Media overreaction has unintentionally spread terrorism

01/04/2017

The attack on Westminster drew global news coverage, and many politicians, including Prime Minister Theresa May, called it an attack on the values of democracy. 
But Simon Jenkins, a columnist for the London Evening Standard and The Guardian, said the media shouldn't blow this out of proportion and liken the attacks to the atrocities committed in America in 2001.
He said: "Covering the streets of London with armed police, wall to wall coverage, Westminster in lockdown, all we knew at the time was a man with a beard appeared to go berserk near to Parliament.
"He [Khalid Masood] was inspired [by Isis], that means nothing. Why give them [the credence? I can’t understand it, it’s doing precisely what terrorism is.
"The spectacle of a Prime Minister standing up in Parliament to say she’s not afraid effectively says the opposite.
"To make this out as though 9/11 had just happened in London is silly and beneath us. It doesn’t indicate a country resilient to terrorism, it indicates a country which is."
What made Wednesday different was its instant subjection to an avalanche of supposition and speculation. This was a choice made by the media and political community, a choice to direct the view of a terrible incident entirely in one direction, even when nothing was known of its cause. Because it looked like a terrorist incident – albeit ham-fisted – and it was not initially known if it was a decoy, it was assumed to be such. Without a shred of evidence, and no “claimed responsibility”, the airwaves and press were flooded with assumptions that it was “Isis-inspired”. It was squeezed for every conceivable ounce of sensation and emotion.
Even if this was indeed a “terrorist” act and not that of a lone madman – I repeat, even if it was – the way to react is to treat it as a crime. Don’t speculate when you know such speculation will cause alarm. Don’t let Downing Street summon Cobra and drag the home secretary back from foreign parts. Don’t flood central London with hundreds of men with machine guns. Once the initial uncertainty is passed, don’t have the police issue interminable empty statements, as they stand in front of wall-to-wall BBC coverage of London “in total lockdown”.
Don’t fill pages of newspapers and hours of television and radio with words like fear, menace, horror, maniac, monster. Don’t let the mayor rush into print, screaming “don’t panic”. Don’t have the media trawl the world for pundits to speculate on “what Isis wants” and “how hard it is to protect ourselves from attack”. Don’t present London as a horror movie set. Don’t crave a home-grown Osama bin Laden. In other words, don’t pretend you are “carrying on as usual” when you are doing the precise opposite. When the prime minister stands up in parliament to announce, “We are not afraid,” the response is “why then is the entire government machine behaving as if it’s shit-scared?”
When Tony Blair in 2003 sought an easy headline by sending tanks to Heathrow to “counter terrorism”, it was estimated to have cost millions of pounds in instant tourist cancellations. Goodness knows the money and jobs lost by this week’s reckless coverage. Who knows what liberties the cabinet will eagerly curtail, or what million-pound contracts the security-industrial complex will squeeze from terrorised civil servants and ministers?
The actions of the authorities and the media in response to Wednesday have ramped up the hysteria of terror. This was ostensibly a random act by a lone player without access even to a gun. To over-publicise and exaggerate such crimes is to be an accomplice after the act. London’s response to the Westminster attack is an open invitation to every crazed malcontent to try it again.
Our response to these incidents must not be to overreact. This week is the anniversary of the Islamic State outrage at Brussels airport, when 32 people lost their lives in a coordinated assault on Belgium’s transport system. It followed earlier attacks in Paris.
The reaction then was extraordinary. Europe’s media and politicians were close to hysterical. For days, BBC reporters on the spot repeated the words panic, threat and menace by the hour. France’s President François Hollande declared that “all of Europe has been attacked”. Prime minister David Cameron announced that “the UK faces a very real terror threat”. Donald Trump declared to cheering supporters that “Belgium and France are literally disintegrating”. Isis could not have asked for a greater megaphone.

The terrorist is helpless without the assistance of the media and those who feed it with words and deeds. In his thoughtful manual, Terrorism: How to Respond, academic Richard English points out that the so-called threat to democracy, about which politicians like to talk at such times, lies not in any bloodshed and damage. It is the more real danger “of provoking ill-judged, extravagant and counterproductive state responses”. But this puts those who choose to be “provoked” in a peculiar and compromising position. Only if the media respond in a certain way can the terrorists achieve whatever spurious ends they may have.
We should recall that Theresa May as home secretary used the Paris and Belgium attacks to champion her “snooper’s charter”, the most severe intrusion on personal privacy anywhere in the western world – and described as such by Bill Binney, formerly of America’s National Security Agency. May added that the “terrorist threat” was why we should stay in the EU, as otherwise “they would roam free”. She warned that it took 143 days to process terrorist DNA outside the EU, against 15 minutes inside. Does she still say that? We have to respect those who defend us, but terrorism induces a strange madness.
At the time, the British government also rushed ahead with its Prevent strategy, commanding every educational institution to show it had programmes in place “to counter nonviolent extremism, which can create an atmosphere conducive to terrorism”. The attendant bureaucracy is now massive. Hardly a week passes without the Metropolitan police demanding vigilance – inducing fear, caution and nervousness towards strangers. A recent BBC “drama documentary” titled Attack was ill-concealed publicity for more money for the police.
In struggling to put these incidents into proportion, we need to remember that there are now huge amounts of money in counterterrorism. Now is not the time to say this money is disproportionate, but it is open to the charge of serving terror’s purposes. Everyone involved has, in truth, a sort of interest in it, from journalists and politicians to police and security lobbyists. The paucity of terror incidents in totalitarian countries that censor news shows the crucial role of publicity to terror’s methodology. That said, suppressing such news cannot be justified in a free society. There is even a reluctance to admit self-censorship. When last year the French newspaper Le Monde decided not to publish the names of those responsible for terrorist killings as it clearly aided their martyrdom, it was criticised for denying coverage.
But every decision to publish an item of news involves a choice, a judgment. That is not “censorship”. For those seeking publicity for their misdeeds, there is a world of difference between the top spot on the news and the bottom. If the intention is not just to kill a few but thereby to terrify a multitude, the media is an essential accomplice. It is not the act that spreads terror, it is the report, the broadcast, the edited presentation, the decision on prominence.
All analysts of terrorism reiterate that it is not an ideology. Guns and bombs pose no “existential” threat to a country or society. Politicians who exploit it to engender fear are cynics with vested interests. Terrorism is a methodology of conflict. There is no real defence against madmen who kill, though it’s worth restating that London’s streets have probably never been safer places.
The use of vehicles to convey death is as old as the motor car – or at least since Mario Buda exploded his car bomb in Wall Street in 1920. Recent advances in electronics have clearly taken this a step further, hence the new horror of laptopson board aeroplanes. But planes are safer vehicles than ever.
That is why the response of British governments to IRA incidents in the 1970s and 80s – to regard them as random crimes not quasi-political gestures – was surely correct. IRA terrorism was a much worse threat than anything experienced at present. Some freedoms were curtailed, as in detention without trial and the censoring of IRA spokespeople. They were minor victories for terror. But for the most part, British freedoms were not infringed, life went on and the threat eventually passed. Let us hope the same applies today./.
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All comments [ 5 ]


John Smith 1/4/17 17:15

This rush to judgement not only leads to factual mistakes in the heat of the moment, it risks normalising a language of ‘terror’, effectively ruling out alternative ways of understanding what’s happened.

MaskOf Zero 1/4/17 17:16

That's what Western media always do and they are very good at!

Only Solidar 1/4/17 17:26

Journalists struggle with the accelerating pace of the news cycle and the complicated and diverse nature of terrorism itself.

Deck Hero14 1/4/17 17:27

despite the ubiquity of social media, despite the central role it plays in all of our lives, the fact that it is how so many of us live our lives, it seems that, when it comes to atrocities, we’re still unsure how to present ourselves online.

Pack Cassiopian 1/4/17 17:30

Such reporting is increasingly becoming common in an age of hypermedia activities where memes, slander, half and quarter truths compete with professionally gathered and edited news.

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