Neil Basu - Society of Editor's Speech | Counter Terrorism Policing

Neil Basu – Society of Editor’s Speech

I am grateful for the invitation and thank you for giving me what feels a little like a right to reply!

I’m going to try and describe for you what the world looks like from where I sit; how I need your help and support to keep people safe and what that means; and how I suspect journalists and police are a lot more alike than we realise.

I only ever wanted to be a journalist as a kid – I was too shy to pursue it but my heroes were Woodward and Bernstein.

I am in awe of some of our great investigative journalists and war correspondents who are extraordinary people doing extraordinary work.

At our best, journalists and cops are tenacious investigators; we need to get to the heart of what happened when things go wrong and make sure the right people are held to account for their actions.

We are truth seekers on behalf of the public and we exercise our duty without fear or favour.

Journalists can and do hold some of the country’s most powerful individuals and organisations to account.

Similarly, the police should be free to exercise our executive function independently, irrespective of the law-breaker – fund manager or factory worker, corporation or private citizen.

And of course, if and when we need to, we also shine the light on ourselves.

You and I both hold great power and shoulder great responsibility.

Neither of us likes our expertise being called into question, still less our legitimacy. We both instinctively look after our own and can be tempted to close ranks when threatened.

And as much as we try to plan ahead, so much of what we do is driven by events which now move at ever-increasing speed.

We are both grappling with what rapid developments in technology and their profound impacts, mean for our daily work.

But we all want to do some good in this world. We want to maximise wellbeing and minimise harm. We want to promote positive values and undermine evil ideologies that attack our way of life.

I think we want to minimise the suffering of victims and survivors of crime and terrorism.

We would rather celebrate the heroes who stopped it, or brought the offenders to justice.

There are always far more heroes to talk about than villains.

I am responsible for the UK Counter Terrorism Policing effort – preventing suffering is what I am all about.

The last 4 years have been the most demanding in UK Counter Terrorism history since the mainland IRA bombing campaigns of the 1970s.

In 2017, our worst year, I was the deputy to the then head of UK Counter Terrorism Sir Mark Rowley.

I had a very long job description but it boiled down to one thing – stop terrorist attacks in the UK.

But there were 5 successful attacks on my watch and 36 people died. Many hundreds were physically and psychologically scarred.

I think about that fact every single day. It’s had a profound physical and mental effect on me.

I am very proud of our response to those attacks and that at the same time we conducted the deepest review into the Counter Terrorism machine in over a decade, committing to making real over one hundred recommendations.

I am most proud of the fact that with MI5 we disrupted 24 attack plots – 16 Islamist and 8 right wing plots, and have arrested and charged hundreds of terrorists.

The outcome has been the lowering of the terrorist threat level for the first time in 5 years. But we still face a substantial threat. An attack is still likely.

We have over 800 live investigations – more than double that of 2014. But it’s not the volume of the threat, it’s the unpredictability and the lack of intelligence that creates the real pressure.

Targets are softer, methodology simple and cheap and the perpetrators are either lone actors or more proficient in encryption. The attacks and the planning may be less frequent but they are harder to see and stop.

I am particularly troubled by the rising nationalist agenda and a growth in what we now clearly see as right wing terrorists.

This trend was clearly defined by the watershed proscription of National Action in December 2016 and is one that is being replicated around the world – Christchurch being the most egregious but by no means the only example to date.

The experience of working closely with victims, survivors and communities impacted by terrorism. Standing in the crime scenes and speaking to survivors profoundly changes you.

In part, it’s what drove the open letter I sent to support the new Zealand PM’s approach and the plea by Brendan Cox for a different reporting style following Christchurch; that questioned the uncensored extremist propaganda that appeared in mainstream media and challenged the journalistic interpretation of public interest.

My comments should be seen in that context.

Sympathy for what I have seen and heard is not asked for or expected but an understanding of the context is always important.

In fact the other thing I think about every day is to stop a year like 2017 ever happening again. It’s why I took this job and I will stay until I am satisfied we have delivered the 100 plus recommendations that will make this UK Counter Terrorism Machine, better than ever.

The other occasion that you and I fell out was more recently, during the leak investigation into the UK’s Ambassador to the United States’ reporting into Government.

I issued a statement advising that the publication of leaked communications may be a criminal matter under the Official Secrets Act.

I advised that any such material should be returned.

Subsequently, I was accused, by some, of seeking to undermine press freedom. I had my professional judgement questioned and contradicted by senior figures and was phoned directly by enraged editors.

That was quite tough. My ears are still ringing from the experience.

Knowing what I know now, would I have done it all again? Yes.

Would I have done it differently? Yes.

Context is crucial.  Any police officer who is directly confronted with a plan to commit a criminal offence – one for which there is no defence in law – should expect to intervene.

In fact it would be professional negligence not to – the question here is how.

I could have picked up the phone to editors across Fleet Street, but I had no idea if only one publication had the documents.

I certainly know now that other journalists had been offered the documents and refused the story.

But would that have changed anything that subsequently happened?

I’m necessarily constrained in what more I can say here, although I might like to.  This case is still a live investigation, and in an election period I am not going to enter into the debate about the reform of the Official Secrets Act, and its lack of a public interest defence.

Except to say that my comments are on the record elsewhere on this, and just like you, I strongly believe in a free press that holds power to account as a cornerstone of a strong, liberal democracy.

It’s a cornerstone but it is not the only one.

As a cop I firmly believe that the rule of law is another cornerstone that keeps everyone in society safe to enjoy rights just like free speech.

I might even argue that it is not a cornerstone but the foundation stone  of a free and liberal democracy.

And I must take the law as I find it.

I regret the impact of my statement, not because of its effect on me, but because it risked damaging the relationship between policing and the media.

As journalists, you occupy a crucial role in society that far transcends holding power to account.

You have the ability to influence, to contextualise, to challenge and bear witness on behalf of the public, for the public.

To cops, you are more than an observer or a critic. You are a partner. The role of the media can make or break investigations, incidents and careers.

In that I would include the most complex and difficult murder investigation of my career as a Senior Investigating Officer – the double murder of Bertram Byfield and his 7 year old daughter Toni Ann in 2003.

This double murder was a case of global notoriety, national significance and real poignancy. There were no witnesses, no forensics and no clear suspects but dozens of suspicious persons of interest.

It would never have been solved without the help of Crimewatch, The Liverpool Daily Echo and local radio in Merseyside as well as the sympathetic coverage of the national print media.

I was then, and remain now, eternally grateful for that support.

No major enquiry or operation can deliver without the support of media.

And of course no public body should consider themselves above scrutiny, especially the police given the great powers we are given.

We have emerged battered, bruised, but better because of your support to Stephen Lawrence’s family and your push for the MacPherson inquiry; and for your campaign for the victims of Hillsborough.

There are just two examples amongst many demonstrating the pressure the media can bring to bear on behalf of the public that ultimately improves society and its institutions for all of us.

The importance of our partnership cannot be overstated and for it to continue to be effective, we need to understand each other and the context we operate in.

I have spoken about the level of threat we face and the number of thwarted plots. But they all seem like goal line saves. I want fewer goal line saves.

That’s why I speak publically about the importance of intervening early to stop people becoming terrorists in the first place with a safeguarding NOT criminalising approach.

And it’s why we need the whole of society, including the media, to play its part.

One model that merits a closer look is the relationship you have built with Samaritans in reporting suicide.

The relationship appears to me enduring, mutually beneficial and practical.

The way mainstream media has reported suicides in the last 20 years has changed, on the basis of support provided by Samaritans, and the expertise they have shared with you on the effect of what you do.

As you are all aware, there is potential for the reporting of suicide to have an impact on audiences by increasing suicidal behaviour – known as suicide contagion.

Samaritans and the World Health Organisation report substantial research evidence showing the links between the media depiction of suicide and the spread of the behaviour among vulnerable people.

The risk of influencing suicides significantly increases if reports include descriptions of suicide methods; if the story is placed prominently, and if the coverage is extensive or sensationalised.

Samaritans have never suggested high profile suicides should not be reported – only encouraged change on how they are reported.

Coverage that can meet the public interest needs, while minimising further harm, is surely the best option.

The positive relationship between Samaritans campaigners and the media has helped shape how suicide is reported and has almost certainly saved lives.

If reporting can be seen through this lens for suicide, then why not for terrorism?

Yes they are different phenomena, but what if it is the same psychological levers that can influence vulnerable people. If the evidence suggests that a person vulnerable to suicidal thoughts can be motivated to act by the social proof and over-identification with a celebrity suicide, then could a person vulnerable to radicalisation be triggered to act by the content of media reports describing terrorism?

It would be wrong for me to stand here and make assertions based on speculation rather than evidence, which is why I have asked RUSI to investigate the scientific literature that might support such a theory and to explore the existing literature to better understand the relationship between terrorism and the traditional media.

RUSI’s emerging findings, which will be published in the coming months, are drawn from an extensive synthesis of the academic literature, citing over 120 expert sources.

This is as controversial a topic in academia as it is in this room.

RUSI has looked in depth at social contagion theory and whether media reporting of terrorist events encourages the spread of behaviour among like-minded individuals.  They have also investigated mimetic theory which suggests imitation of terrorist attacks might occur for the purpose of achieving the same publicity or recognition by carrying out similar attacks.

RUSI’s emerging findings suggest that how journalists frame their reports and the language they choose can have an impact and there are steps which can be followed to reduce the impact and to mitigate what is referred to as the contagion effect.

Indeed, the media can have a positive impact. By acting as peacemakers, and by portraying terrorists as they truly are, they can heighten public awareness of security threats in a non-dramatic way, and they can encourage public conversation and debate on the social and political implications of terrorism.

But, while the literature is not conclusive, due to disagreement within the academic community, RUSI also found significant empirical evidence that media reporting can be the tipping point to radicalisation, recruitment, or carrying out a violent act, through social contagion or mimesis.

Like all the big social questions, it is a maddeningly complex subject, where concrete answers prove illusive. Some researchers have accepted that media depictions of terrorism can influence the public, but not all the time and not always to the same degree in respect of different members of the audience. This is unsurprising and speaks to the fact that most people would not be affected directly by media reporting of terrorism anymore that reporting of suicide. But it isn’t most people that I am concerned about.

We have seen just how vulnerable, confused and disenfranchised some of our successful and would-be terrorists are.

Extensive media coverage of terrorist events is understandable given the public interest, but what is, or is not, featured in that coverage, could inadvertently amplify the threat.

  • Streaming footage from the scene provides the platform that many terrorists crave, but would otherwise never achieve
  • Publishing terrorist manifestos might provide context for some, but justification and a trigger to act in the eyes of the vulnerable few.
  • Signposting chat rooms might unwittingly lead tens of thousands of people to material that would otherwise have only been seen by a handful.

I do not underestimate the challenge of making these editorial decisions on content, sourcing, and imagery, in the white heat of breaking stories that dominate the news agenda and the public’s demand for information and explanation.

I hope you believe me when I say that I understand the demands of operating under that level of pressure and scrutiny.

These are judgement calls.  I don’t question your good faith, or your freedom to make those tricky decisions.

But I do have a responsibility to do everything I can to help prevent terrorism and minimise the risk of accidentally making the problem worse.

I want to help you make those decisions by providing our expertise of terrorism as the Samaritans provided theirs on suicide contagion.

The public interest in terrorism will never cease.  But the public’s expectations about how we talk about terrorism and what material is, or is not, fit for mass consumption do change, and sometimes change rapidly.

Prime Minister Ardern’s decision to not dignify the Christchurch killer with a name won global respect.  This is not a static debate.  Which is another reason why we should build a partnership – as you have done with the Samaritans – that is two-way, based on evidence and alive to these changes.

We don’t always get our communications right either. In 2016, after the 2015 Paris attacks, Mark Rowley and I asked for your help in getting it right – our joint ability to warn and inform the public at a time of great threat relies on that partnership being close.

It’s a complicated challenge where we always find ourselves looking through a glass darkly.

What information should we release? How much detail and how quickly?

How do we balance the need for reassurance against the need to be transparent about the threat?

How do we avoid prejudicing an investigation by releasing wrong or excessive information as events are unfolding?

Who are our customers and what do they really need balanced against what they want?

What about the dignity of victims, survivors and communities directly affected, balanced against the need to work with the media to gain more information as quickly as possible?

What do the public need to know in 5 minutes to keep them safe, 5 hours to keep them informed and 5 days to help them understand and return to normal?

Where does the balance of public interest lie?

Rob Irvine, who was editor of the Manchester Evening News at the time of the arena attack in 2017, recalled to us some of the responses to the way his team reported the tragedy.

The Manchester Evening News’ readers and business partners, including advertisers, really respected the responsible way the attack was covered, with the paper prioritising those affected rather than focusing on the perpetrator.

Many individuals – and many of those business partners – made significant contributions to the paper’s efforts to raise millions of pounds to help those affected. Rob certainly believes the Manchester Evening News’ reputation was enhanced by its approach to the tragic events of May 2017.

These are complex questions and I don’t have the answers, but I want to work with you to get to them.

I have talked about what I want to achieve as a cop. I am fascinated by what you want to achieve as editors. I hope we can find common ground.

I will leave you with these questions:

  • How can we – journalists and police – tenacious investigators and truth seekers, driven to prevent suffering and celebrate heroes, work together in a true partnership to reduce the threat from terrorism?
  • What small changes might we be prepared to make together in order to save lives?

When I speak publicly I always incorporate that 19th century philosophy that ‘evil triumphs when good people do nothing’. It seems apt today.

Thank you for listening