Yesterday’s false alarm at Sydney Opera House led evening TV bulletins and dominated online coverage. But as Australia moves into a time of increased terror threats, security scares are going to become a fact of public life – and the media risks becoming part of the problem, argues Mumbrella’s Tim Burrowes.
Although I wasn’t officially on weekend duty, for some reason I was in the newsroom when my colleague took the call.
I could see from the expression on his face that he was alarmed.
“The code word is ‘orange orchid’,” a man with an Irish accent told him. The caller then went on to give him the address of the local army barracks where, he informed him, a bomb would be exploding in half an hour.
In the UK in the early 1990s, this was how the Irish Republican Army went about issuing its warnings.
The idea of the code phrase was that authorities would know if a threat was credible.
But of course, the journos didn’t know what the codes were. So when we relayed the message, we had no idea whether it was real, or just a prank call.
Sensitivities were particularly high because our newspaper was in Aldershot. In 1972, a car bomb had killed seven.
My colleague called the police and we waited. Nothing happened. It was a hoax. The code word wasn’t real, and it wasn’t the IRA.
This was a backdrop to life as a journo in the home of the British Army. Hanging around outside police cordons because of a suspect package. Always checking under your car for devices after playing football on the army playing fields.
My colleague filed a story about the dramatic call. On Monday morning, the news editor spiked it.
For all these dramas, there was a golden rule.
You didn’t report hoaxes.
The newspapers didn’t report them afterwards; television and radio stations treated them as no more than travel news if a road was closed.
No matter if the town centre had been closed for hours. if it was a hoax, you didn’t report it afterwards.
The reasons were twofold.
First, you don’t want to encourage the hoaxers. Or trolls, as we call them now. In those days, their tool was a prank call, now it would be an account on Twitter.
If they didn’t get to read about the chaos they’d caused, there would be less likelihood of copycat behaviour.
Second, by spreading fear, you’d be helping the terrorist agenda.
This is the challenge that Australia’s press now faces.
There are going to be far more scares than there are atrocities.
The authorities will need a lower threshold for sounding the alarm.
Many will have innocent causes. Bags forgetfully left in public places; well meaning but mistaken tip-offs.
But reported prominently, each incident heightens the sense of fear for the public.
As a result, the media risks becoming a tool of the terrorist or the troll.
Yet self censorship of how one covers such events, especially when accompanied by disruption, is something journalists instinctively resist.
There are, however, precedents. Sometimes the press will agree to a media blackout in cases where lives are at stake such as kidnappings, for instance. And the TV and radio networks also held back some of what they knew while the Lindt Cafe siege was going on a year ago, for instance.
Yet of course in an age where social media will spread every story before the radio station has even got to the top of the hour, the media self censorship of previous years would be ineffective anyway. So what to do?
This is something where the Australian Press Council – the standards body funded by the industry – should offer some leadership. It’s a lot easier for the media to move en masse when they aren’t giving a rival a free kick at some extra traffic. Well thought out principles considered away from the pressure of a developing story would be helpful for editors in the hot seat on the day.
But what should the principles be? Perhaps the main one should be: don’t use false alarms to chase audience.
In newspaper terms, there’s a huge difference between a splash on “City in fear” and a news-in-brief reporting the cold facts that a building or street was closed for a police security operation.
For broadcasters, it’s still the choice between reporting it as traffic bulletin, or as a major drama.
The difference in tone has a political equivalent. Remember how Tony Abbott would talk to the public with an increasingly large number of flags behind him, every time he talked up the risk to Australia? Contrast that with the calmer Malcolm Turnbull approach of reminding his audience that the overwhelming majority of Muslim Australians are good people and emphasising cohesion.
Editors can make the same choice of whether they take the Abbott or Turnbull approach in how they report such incidents.
This may feel like taking sides. It is.
There’s always going to be a news justification in covering the evacuation of Australia’s most iconic building. And of course real terrorist activities should be treated with the seriousness that demands.
But where the goal of terrorists is spreading fear, the act of spreading that fear is also taking sides. How many people in Sydney yesterday raced to check loved ones weren’t near the Opera House or on a ferry after hearing about it on the news?
And all this apparently started by a hoax tweet. Some troll had a good day.
This is new territory for Australia’s editors. Next time they report a bomb scare, they need to ask themselves: By publishing, whose agenda am I following?
Tim Burrowes is content director of Mumbrella