The news coverage last month of the TWA hjijacking keeps raising questions -- sometimes questions with sharp edges -- about limits. Nobody thinks the episode at Beirut airport is going to be the last of that kind, and governments regard access to the press and, especially, television to be a powerful weapon in the hijackers' hands. Addressing the American Bar Association's meeting in London last week, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher called for a voluntary code to "starve the terrorists and the hijackers of the oxygen of publicity on which they depend." The American attorney general, Edwin Meese, was attending the meeting, and he was later asked at a press conference about Mrs. Thatcher's proposal. He cautiously replied that the administration is considering talks with the media on subjects such as delaying publication of information that might delay solutions.
Everyone has agreed, over and over, that the coverage of the hijacking last month was overdone and often tasteless. But the central question is whether it delayed the release of the hostages and increased the danger to them. Our own view continues to be that the television exposure was more likely to have diminished that danger. When the Amal militiamen went on television with their captives, they increased the potential cost to Amal of any subsequent injury to the prisoners. If television is a weapon, it cuts both ways.
And it is not always true, by the way, that terrorism requires the oxygen of publicity to flourish. Seven other Americans have been kidnapped in Beirut by forces so secretive that they have never been precisely identified; nor is it clear that all of their victims are still alive. In those cases, a little more publicity would be welcome.
Talks between press and government people, as Mr. Meese suggests, can be useful. A certain amount of that sort of thing already goes on, most of it informally, which is the only way it should go on. But in the next hijacking most reporters will again consider it their job to tell the public as much as they can find out, save only those details that might increase the hostages' jeopardy.
The unavoidable collision -- the one that governments dread -- is between the immediate interest in freeing hostages and the broader political and diplomatic purposes that lie less visibly behind the immediate crisis. Press and television inevitably focus on the individuals at the center of the siege, generating waves of public concern for those unfortunate people. That in turn distracts governments and forces them to sacrifice other priorities to get the hostages back. True, that may be damaging to the country. But it is not nearly so damaging, we believe, as the fog of rumor and innuendo that would arise if the public began to suspect that the press were cooperating in suppressing important parts of the story.