The Terror News Cycle
On the BBC’s Today programme yesterday, some nine hours after the horror of the Manchester bombing, Nick Robinson was speaking to Chris Phillips, a counter-terrorism expert. ‘Terrorists don’t care who they kill,’ Phillips said. ‘It’s the number of bodybags that determines success.’ ‘And the publicity,’ Robinson interjected. ‘And the publicity,’ Phillips agreed. The Today programme then dutifully devoted its entire three hours of programming to coverage of the bombing (apart from a few minutes on weather and sport). This was before the perpetrator had been identified and before the security services had been able to assess whether or not the attack was an isolated incident. Coverage mostly consisted of commentators speculating on motives, along with a series of harrowing eyewitness accounts that helped to amplify the main objectives of terrorism: to create fear and to sow division.
This was followed by the next stage of the terror news cycle: journalists searching for victims, gathering outside hospitals and, in the case of one Telegraph reporter, putting business cards through doors in the hope of securing a statement from a man who was yet to find out whether his brother was still alive.
This doesn’t speak to the behaviour of all journalists and all news outlets, some of whom have focused not on speculation but on concrete acts of solidarity in response to the bombing and the tremendous rally on Tuesday evening in Manchester. But the media’s appetite for content is bound to overwhelm their more sober instincts to avoid intrusion and respect the need for privacy. In a news system desperate for attention and committed to scoops, sensitive reporting is a luxury that few can afford.
There are also papers and commentators who lose no time in using atrocities to whip up anger and to identify potential scapegoats. The Sun, for example, ran a leader the morning after the bombing that claimed ‘innocent people were murdered specifically because Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell sucked up to the IRA.’
Katie Hopkins tweeted in response to the Manchester attack that ‘We need a final solution,’ then wrote a piece in the Mail in which she mocked calls for unity and belittled the many acts of kindness that followed the bombing.
Allison Pearson said on Twitter that we need to introduce a state of emergency and intern ‘thousands of terrorist suspects’. In the Telegraph she called for ‘drastic action’ to protect children and to ‘tackle the alarming apartheid in our midst. Most Muslims,’ she wrote, ‘are decent, law-abiding people, but they need to have a bigger stake in the nation in which they live.’
We are often told to ignore ‘extreme’ voices – to dismiss them as unrepresentative – but, given their prominence in leading newspapers, where is the line between ‘extreme’ and ‘mainstream’ political discourse?
It’s worth asking what the point is of 24/7 reporting of terror attacks. Is it to provide blanket coverage of despair and horror, which is what the attackers are said to want? Is it to construct a ‘national sentiment’, to lay the basis for further securitisation? Or should it be to provide explanation – or at least some degree of context – to help people understand the political circumstances in which terror thrives?
This last is the approach that is largely missing from the deluge of coverage, and is often dismissed as somehow apologising for acts of terror. But without a recognition of geopolitical dynamics and recent Western military intervention overseas, terror attacks come to be seen as entirely mysterious, spectral events. To acknowledge their connections to global events is in no way to condone the atrocities.
What are we to make of the fact that Salman Abedi, who has been named as the Manchester bomber, was of Libyan descent (though a UK national) and had just returned from Libya? ‘Libya has become a failed state,’ the BBC’s security correspondent Frank Gardner declared on the Today programme after the bombing, as if this were an inexplicable and mysterious process, with no reference to the West’s disastrous intervention in the country.
What are we to make of the fact that the BBC’s leading news programmes dedicated only 63 seconds, out of nearly 13 hours of broadcasting following the terror attacks in Paris in November 2015, to the ‘blowback’ thesis, the idea that there is a connection between Western intervention and the growth of groups such as Islamic State? The thesis is hardly the invention of left-wing conspirators; its adherents include the UK’s Joint Intelligence Committee and Eliza Manningham-Buller, the former head of MI5.
None of this is to argue that journalists should avoid reporting on terror attacks. But knee-jerk responses that intensify public fear do nothing to contribute to our ability to combat terrorism and, indeed, satisfy the objectives of those who detonate the bombs.
We would all benefit from a slower journalism that didn’t resort to tired stereotypes and sought to expand, not to contaminate, our understanding of a violent world. The trouble is that there is neither the business model nor the political will to foster such an approach.