In Brief

Islamic State hostages: was it wrong to impose a media blackout?

Alan Henning's brother says it was 'disgusting' that his family were virtually gagged over kidnapping

David Cameron has defended the decision to impose a media blackout over the British hostages held captive by Islamic State, despite criticism from the family of Alan Henning.

But two of his Conservative Party colleagues in Parliament have called for a review of the de facto policy of maintaining silence during a hostage situation.

Reg Henning, whose brother Alan was beheaded by IS militants, has said his family was virtually "gagged" for the nine months his brother was held captive.

He told The Guardian: "I think it's disgusting because if we had been able to talk and voice our opinions, I think the government may have stood up and listened more."

Cameron told BBC's North West Tonight: "The approach that we take, when these terrible things happen, is to work with the family, to try and find the hostages, but not to raise the media profile of an individual case because it can put that person at even greater risk."

Two Tory MPs, Rory Stewart and John Baron, have called for a debate on the pros and cons of such a media blackouts. "A healthy discussion between all interested parties as to government guidance can do no harm, particularly as a one-size-fits-all policy is unlikely to best suit all situations," said Baron.

Jamie Dettmer at the Daily Beast claims the silence on captives gives terrorists "tremendous propaganda power" when they reveal the prisoners about to be executed. "Openness would take away some of the control the jihadists have to administer shock as they go on killing," he says.

Colin Freeman, chief foreign correspondent for the Sunday Telegraph, who was once kidnapped in Somalia, says blackout requests generally come from the hostage negotiation teams rather than government.

The most obvious reason, he says, is that a huge publicity campaign to free a hostage can "backfire by convincing the kidnappers that they have a very high value prize, who should not be lightly released".

Another strong argument against publicity is that no one in the outside world knows what a hostage has told their kidnappers, says Oliver Wright in The Independent. For example, they might be claiming to be a different nationality to protect themselves or hiding a previous military service which could put them in greater danger if it emerged.

But Wright admits there have also been occasions when the opposite is true, such as when journalist Jon Swain was accused of being a spy by his kidnappers in Ethiopia precisely because his newspaper had not reported his disappearance.

"None of these dilemmas is easy," says Wright. "But they are dilemmas that should be in the public domain – even if the identities of hostages are not."

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