in news reporting is seldom without consequence. In the words of the WW2 cartoon series by Fougasse, Careless Talk Costs Lives.