An ethics debate seized the French media on Monday, after national television network TF1 broadcast on Sunday evening extracts from a leaked recording of conversations between police and Mohamed Merah, the 23 year-old Toulouse native with links to Al Qaeda who confessed to the murder of seven people in March 2012.
The audio clips were recorded during the 32-hour standoff between Merah and France’s elite Raid squad as police negotiated to bring the armed man out of his Toulouse apartment alive. The standoff ended when police shot Merah dead as he jumped out the window of his flat, guns blazing. Clips from the recording reveal Merah saying that he “loved death more than they [the police] loved life” and that he “was ready for all the tactics negotiators would try.”
Merah also spoke of wanting to carry out more attacks like the ones he had already admitted to: the shooting of three soldiers in Montauban, which he said was motivated by their engagement in Afghanistan, and the murder of a rabbi and three children at a Jewish school in Toulouse, which he said had not been premeditated.
The killer had filmed himself carrying out these acts, and the footage appeared on a USB stick at Al Jazeera’s Paris bureau soon afterward. The network decided not to air the graphic material. France’s other major television news channels stated that they, too, would refuse to run the footage if given the chance.
The primary questions of journalistic ethics that surfaced when the decision was taken not to publish the video, like those that are surfacing now with the airing of the audio segments, surround the nature of this concept known as “news value.” How is it defined, and by whose authority? Are there times when news value can override other ethical concerns associated with publishing a hateful, illegally obtained, or potentially dangerous clip or file?
This morning, TF1's News Director Catherine Nayl broke the network’s several hours of silence on the matter by defending its decision to release the audio clips. “We are journalists; our work is to inform,” she said, according to the Nouvel Observateur. “All of this information, which is new information in the Merah case, appeared to us to be important to broadcast. That is why we decided to do it,” she said to AFP.
Nayl said that TF1 had decided to air extracts from the recording with full awareness of its “informative value,” claiming that it contained “very important information on the way in which the men who carried out the raid negotiated until the very end for Mohamed Merah to turn himself in.”
“I think this file proves that, until the end of the raid, the negotiators tried to detain Mohamed Merah, and to detain him alive,” she said. “We also understand from this file that Mohamed Merah, with cold blood and with absolute determination (…) had created a character for himself,” she continued.
Emmanuel Chain, the producer of the programme "Sept à huit" which aired the clips, defended the decision on similar grounds Sunday night by claiming that the station had “acted responsibly” in broadcasting a recording “with strong news value.”
Reached by the radio station RTL, he said that his team had reflected at length before deciding to air extracts from the recording, which lasts over four hours, and had chosen “to only air the extracts that have an informational value.” He claimed that the sections they aired contextualized the case, providing information about Merah’s determination and his association with Al Qaeda.
Questioned on Monday morning by Europe 1, Harry Roselmack, who presented “Sept à huit” on Sunday, added that journalists at TF1 had “expurgated from the raw file all of the elements that could have shocked the public and the families of the victims,” and had removed all propagandistic language that made frequent reference to religion and to terrorism. He explained that the clips, initially released on the network’s website, had been retracted to avoid the risks associated with loss of editorial control, reported the Nouvel Observateur.
Chain further stated that the network’s journalists had taken the decision responsibly and with awareness of the impact it would have on victims’ families, and had been careful not to air any clips that they would find unduly offensive. Nayl similarly claimed, on behalf of TF1, to “understand perfectly the shock and violence” suffered by the families of the victims in hearing the voice of the man who assassinated their loved ones.
These claims did little to appease victims’ relatives and legal representatives, who expressed outrage after Sunday’s broadcast, along with France’s regulatory body for broadcast media (the Superior Audiovisual Council, or CSA), present and past government ministers from both the left and right, and the leader of the Representative Council of Jewish Institutions in France (Crif).
“This broadcast is scandalous because it gives the last word to Mohamed Merah,” said Me Patrick Klugman, the lawyer of one of the victims, adding, “we will do what is necessary so that this broadcast is not repeated.” On Sunday night the CSA’s president Michel Boyon and Rachid Arab, a member of its ethics committee, contacted the directors of other television and radio stations to advise them not to re-air the extracts in question, according to a CSA spokesperson.
France’s new Socialist Interior Minister Manuel Valls released a statement on Sunday expressing his “regret” that the clips had been aired, and asserting that “no precautions had been taken to respect the victims’ families.” He also emphasized that the recording had never been made public, and said that a criminal investigation was underway into how the file had been leaked.
Former UMP minister Valérie Pécresse (the UMP party was still in power at the time of the incident, which became an important subject in the presidential race) was equally incensed, saying that she feared the broadcast would sow “contamination” and prompt “sympathy for a man who committed monstrous acts.”
In this case, "news value" appears to derive from the context that the clips provide about Mohamed Merah, a French citizen of Algerian heritage who acquired terrorist training and brutally slaughtered seven of his compatriots, and about the Raid squad’s thorough but ultimately unsuccessful attempts to detain him alive. The authority to define it as such lies with the journalists who, employing reasoned judgement and with the support of their network, decided to broadcast extracts from the recording.
Does the news value override the ethical concerns associated with publishing these clips, such as the the possibility that giving a terrorist a legitimate platform merely magnifies the reach of his hateful message?
In his blog for Le Figaro, journalist and essayist Ivan Rioufol makes the argument that, chilling, inhuman, and monstrous as Merah’s words may be, it is more dangerous to suppress them— to keep quiet about the reality of Islamic fanaticism and its mobilization on French soil— than to give them air.
“In order to face barbarity, it is necessary to name it,” wrote Rioufol.
Image Credit: Screenshot from TF1 broadcast, via Le Parisien