Do we need to know about terrorism while in the air?
Last night The Punch took a flight from Canberra to Melbourne and settled in for a viewing of Qantas’ in-flight news bulletin provided by Channel Nine.
Slowly recovering my obligatory takeoff fear of dying next to some guy in a Ralph Lauren t-shirt and blond tips in his hair, it occurred to me that the entire bulletin had not mentioned the biggest news story of the last few days: the failed terrorist attack aboard the Northwest Airlines flight to Detroit.
Absolutely nothing was reported in an almost half hour long broadcast about a failed terrorist attack aboard a passenger plane which a little group called Al-Qaeda have now claimed responsibility for. A story that still commanded high priority during their national news broadcasts that evening.
This wasn’t some shocking editorial oversight by a confused news editor, rather it’s very intentional Qantas policy not to inform it’s passengers of airline disaster related news stories.
So should we care that there’s censorship of a something purporting to be a news service because the company that pays for the broadcast doesn’t like the subject matter?
In June attention was drawn to this issue by Punch deputy editor Tory Maguire and Mumbrella’s Tim Burrows after reports of the Air France disaster were deleted from the Qantas sponsored morning bulletin.
Back then Qantas said its policy was: “We never report news involving plane incidents on Qantas in-flight news bulletins.”
Talking to Channel 9 sources today The Punch has been told that while the final decision on what to run in the program is up to Qantas, the station will almost always edit the bulletin to the “unwritten policy” that nothing about airline disasters or terrorist aboard planes goes in the bulletin.
Basically they’re afraid of freaking out passengers.
While journalists can get pretty righteous about this kind of thing, Qantas does have different priorities to a newsroom. A lot of people are scared of flying, and seeing the latest antics of Al-Qaeda televised to what is already a nervous passenger can have effects greater than someone’s right to be informed accurately between Canberra and Melbourne.
Furthermore there’s no obligation of Qantas or Channel 9’s behalf to provide me with a news service in flight, and given that you’re pretty lucky to get a Big W catalogue aboard Tiger or Virgin Blue, I’m pretty glad it’s there.
But on balance if Qantas and Nine are going to put something to air that claims to be a news service how they can’t just edit out the parts that might upset some people, especially if the story is self-evidently as huge as Northwest Christmas Day plot.
The same telecast had a story about a two-year-old drowning in a family pool. Does Channel 9 decide not broadcast that story because it might upset parents or anyone else for that matter?
But the broader point to be made is one of conflicting interests between Channel 9’s obligation to report major news stories, and their legitimate right to earn revenue from that product from a major client like Qantas with their own commercial and safety issues to consider.
In an age where it’s getting harder to make a buck from free media that’s not always easy arithmetic.
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