The Daily Tele is in the clear over its Sydney siege special edition. But was it in the right?

Sydney siegeThe Daily Telegraph is in the clear with the Australian Press Council over its coverage of the Sydney siege. In the months since, two questions on the issue have divided the Mumbrella editorial team: Should The Tele even have done a special edition? And was its coverage right? 

Below, Mumbrella editor Alex Hayes argues “No” on both counts; and Mumbrella content editor Tim Burrowes takes the opposite view.

Why The Tele got it wrong

Alex HayesAlex Hayes writes:

Re-reading the Daily Telegraph’s special edition from the Sydney siege I can say that on the whole they did the best job they could.

Unfortunately it was a job that didn’t need to be done, in the medium least suited to it. The print edition was condemned to be obsolete before it even hit the streets.

A situation like the siege where details are tightly controlled by the authorities and events are rapidly evolving is probably the most challenging a journalist faces.

They’ve got to balance what they know (mostly from police sources, the public, Twitter and conjecture) with what they can safely report.

An 11.52am update on the Tele’s own rolling blog had the police statement which urged the media to “be responsible in their reporting,” as “speculation can cause unnecessary alarm”.

While the stories in the special are pretty flimsy – vague accounts padded out with a lot of emotive image – the damage and the cause of ire for complainants to the Press Council was done by the headline ‘Death cult CBD attack’ and sub header ‘IS takes 13 hostages in city cafe siege’.

It takes two pieces of information – a flag with Islamic writing on it and “up to two” gunmen who are probably Muslim – and makes five.

Likely to shift copies? Yes. Responsible? No.

The edition would have been put to bed at around midday – so what did we know then?

Revisiting the live blogs from the time there was a lot of vague speculation floating round.

There was a flag with an Islamic slogan shown (although it was later described as not being an Islamic State flag).

The authorities had been careful not to characterise it as a terrorist event, or mention IS in any way.

The identity of gunman Man Monis wouldn’t be reported until the next day. Did the Tele reporters know who he was? Possibly- they have the best sources in NSW Police force.

Did they know for a fact he had IS affiliations? Nope. That’s a fact that even seven months down the track is still being debated.

But everyone loves a bogeyman and there’s none bigger in the Western world right now than Islamic State –  so mentioning them will shift copies.

But did it sell many copies? Given I had to tramp to News Corp’s HQ to find a copy after popping into five newsagents along the way who hadn’t even heard there was a special edition – I suspect not an enormous amount.

The Tele had dropped its paywall and was providing a live blog of events as they unfolded and several online reports and access to live video streams, capitalising on the unfolding drama. Along with its competitors it enjoyed a massive spike in traffic that day with people hungry for the latest information and able to access it from pretty much anywhere.

This was the story the 24-hour news cycle – rolling TV coverage, live online blogs, social media updates – was built for.

By releasing the special edition the Tele highlighted how unsuited print is to breaking news.


Why The Tele got it right

tim burrowes landscapeTim Burrowes writes:

There is no better – or worse – time to be editing a newspaper when you have to make a big call on how you present a story, right on deadline.

The pressure grows even more when you have decide whether an event is so extraordinary that you should print a special edition. It happens only a few times a decade.

Ben English, deputy editor of The Daily Telegraph and the man in the hot seat on the day of the Sydney siege, got both calls right.

Despite the easy generalisation, you actually don’t do a special edition to sell newspapers. The distribution system isn’t in place, so you’ll shift relatively few copies. The advertisers aren’t going to pay to be in an extra edition. The printing costs will far outweigh any commercial benefit.

You do it on a big day because, as a newspaper, you should. It’s an investment in your relationship with the readers that when something important is happening, you’ll rise to the challenge. It builds trust.

This week marked the tenth anniversary of the dreadful 7/7 bombings in London. The Sydney siege was one of those similar “Where were you on the day?” moments. It proved to be on a much smaller scale. But nonetheless, it marked a moment when Islamic-inspired extremism had its biggest impact to date on Australian soil.

The other, more controversial, issue though is whether The Tele got it right with its aggressive “Death cult CBD attack” headline, and the reporting in its hastily put together four pages of coverage.

Was it really Islamic State? Should The Tele have attributed the attack to the “death cult”?

As we now know, it proved to be the actions of mentally unstable loner Man Haron Monis. There’s no suggestion now that he was acting on the instructions of terrorist masterminds of IS. But he forced his hostages to hold up the black flag associated with the group (and other extremist organisations) and on his website had pledged allegiance.

It then comes down to semantics. Is it still an attack from Islamic State just because the person carrying out the attack says it was?

In his opinion piece on the back page of the special edition, Piers Akerman made the essential point: “Whether those who brought the black flag to the Lindt cafe are actually connected to IS doesn’t matter. They want to be thought of as belonging to the homicidal cult”. Akerman also, correctly as it turned out, raised the possibility that it was a “lone wolf” attack.

Seven months on, the reporting – which was done in just two or three frantic hours – stands up well. Where fact were unclear, it was couched that way by reporter Janet Fife-Yeomans: “Up to two gunmen”; “unconfirmed reports there were explosive devices”.

I wonder also whether many of those who complained about The Tele actually read its coverage. I suspect there were more complaints to the Australian Press Council than copies were sold.

In December, The Tele got it more right than wrong. This week, the Press Council got it right.


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