Londoners have had more than a week now to digest the news. A man ploughed his car into a crowd, killing three people, rammed the gates of Britain’s parliament, then stabbed and killed a policeman before being shot dead himself.
Initially, there was confusion over the facts, leading some journalists and commentators astray. Then came the authorities’ verdict on whether it was or not an act of “terrorism”.
Nothing in the attacker’s personal history – drug abuse, domestic violence, criminal convictions, jail time – seemed to override his identity as a Muslim – he was an adult convert.
Some have opined that the wall-to-wall coverage played into the hands of “terrorists”, while others rallied to signal that London, parliament and the British people would not be “cowed” by an attacker whose “terrorist” links were unproven.
Nevertheless, politicians and the media outlets that back them have called for more powers to watch, intrude, and further “securitise” the daily lives of Britons.
The story as it plays out in the media is a familiar one, and in some ways tells us more about the news outlets involved – their tendencies, allegiances and shortcomings – than it tells us about the attacker himself.
“What we knew immediately after the attack happened was that the attacker was a person of colour and that they had attacked Westminster. That was all we really knew, but already a narrative formed around that,” says columnist Maya Goodfellow from Media Diversified.
Then there were the political voices on the airwaves, such as Nigel Farage, the ex-leader of the UK Independence Party who is well-known for his anti-immigrant views. He blamed slack border controls which made zero sense, since the perpetrator was not an immigrant. He was British, and like Farage, born in the UK.
“People will pick out the motivation that actually fits the agenda and the political point that they want to make, rather than looking at the causes and the person as a whole,” says journalist Rachel Shabi.
One of the most pointed critiques of the media coverage’s amount and tone read like this: “It is not the act that spreads terror, it is the report, the broadcast, the edited presentation, the decision on prominence”. And that came from Guardian columnist Simon Jenkins, whose view was not universally shared.
Right-wing papers in the UK, such as the Daily Mail and the Sun, did their part, echoing, without challenging, government officials calling for tougher security measures.
The perpetrator was reportedly phone messaging via Whatsapp just minutes before the attack. Amber Rudd, the minister responsible for domestic safety, later said encrypted services like Whatsapp provide “terrorists” with “a place to hide” and that the security services need access to people’s private messages.
“We need to ensure that our intelligence services have access to situations like encrypted WhatsApp,” she told the BBC:
The Sun echoed that line too, even though there is not a shred of evidence that the attacker had conspired with anyone, let alone over Whatsapp.
“When the home secretary blames Whatsapp, and then the Sun newspaper joins in, and then the Daily Mail starts saying, ‘well, it’s Google, it’s all the fault of Google’. These are very simplistic explanations for things that are not simple,” says Shabi.
“But the responsibility of politicians and the media now is to say, ‘you need to engage with complexity’, and instead of doing that, they’re pandering and feeding this kind of simplistic narrative, which is not going to get us anywhere.”
Maya Goodfellow, columnist, media diversified
Rachel Shabi, journalist and author
Thomas Hughes, executive director, Article 19
Tahir Abbas, senior research fellow, Royal United Services Institute
Source: Al Jazeera News