France is facing a threat from terrorism that is unprecedented in modern times in terms of the fatalities caused. It's understandable that there is a degree of self-reflection in the media over there on how to handle coverage. On first reflection the news that several French newspapers and news channels will be no longer featuring the names and faces of those barbarous murderers who follow in the footsteps of the Paris, Nice and Rouen killers may seem like a good move, after all, doesn't it prevent them from gaining post-mortem fame for their action one might say?
The argument against having even the slightest focus on the killer is made in this video from Charlie Brooker's Screenwipe. I agree that the ghoulish coverage of spree killers such as the Columbine killers or as used in the report the Winnenden killer, Tim Kretschmer as if they are teenage pin-ups, or 'nihilistic antiheroes' as its put on screenwipe is unnecessary. We don't need to see unrelated photo and videos of the perpetrator playing table tennis or in the case of the murderer of Father Jacques Hamel in Normandy, childhood memento shots. I agree that it is possible to cover the story without such an emphasis on killers' irrelevant social life and loves.
Where I disagree though, is not naming the killer at all in the case of terrorism cases as opposed to spree killings. Terrorism is an inherently political act and it is about the deed not the person who does the deed. Not naming the next school shooter might prevent similarly disaffected youth from thinking they will gain a posthumous cult following if they act on any murderous impulses they might be feeling towards their classmates, but it doesn't work in the context of a symbolic act of violence for a greater cause where the main star isn't the actual perpetrator but far away inciters in the Middle East. Apolitical spree killing is always an ego driven crime, terrorism is about acting in a cause greater than yourself. It won't be defeated by censorship in this case anymore than the blocking of the broadcasting of Sinn Fein members voices in the 1980s by the Thatcher government impacted that conflict.
Not naming the terrorist heightens the crime's sense of anti-authority mystique as people's curiosity which will inevitability get the better of them as the super-injunction controversy in the UK on Twitter showed will be intrigued rather than dampened, if people have to search online to find the missing details on the case and of course one should remember, the online world is a place where ISIS has an equal say as any other actor on the net. There is also a chance that a lack of focus on the perpetrator as individuals will lead to failings in government not being held to account.
How do we know that details such as the fact one of the Normandy killers was released from jail and was tagged will still be reported by media organizations who are following these new censorious guidelines? In the UK questions were raised about whether the methods used by MI5 to deal with minor figures on the edge of radical Islamist circles such as Mohammed 'Jihadi John' Emwazi and Lee Rigby killer, Michael Adebolajo might lead to such individuals getting further involved in terrorism proving that such methods might be counterproductive (for information about Emwazi's dealings with the security services, be sure to check out Robert Verkaiks' excellent book on the case). Would these uncomfortable but necessary questions still be raised if the British media adopted the same method as the French media?
It seems ultimately that not naming the perpetrators behind these crimes is more about assuaging our egos than theirs. We feel so powerless in face of the onslaught of these vile crimes that any action helps us take back some of the control we feel we've lost in the face of such savagery. We also as a society feel guilty about the media frenzy on such cases and what's more, our vicarious viewing of it. Censorship in any form for any reason is counterproductive and pointless in the age of the internet. It may make us feel slightly better about what has happened, but it won't stop the next atrocity happening. If anything it might lead to an increase in the confusion, mistrust and reliance on unverified online information that adds to the mind-set in which we unfortunately find ourselves.