The Backlash


The horrific fallout from a horrific murder

This in part stems from Sam Ambreen’s hard-hitting blogpost on the backlash following the Woolwich murder – which gives an insight of what is going through the minds of us who are visibly ‘Non-White’. (For want of another term).

I was sitting in the council chamber of Cambridge City Council, with Puffles & Chris Havergal of the Cambridge Evening News sharing the table as we live-tweeted proceedings. It was then that I picked up the first reports of the violent murder of Drummer Lee Rigby in Woolwich. At the time no one knew any information of either the victim or perpetrators. But tweets – texts first then the first pictures started hitting Twitter & it was clear that this was very serious. Hence putting a tweet out with a trigger warning on the hash tag because of the graphic nature of both tweets and content.

As always in such cases, our thoughts are with Drummer Rigby’s family. None of us would have wished this on a fellow human being. At the same time, parts of the mainstream media seemed to behave in a manner that demonstrated their concerns were more with the ‘scoop’ than consideration for the victim’s family.

Television vs The Internet

A number of journalists engaged in the debate as to whether TV news channels were correct in their decisions to screen some of the footage gained from members of the public using smartphones. Some chose to, some refused. Strong cases were made from both sides – this was one that split the opinion of a number of very experienced journalists. Put it this way, if it was a relative of mine that had been the victim, I’d have been outraged at any TV Channel showing the blood-soaked hands of the attacker speaking to the camera. Others argued the opposite – from a strong viewpoint too. Just because the news is bad does not mean journalists and broadcasters should hide away from it. During the First World War there was huge censorship – so much so that the disaster that was the Battle of the Somme was not widely reported until some time afterwards. Going on a major military offensive is one thing, taking 60,000 casualties with 20,000 dead on the first day of fighting is quite another. Only 50 parishes across the country did not lose someone to that awful conflict.

The blurring of the lines between TV and internet, and the impact of social and digital media means that TV news channels are increasingly sourcing their content from the internet. Such is the pressure to be ‘first’ that the time frame for moral, legal and ethical considerations are squeezed into unrealistically small time-frames. You need time to think through these things. Hence why social media users are getting caught out more and more: Twitter/micro-blogging by its very nature makes the typing and posting very quick & simple, perhaps making it instinctively harder to think through the considerations in a way that you would say a blogpost like this.

There’s also the issue of “Well it’s up on the internet so we may as well report it” point of view. This has come into conflict with things like contempt of court and the naming of those whose identities have been protected by court orders. How do you resolve that conflict?

Sensationalising the events

This has been one of the most disturbing factors for me. It’s almost as Russell Howard spoofed a few years ago:

“Don’t go outside! It’s full of mad machete moozzies and brown bearded baddies and, oh! If only Churchill were here!!!”

Which was in complete contrast to the three ladies who were widely praised: Ingrid Loyau-Kennett, who engaged in conversation with the attackers (and quite possibly saved further lives with the time delay) along with Amanda and Gemini Donnelly who comforted the dying victim. It was in that context I mentioned their consideration for bravery or gallantry awards: where you feel the extreme danger but overcome the fear to do what you have to. (Concepts very different to ‘fearlessness’ – where you don’t feel the fear therefore have far less emotionally to overcome).

In a world where much of the media – mainstream and social – seemed to be losing a sense of calm, those three ladies kept theirs.

Of the video-footage of the police response, I chose not to watch it. Not because of a sense of moral superiority, I’m just not very good with violence, real or acted. Hence not liking bloddy violent films as a personal preference. Yet the way the police response was being spun was as if it was something out of an all-action-hero film. The difference between all-action-hero films is that you know the good guy doesn’t die. Police officers who have to attend all sorts of emergencies genuinely don’t know what situation they are going to face. That doesn’t mean they should be given a free hand, nor does it mean they should not be scrutinised. My point is that this is for real – and in the real world it ain’t no fairy tale. (Would the mainstream media have shown that footage if any of those police officers responding had been killed?)

Containing society’s backlash against itself

Because that’s what seems to be happening at the moment. The frightening thing about this is the geographical spread. People are understandably angry about the senseless murder of an innocent man. It’s not just the text, but the visual and audio that has had a potentially huge impact on raising people’s anger. There are now a lot of people who are either very angry, very afraid, or both. When emotions run that high, calm, thoughtful and rational decision-making is often lost. How many of you have seen reactions on social media from people you know or once knew, that you found offensive, hateful or inciting violence? People are already being arrested for such posts. You then have the street demonstrations by extremist groups, attacks on places of worship and general street harassment.

Code-word for racism?

This is where I come back to Sam Ambreen’s post – and why I’m angry at Nick Robinson’s  journalism failure – which he subsequently apologised for. In the case of Robinson, his failure was to run with the quotation rather than to interrogate the source – the latter of which should have been instinctive from his training as a journalist.

Robinson’s failure exposes a wider prejudice: the idea that you can judge someone’s religion by the colour of their skin. Once you get into that territory, you get into scenarios that cost Jean Charles de Menezes his life following 7/7 – one where I learnt a harsh lesson too with online message boards, questioning initially why he had run away from the police rather than why the police decided to shoot someone in a crowded tube station.   Hence the importance of scrutinising and interrogating what the police say to the media and the public.

In a climate where there is a lot of anger and fear, people’s judgement is inevitably impaired – especially when inflamed by a media wanting to sell more papers or gain more viewers. Do news channels really need to be giving oxygen of airtime to hate-preachers? (Especially when interviewers on the whole are extremely poor at pinning them down). At least have an interviewer who is more than familiar with the theology and is a better communicator too. Even a simple reference to this ruling on terrorism from 2010 (the full version here) would help.

The mindset can feel somewhat like a Monty Python-style witch scene if it wasn’t so serious. Just replace “witch” with “terrorist”. “How do you know he’s a terrorist?” “He looks like one!…OK…we did do the false beard…and the hat…but he’s still a terrorist!”

Just for the record, not everyone in the media is calling this a terrorist attack – as explained by Fleet Street Fox.

Why law and justice must prevail

Because what are we as a society without them?

What we don’t know at the moment is what any court cases and inquests might uncover that at present we do not know. What will the evidence tell us? Just as importantly for politicians, what lessons will they learn from this and how will this impact on policy (if at all)?

There are many wider issues that stem from this – woven in a very complex and complicated web that is extremely difficult to unpick. What’s ruled in and what’s ruled out will be crucial. I’m not talking just about things like foreign policy military mis-adventures in the Middle East such as the various wars, or the polarisation of communities in parts of England. It’s about asking more deeper, difficult questions – ones that politicians and some of their paymasters may not want to ask. I’ll have a look at a few of these in a future blogpost.


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