The attack on the soldier on the streets of South East London was truly terrible.
The two men who carried out the attack coveted one thing: the oxygen of publicity for their cause. And boy, did they get it. Today’s papers are entirely dominated by sensationalist headlines and language that does nothing to encourage calm consideration of the causes of the crime and how we work to prevent this happening again. The natural response to an incident of this nature is to think of the perpetrators as ‘monsters’ and ‘butchers’, but our national newspapers referring to them in such terms only serves to heighten emotions at a time when sobriety is required. Editors and journalists, however, know we will be kept hooked to our screens, and so they play into the hands of the perpetrators, inciting anger and providing terrorist networks with dynamite for their recruitment campaigns.
It calls to mind the 9/11 Twin Tower attacks – that world changing event where Al Qaeda demonstrated their terrible mastery of the media by carrying out an attack that not only caused death and destruction on a massive scale, but also, by destroying the symbol of US Capitalism, presented a shockingly simple visual representation of their attack on the ‘Western’ way of life. In the aftermath, as the US-led retaliation built up, various news media reported on “The Propaganda Battle”, even using this term.
A few years ago, I invited a former military information officer into the agency to talk about the influence of digital media in the so-called ‘War on Terror’. He explained the central position social networks play in the recruitment of terrorists, positing that, in the battle for the hearts and minds of Muslims, once a person is introduced to a radical group, media is used as an indoctrination tool. The internet is well-suited to publicity of any kind, and terrorists have long been using it to promote their goals. Terrorism is an example of asymmetric conflict, in which the terrorist organization is the weaker party. Terrorists, as small sub-state actors, have less power than the nation-states that they are fighting against, which forces them to use unorthodox means to achieve their goals. But the increasing reach and accessibility of the media has given them an extraordinary powerful megaphone. They don’t need huge financial resources or masses of people. They simply require the will to carry out acts of cruelty that defy normal human experience, creating narratives that we are compelled to relay.
It is disappointing that, even in the aftermath of Leveson, editors are demonstrating so little care in how they report. The mainstream media still plays the crucial role in defining the public opinion that is amplified on social media. There are times when the pursuit of an easy buck must be set to one side. With the EDL on the streets and mosques under attack, what we need now is not the sordid satisfactions of inflammatory headlines. Our media has the chance to foster dialogue and prompt a compassionate response to the incident. They must seize the opportunity to prove the central role they can play in a healthy democracy.