Thursday, 23 May 2013

Atrocity reporting - a difficult balancing act


After yesterday's horrendous killing of a British soldier on a Woolwich street, it's more and more important to analyse our responses; to watch our words; and to exercise restraint and caution in our words and judgements. The family of the dead will be distraught; there will be commentaries and theories of all sorts flying around; nasty fringe groups will be trying to make political capital out of the tragedy.

So it was probably a mistake for the Sun to splash this morning with 'Muslim Fanatics' as its sub-headline, and the Daily Mail (above) to try to lever in the word 'suburban' in its front page coverage. Since when, exactly, has Woolwich been 'suburban'? Both phrases give away rather more, perhaps, of the latent fears and terrors among their staffs than those running amidst the general public, and may generate just that sense of hysteria that the perpetrators desired.

Still. It's difficult to get a handle on these things in the heat of the moment, especially in a crowded and a caffeinated newsroom when events are unfolding just as rapidly as last night's printers wanted to get to work. So we should, perhaps, on this occasion, not be too judgemental. Most of the papers went with fairly sober readings. 'Soldier hacked to death' doesn't seem to have been too far from the truth in The Times; 'Terror returns to Britain' was pretty restrained on the front page of The Independent's shorter stable-mate, the i. London's own Evening Standard has been pushing a message of unity and defiance today, echoing some of the Prime Minister's comments on the risk of social, ethnic or religious divisions.

It'd be easy on these occasions for a jaundiced observer to say 'pah, the papers never put Afro-Caribbean or Asian victims of racial violence on the front page'. There's just been a potentially racist killing of an elderly Asian man in Birmingham, and there wasn't much national coverage at all.

But there are more structural than racial elements to the different types of coverage. The Woolwich killings were committed in broad daylight, by two men who hung around, bloodied hands raised, to make their 'views' clear. They are explicitly and immediately linked to politics, rather than arising out of any more murky sea of as-yet unkown motives; they are a frightening new departure in an ongoing conflict that has been with us for some years already, and shows no signs of abating immediately; they will lead to questions being asked about police and security service readiness; and they touch a deep vein of affection and loyalty for the armed forces, evident among all sorts of Britons, and so vividly evoked by the Help for Heroes campaign. Looking back at the history of these things, we can observe similar trends in coverage of the 1982 Hyde Park bombings, or indeed the events of 7/7 in 2005.

So some of our newspapers might have gone over the top, deploying language and images that would have been better left on the shelf. No fan of some of these newspapers, 'Public Policy and the Past' thinks that was a mistake - though on this occasion, a rather more understandable one than others.

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