After terror attacks in Paris, Nice, Brussels and Berlin, there was a sense of deja vu as Khalid Masood struck in Westminster last Wednesday — politicians, police, experts and the public with flowers and candles all seemed to follow a script, and so did the British news media.
Defiant words about not bowing to terror were said inside and outside parliament, security was enhanced, experts pontificated, and members of the public gathered in thousands at vigils and laid flowers and cards with moving messages at various places.
But what made Wednesday different was its instant subjection in the media to an avalanche of supposition and speculation, wrote prominent columnist Simon Jenkins in The Guardian. He went on to criticise the BBC’s wall-to-wall coverage — on the BBC — which went viral.
The coverage reminded many of Margaret Thatcher’s speech in 1985 often mentioned in studies of media and political violence: “We must try to find ways to starve the terrorist and the hijacker of the oxygen of publicity on which they depend.”
Stuart Allan, head of the School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies at Cardiff University, told Hindustan Times: “These are shocking, deeply disturbing incidents, yet there is a strong inclination for some journalists to report on them using familiar, almost conventionalised framings to explain their significance.”
“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.”
Much of the Westminster attack coverage was driven by the expectation that it was a matter of when – not if – London would face a terror attack. The official threat perception of ‘severe’, meaning an attack was ‘highly likely’, added to the media’s contingency plans.
Daya K Thussu, professor of international communication at the University of Westminster, noted: “Even a reputable network like Channel 4 News identified the attacker to be Abu Izzadeen, a radical British cleric who was, in fact, in a British prison. His pictures were instantly circulating on Twitter posts and Facebook messages.”
“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.”
Leading the criticism, Jenkins told BBC presenter Evan Davis: “No one’s suggesting you ignore it…You have a choice of prominence and the prominence given to them now I think is aiding and abetting terrorism. You should choose to treat it as a crime.”
“Under the IRA terrorists and even under the PLO ones, we treated them as crimes. In this case probably some crazy guy for all I know, who has gone mad and he’s done something stupid and he’s dead – it’s a crime.”
“It’s quite different from ascribing it with this tremendous clutter of politics and Islam and religion. It’s quite wrong and it is a new phenomenon, not on the part of the terrorists – terrorism is just a method of getting publicity – we are the people who give them publicity, and we are giving it to them now,” Jenkins said.
Amid growing debate on the coverage, Allan added: “Journalists need to resist the temptation to offer instant analysis, namely by staying focused on gathering and sifting through facts and perspectives from a diverse range of sources.”
“Headlines declaring an attack represents a threat to democracy, for example, should invite debate on the editorial page or in opinion columns, but have no place being presented as self-evidently true in a news report.”
According to Thussu, “The pressure to be first with the news is so paramount that professional journalists have little time to check and verify the facts. News, especially its visual version, is worryingly veering towards what might be called a ‘macabre infotainment’.”
Mike Jempson, director of ethics charity MediaWise, told HT: “Non-stop TV coverage from Westminster was inevitable but does give rise to concern that it plays into the hands of those who propagandise terror. Similarly, newspaper front pages focusing on images of the killer’s action send the wrong message, confirming in the minds of would-be ‘lone wolf’ killers that they can achieve notoriety even in death”.