THE BLOG

When Reporters Talk About National Security on TV News, You Won't See the Tightrope They're Treading Behind the Desk

12/01/2016 15:26 GMT | Updated 12/01/2017 10:12 GMT

When reporters talk about national security on TV news, you won't see the tightrope they're treading behind the studio desk. An inch towards one side, and they risk scaremongering - sway the other way, and they're in danger of understating an important story.

News thrives on what can be reported in black and white terms. But those of us who cover security and counter-terrorism can too often find ourselves wading through the murky grey area. After all, so-called Islamic State is neither a state nor a conventional terrorist group; defeating it will require what David Cameron calls a "generational struggle", but it currently appears to pose little threat to our existence; and although the prevalence of I.S. is said to make a terrorist attack in the UK "highly likely", that assessment is inevitably based on a lot of guesswork.

It's easy for us to become reliant on information provided by police forces and counter-terrorism agencies. Some official statistics are frequently repeated: 800 British citizens are thought to have travelled to Syria and Iraq to fight with groups such as IS; an average of one arrest per a day is made in the UK for suspected terrorism offences.

But regular ITV News viewers will be familiar with another fact that we are always willing to offer: Islamist terrorism in the UK has claimed a single death in Britain during the last decade.

It was a barbarous act - but bee stings have killed many more British citizens over the past ten years. As many people have died driving a Segway off a cliff during that same period. And yet we don't have correspondents and producers specialising in those issues.

Does this mean that the news business has got the reporting of terrorism wrong? Not really. But in his insightful piece in Sunday's Observer, Peter Preston argued that there was a risk of security reporters, like me, being strung along by secretive sources.

His warning - to all specialist journalists - applied especially to us, he said: "...you have to rely on the same old sources: you can't cut yourself loose from special information streams. You're in hock to the story providers."

He's right to raise his concern about the relationship between reporters who want a story and government sources who have a monopoly on information. Think of the football reporter who knows that a tough post-match question might get him banned from the next press conference - except much of our information-gathering happens further away from the cameras.

I challenge Mr Preston's argument that "the trouble with security correspondents is that your prime sources are there in the shadows, always willing and able to pull your strings."

I can't say whether anyone is willing, but in our case, none are able to pull our strings. The standard editorial questions apply to whatever we are told: Where did their information come from? What is their motive for telling us? How can we double check? After all, simply repeating a government line is about as unsatisfying as journalism gets. Last year ITV News won a Royal Television Society award for coverage of Islamist terrorism - our entry did not include a single piece of information gained from one of the "same old sources" that the Observer article refers to.

The nature of modern terrorism - fought online and across the world - means that security reporting has never required such a breadth of sources. Our journalism is about the families of those affected by and responsible for terrorism, not just those whose job it is to fight it. It's about sources in Syria, Iraq, Turkey, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Somalia, Nigeria, Mali - as well as the UK.

It can be frustrating reporting on secretive agencies and shadowy terror groups. Last week, we struggled to get a definitive answer from anyone in the know about the identity of the masked British man apparently filmed in an IS video. Some news organisations reported that official sources had unmasked 'Jihadi John 2'. Our view at ITV News was that the scepticism of friends, relatives and voice recognition experts was just as important, so we reflected that in our reporting.

Of course, journalists trying to tell the story of groups like IS are helped by the abundance of information online. Reporters may see a suspected terrorists' Tweet before the spies. In such a case, the journalist's concern might be whether they are doing the terrorists' work for them by printing or broadcasting their propaganda. And crucially, those same concerns can be applied to statements from the British authorities too.

Rohit Kachroo is the security editor at ITV News