Wednesday, 29 March 2017

Why the mass media hysteria about terrorist attacks?

The recent terrorist attack at Westminster, resulting in the deaths of five people (including the attacker) sent out reverberations around the world.
The media coverage seemed to be all about hyping the event, turning the whole thing into some sort of melodrama for an anxious public.

The apocalyptic language adopted would make someone coming from another context think the capital was under nuclear attack.

Facts were at a premium, things like what had happened, the number of people injured and killed and who was responsible lacking.

The lack of this basic information was all the more remarkable given that a large number of journalists are based at Westminster on a permanent basis.

The coverage followed the usual 24 hour news routine of reporting terrorist incidents. There is a lack of information, lots of speculation and then a hyping of what has happened.

In the London incident, there quickly followed a lionising of the emergency services, particularly the police and ambulance service for doing their jobs. Then the "we shall fight them on the beaches" language of the defiant Londoner. The Prime Minister’s solemn words about how Londoners will carry on going to work, going about their business.  

After the initial hysteria, the next day things move to a deeper look at what happened, who can be blamed and what can be done to make sure such a thing does not happen again.

So in this narrative the role of the police and security services nicely illustrates the contrariness of the model of reporting. At one point, the police are being praised for protecting the public. But then it is time to blame the police for letting the attacker get so far, where were the armed officers etc? Then it is revealed that the security services once monitored the attacker, so blame starts circling as to why he was not under surveillance. The impossibility of monitoring every possible threat is a view hardly heard in this febrile atmosphere.

Then the question as to what can be done to stop it happening again. The real answer is very little - such attacks are always likely to happen. Unless, we want to totally give in to terrorism, hand over all liberties and accept life under martial law in a police state then it is something that has to be lived with.

There is another narrative to the one adopted by the media in this case, namely that such an attack was inevitable. It was surprising that it did not happen sooner. London has escaped lightly, compared to other places like Paris and Brussels, where there has been a much bigger loss of life.

This narrative continues that the police handled the situation well, with a number of officers showing immense bravery. The public reacted well, not panicking and showing much courage in many cases. There is no need to take draconian measures.

A big question that remains is why has the oxygen of publicity been so liberally provided for these terrorists? Given that the Westminster attack came in the same week that Sinn Fein leader Martin McGuiness died, it seems apt to reflect on how during the years of the Troubles, he and other Republican leaders were silenced. Their words were spoken by actors in an attempt to deny the oxygen of publicity. Also, in those days, there were bombs going off across London. Remember, in 1979, the Irish National Liberation Army blew up the car carrying Airey Neave right in the Palace Yard at Westminster. In 1993, there was the Bishopsgate bomb. In those days, the attitude was very much that people continued going about their daily business – they were not going to be cowered. Bomb attacks that dwarfed incidents like the Westminster attack were routinely played down not amplified in the national media.

So why the change? The approach seems to have gone to the opposite extreme. The world of 24 hour news has no doubt played a part. The need to fill schedules did not exist in the 1970, 80s and 90s. The need for something to be happening all the time when it clearly isn’t. The febrile approach that then results.

There is no sense of proportion in the coverage today. In terms of numbers, had four people (discount the attacker, who was the fifth) died in a road  accident on the M11, it would have hardly got a mention on the national news, let alone the blanket coverage of the Westminster attack.

More people die every year due to road traffic incidents than terrorism. There is a most disdainful hierarchy of death operating in the media, whereby a life lost due to terrorism seems to have a far higher public value than lives lost in other ways.

What are the media trying to achieve with the present way of covering terrorist incidents? Guardian and Evening Standard columnist Peter Jenkins accused the BBC in particular of aiding the terrorists by the blanket coverage they gave to the Westminster attack. He recalled the more downbeat approach of the days of the war with the IRA. He certainly has a point, the level of coverage given to the Westminster attack gave huge publicity to the terrorists.

A number of media outlets seemed to glory in the moment, trying to make the attack out to be something much greater than it was. The desire to scare people in order to bring in new measures or just impact? It certainly says something when you see senior politicians and policemen effectively calling for calm and defending the liberties that remain.

What the Westminster attack should cause is a time for some serious reflection as to how media outlets in the UK treat such stories. The media is there to educate and inform on these occasions, not entertain. A greater focus on facts and the projection of calmness rather than hysteria would help greatly. People need reassurance in such instances not hysterical posturing. And in terms of countering terrorism, giving such incidents a disproportionate level of coverage does help the terrorists but does nothing to reduce the threat.

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