‘Security sources say…’

It was terrifying news — if it was true. In October 2004, the Head of the FSB, Russia’s Federal Security Service, and the main successor agency to the Soviet-era KGB, told the Russian Parliament that more than 80 suicide bombers had been trained for attacks on targets inside Russia.

The FSB chief, Nikolai Patrushev, went on, ‘We don’t know what route they might take to get into Russia, and this creates definite problems.’

The quotation above is taken from a BBC News website report published at the time. I was then working as editor of the BBC’s Russian language site. I remember a long discussion with my colleagues in the BBC Russian Service about how we should treat the story. We were wary of simply headlining what a senior official had said  — just because they had said it. We had no obvious means of checking the claim.

Our colleagues on the English-language site did not fully share our reservations, and ran the piece which you can still read today. Even that story, though, did note of Mr Patrushev’s claims, ‘He did not explain how the FSB had gathered the information on potential attackers.’

Troops in Russia's 'anti-terrorist' campaign, Chechnya, Summer 2000

Troops in Russia’s ‘anti-terrorist’ campaign, Chechnya, Summer 2000

Nor would you expect him to — and that is the major challenge for journalists reporting on intelligence issues, especially where issues such as potential suicide bombers are concerned.

Every journalism student or trainee reporter knows that a news story needs to have the 5Ws and the H: ‘Who, what, when, where, why, and how.’ The material available for many stories dealing with alleged terrorists often has more than one of those missing.

In the case of Mr Patrushev’s remarks above, as so often, it is very important to consider the context of recent events. He was speaking the month after the massacre at the school in Beslan in which more than 300 people were killed. Russia was still stunned by the shock.

Still, that was no reason for journalists simply to report his claims without first considering the basis for them. They should not be propagandists for the FSB or any other security service. Yes, Mr Patrushev’s remarks were newsworthy — but they might have been better placed in a piece about the security situation in Russia, rather than granted the immediate headline the FSB perhaps sought.

More recent debates on issues of journalistic sources and security forces have focused on the consequences of the material leaked by Edward Snowden. When the head of Britain’s domestic security service, MI5, Andrew Parker, spoke earlier this month at the Royal United Services Institute, one part of his speech in particular (had reporters’ attention perhaps been gently guided there by helpful spin doctors?) generated the most headlines.

‘It causes enormous damage to make public the reach and limits of GCHQ techniques. Such information hands the advantage to the terrorists. It is the gift they need to evade us and strike at will,’ Mr Parker said, according to the text posted on the RUSI website.

It made the lead story on the BBC Ten O’Clock News that night, October 8th. Both as a viewer and a former BBC journalist,  I accepted that the speech was newsworthy. Of more concern was the way that Mr Parker’s remarks were simply reported, rather than analysed. Apart from a short contribution from Shami Chakrabarti, the Director of Liberty, the coverage mostly seemed to consist of what the MI5 Director had said.

There are times when journalists willingly comply with requests from security and police forces. In July 2005, as police in London pursued suspects in a series of failed suicide bombings, broadcasters agreed not to show live coverage of the ongoing operation. The security services were concerned such coverage might alert the suspects to their impending capture.

The real challenges that journalists face in reporting security issues are absences both of facts (those 5Ws and the H), and of secondary sources. Working with incomplete information can lead to errors of judgement.

The relationship between journalists and security sources is in many ways a conflict — one in which both sides may sometimes do things they should not. From a journalist’s point of view, it is a conflict in which security forces, whatever their motives, should not be allowed always to get their way — or to reach a point where they dominate completely.

The extent of the damage done by Mr Snowden’s revelations, or the extent to which they should be welcomed, is a different argument. The extent to which they should be reported is another argument again — although I think many journalists would say that, like the comments of the Chiefs of the FSB and MI5, the fact that they exist is a story.



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