The Terror News Cycle

Des Freedman

On the BBC’s Today programme yesterday, some nine hours after the horror of the Manchester bombing, Nick Robinson was speaking to Chris Phillips, a counter-terrorism expert. ‘Terrorists don’t care who they kill,’ Phillips said. ‘It’s the number of bodybags that determines success.’ ‘And the publicity,’ Robinson interjected. ‘And the publicity,’ Phillips agreed. The Today programme then dutifully devoted its entire three hours of programming to coverage of the bombing (apart from a few minutes on weather and sport). This was before the perpetrator had been identified and before the security services had been able to assess whether or not the attack was an isolated incident. Coverage mostly consisted of commentators speculating on motives, along with a series of harrowing eyewitness accounts that helped to amplify the main objectives of terrorism: to create fear and to sow division.

This was followed by the next stage of the terror news cycle: journalists searching for victims, gathering outside hospitals and, in the case of one Telegraph reporter, putting business cards through doors in the hope of securing a statement from a man who was yet to find out whether his brother was still alive.

This doesn’t speak to the behaviour of all journalists and all news outlets, some of whom have focused not on speculation but on concrete acts of solidarity in response to the bombing and the tremendous rally on Tuesday evening in Manchester. But the media’s appetite for content is bound to overwhelm their more sober instincts to avoid intrusion and respect the need for privacy. In a news system desperate for attention and committed to scoops, sensitive reporting is a luxury that few can afford.

There are also papers and commentators who lose no time in using atrocities to whip up anger and to identify potential scapegoats. The Sun, for example, ran a leader the morning after the bombing that claimed ‘innocent people were murdered specifically because Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell sucked up to the IRA.’

Katie Hopkins tweeted in response to the Manchester attack that ‘We need a final solution,’ then wrote a piece in the Mail in which she mocked calls for unity and belittled the many acts of kindness that followed the bombing.

Allison Pearson said on Twitter that we need to introduce a state of emergency and intern ‘thousands of terrorist suspects’. In the Telegraph she called for ‘drastic action’ to protect children and to ‘tackle the alarming apartheid in our midst. Most Muslims,’ she wrote, ‘are decent, law-abiding people, but they need to have a bigger stake in the nation in which they live.’

We are often told to ignore ‘extreme’ voices – to dismiss them as unrepresentative – but, given their prominence in leading newspapers, where is the line between ‘extreme’ and ‘mainstream’ political discourse?

It’s worth asking what the point is of 24/7 reporting of terror attacks. Is it to provide blanket coverage of despair and horror, which is what the attackers are said to want? Is it to construct a ‘national sentiment’, to lay the basis for further securitisation? Or should it be to provide explanation – or at least some degree of context – to help people understand the political circumstances in which terror thrives?

This last is the approach that is largely missing from the deluge of coverage, and is often dismissed as somehow apologising for acts of terror. But without a recognition of geopolitical dynamics and recent Western military intervention overseas, terror attacks come to be seen as entirely mysterious, spectral events. To acknowledge their connections to global events is in no way to condone the atrocities.

What are we to make of the fact that Salman Abedi, who has been named as the Manchester bomber, was of Libyan descent (though a UK national) and had just returned from Libya? ‘Libya has become a failed state,’ the BBC’s security correspondent Frank Gardner declared on the Today programme after the bombing, as if this were an inexplicable and mysterious process, with no reference to the West’s disastrous intervention in the country.

What are we to make of the fact that the BBC’s leading news programmes dedicated only 63 seconds, out of nearly 13 hours of broadcasting following the terror attacks in Paris in November 2015, to the ‘blowback’ thesis, the idea that there is a connection between Western intervention and the growth of groups such as Islamic State? The thesis is hardly the invention of left-wing conspirators; its adherents include the UK’s Joint Intelligence Committee and Eliza Manningham-Buller, the former head of MI5.

None of this is to argue that journalists should avoid reporting on terror attacks. But knee-jerk responses that intensify public fear do nothing to contribute to our ability to combat terrorism and, indeed, satisfy the objectives of those who detonate the bombs.

We would all benefit from a slower journalism that didn’t resort to tired stereotypes and sought to expand, not to contaminate, our understanding of a violent world. The trouble is that there is neither the business model nor the political will to foster such an approach.


  • 24 May 2017 at 3:21pm
    James Alexander says:
    Very well said.

  • 24 May 2017 at 3:43pm
    Dominic Rice says:
    Yes, very good piece. There's also the endless crediting of pathetic lost souls with being existential threats to "our democracy", "western values", "western civilisation", et al. Hardly a delusion it's well-advised to foster among like spirits.
    But what is strictly taboo amid the 24/7 babble, shouted down any time it's mentioned, is the fact that Muslims weren't blowing themselves up in Britain before the Iraq war and its creation of Isis..

    • 25 May 2017 at 4:26am
      Joe Morison says: @ Dominic Rice
      Except they are causing an existential threat to our democracy and values, because every time there's an attack the government and security services use it a pretext to ramp up state power even further. So yesterday, for example, we saw the deeply un-British sight of troops on the street - serving no useful function (what can they do that armed police can't to stop a terrorist attack?).

      I like the story that Willie Whitelaw used to tell: when he was Home Secretary and there had been an IRA outrage, Special Branch used to come to him with a piece of paper on it with a list of the new powers they wanted. Whitelaw said "I used to read through it, crumple it up and throw it in the bin, and then say to them 'We wouldn't be much of a country if we got of rid of our ancient liberties just because of a few mad hooligans'. Then they'd look at me and laugh and say 'Well it was worth a try'." Compare this with Blair who after 9/11 proudly announced to the country "We asked the security services what new powers they wanted, and we gave them to them".

      As I understand it, Bin Laden's plan was always that the attacks on the West had two aims: to turn non-Muslims against Muslims, thereby encouraging Muslims to retreat into their identity and thereby become more susceptible to the extremist's message; and to force our governments to so curtail our liberties in the name of security that we lose our faith in our whole democratic system. If it wasn't for the fact that our politicians are so lacking in imagination and courage, I could almost believe the conspiracy theories that say it's deliberate, so exactly do they dance the steps that terrorists want of them.

    • 25 May 2017 at 12:25pm
      whisperit says: @ Joe Morison
      Spot on, Joe Morison

    • 25 May 2017 at 4:44pm
      Dominic Rice says: @ Joe Morison
      Very true. But note how the same media that credits these individuals with being existential threats to to "our democracy and values" make like applauding seals each and every time our liberties are curtailed in the name of security.

  • 24 May 2017 at 4:36pm
    IPFreely says:
    The reporters don't look very hard when it comes to trying to work out the motives of the perpetrators. As Dominic points out Muslims weren't blowing themselves up before the Iraq war, but we need to go back a step further to the first attack on Iraq to get to the roots of the crisis. There is no reason why the papers and tv pundits would not address the grief of the bereaved but when hundreds of women and children in Syria, Yemen and Libya are benign maimed or killed by western attacks there is little sign of an objective balance. I wonder if Trump asked the King of Saudi Arabia is he was dancing in the streets on 11 September 2002? Trump (and Theresa mayn't) illustrate very well just how ludicrous the policy of the west has become.

    • 26 May 2017 at 4:58pm
      streetsj says: @ IPFreely
      Muslims weren't blowing themselves up here before the Iraq war but they were in the US.

    • 28 May 2017 at 10:46am
      manchegauche says: @ streetsj
      Evidence please!

    • 30 May 2017 at 6:57pm
      pacop says: @ manchegauche
      Before 9/11 there was the WTC truck bombing and a lone gunman outside the entrance to CIA HQ, both in the 90s. The equivalent US statement would be Muslims weren't blowing themselves up or shooting people before the CIA created the Mujahideen in Afghanistan and bin Laden with them, and the first Gulf War, which left US troops stationed in Saudi.

  • 25 May 2017 at 10:23am
    Stu Bry says:
    It will be interesting to see how the media examines the links between the UK and the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group which the bomber's father was/is a member of.

  • 25 May 2017 at 10:31am
    Graucho says:
    An aspect of all this that has not been commented on is that this perpetrator and those who committed the 7/7 bombings were all cannabis users. The drug may not turn you into a murderer, but I conjecture that's its use is a necessary, but not sufficient agent to desensitise people to the self destruction and carnage that they are about to commit.

    • 25 May 2017 at 4:26pm
      IPFreely says: @ Graucho
      There have been some interesting studies published recently on the use of drugs by the German armies during the two world wars. In the early stages of the second world war, the troops were issued with the drug that would able them to stay awake for several days and helped repress all fears of death. This was a major factor in allowing the Wehrmacht to cover huge stretches of territory while the opposition was too exhausted to counter-attack. (There was a review in the LRB and I'll see if I can find the reference.) The use of heroin, cocaine and cannabis in the Vietnam conflict is well-documented, used as a means of repressing anxiety and fear.

    • 26 May 2017 at 12:24am
      Torsten says: @ IPFreely
      @IPFreely: I think it was this review:

    • 27 May 2017 at 4:46am
      Joe Morison says: @ Graucho
      The remains of suicide bombers are analysed by pathologists; and if they had all been stoned, we would surely know. But far more to the point is that cannabis would be almost the worst drug possible to take before doing something like that: the adrenaline would make the drug much more potent, and the effects of cannabis are, er, sensitising not the opposite (which is why stoners tend to say things like 'this is, literally, the best ice cream anyone has ever eaten!'; on top of that massive paranoia and the sort of untogetherness that stoners are notorious for. Only LSD would be worse.

    • 28 May 2017 at 10:53am
      manchegauche says: @ Graucho
      I like the "but not sufficient" qualification there. If it was a sufficient criterion, the whole world would be destroyed by now. Really - smoking dope desentises would be terrorists. I think you'll find cannabis is a lurking parameter. Quite a lot of urban young people indulge in it and trying to tie the two things together terror and drugs is just dailyMailerism.

  • 25 May 2017 at 10:54am
    Martha12345 says:
    "I was stoned on pot and thus enabled to blow people up." Hmm. Sounds to me as preposterous as the Twinkie defense...but do provide some evidence as I am all ears.

    • 25 May 2017 at 6:29pm
      Graucho says: @ Martha12345
      I admit such post explosion testimony from suicide bombers is rare.

    • 26 May 2017 at 10:57am
      Martha12345 says: @ Graucho
      I did not refer to suicide bombers. Any actual, reliable evidence from anyone alive to demonstrate that use of cannabis enables terrorists is acceptable. Please supply.

    • 26 May 2017 at 6:02pm
      tfw says: @ Martha12345
      Of interest:the etymology of 'assassin': loosely, 'hashish eater.

    • 27 May 2017 at 5:17am
      Graucho says: @ Martha12345
      Well I did, as the 7/7 bombers and this character all were. Suicides happen, but they are not normal behaviour. "While the balance of his mind was disturbed" is what they put in the verdict. There is no shortage of evidence that disturbing the balance of the mind is what cannabis does in many individuals.

  • 26 May 2017 at 9:05am
    IPFreely says:
    Studies on use of drugs in war:-
    Shooting Up: A History of Drugs in Warfare by Łukasz Kamieński
    Hurst, 381 pp, £25.00, March 2016,
    BUYBlitzed: Drugs In Nazi Germany by Norman Ohler
    Allen Lane, 360 pp, £20.00, October 2016,
    reviewed in LRB Januar 2017

  • 27 May 2017 at 12:16am
    gary morgan says:
    Good piece and a fascinating discussion.
    The initial problem or situation re.24 hour news gets lost somewhat though. There's a sort of Parkinson's Law by which coverage expands to take up all air-time with atrocities like this.
    The situation reminds me of The Sun when John McEnroe was in his 1980 scatological pomp and Private Eye exposed the Sun's hypocrisy by having it "report" a Mac outburst but swearing in so doing ( I hope the joke hasn't entirely escaped me).
    In bombing you catch a definite frisson, part of the reporter CAN'T WAIT to report on wounds, on bodies, cannot forgo the pornography of violence.
    There's more than a little of J G Ballard's 'Crash' about the matter.
    Best wishes to you Mancs
    Gary Morgan

  • 30 May 2017 at 4:43pm
    Alex Morrison says:
    Great article.

    There is an exploitative mindlessness that surrounds the discussion of events like what happened in Manchester last week.

    Two examples:

    + Theresa May describes herself as being at the G7 Summit 'fighting terror'. Really? Fighting?

    + Commentators describe suicide bombers as 'cowardly'. They are, and may be, many things but 'cowardly'?

    In the gaps around words like these bad things happen.

  • 30 May 2017 at 6:01pm
    Matt Andersson says:
    This is a coherent journalistic recommendation, but it is still centered in a non-investigative, non-independent media model. That is, it remains embedded in official state terror narratives, without questioning those fundamental assertions and boundaries. It appears to rather believe that the journalistic function will improve merely by attending the terror belief structure with a vector of sympathy or moral context. That is a reasonable sentiment, but factually erroneous or at least incomplete and remains equally misleading to public readers; in fact it only reinforces or further manipulates the public emotional construct vis-a-vis terrorism. The disequilibrium of Muslim culture is otherwise of a more explicit, structured basis, manifest in the GWOT, or global war on terror, perhaps among the most troubling (as well as expensive, lethal and psychologically oppressive) government programs perpetrated on the general public. It is our modern "Vietnam" yet receives not a peep of protest from college students, or from the university academy. In that regard, as well as media submissiveness, it has attained the status of a dangerous intellectual and emotional assumption; the UK's "Prevent" program among its sociopathic achievements. This makes the Manchester event, for example, subject to emotional, reflexive hysteria, rather than investigative professionalism. Manchester, interestingly, gave away its institutional authorship in the dispute between US and UK intel agencies. That is among the risks of running these programs with such repetitiveness: the agencies become complacent and over-confident and the public eventually discerns design, despite media-state cooperation. Regards.

  • 30 May 2017 at 6:30pm
    DrVanini says:
    Some suicide-bombers may have used various drugs before doing their thing but the mere fact of recent cannabis use (or alcohol, or Captagon - the amphetamine-like stuff popular with all factions in Syria) doesn't mean that the mayhem or suicide wouldn't have happened but for the drug. Kamikaze pilots had only a symbolic sip of saké before their missions and wouldn't have been much good as pilots or navigators if they were drunk. Like the Tamil Tigers who really popularised the idea from the 1980s onwards, they were driven by ideology - in a broad sense - as the Islamist suicide bombers are. Stimulants increase energy and stamina but don't cause the belief in a happy afterlife in Paradise that seems to be a major factor in people like the Manchester and 7/7 bombers. We can probably blame much of that on Christianity, quite a lot of which was absorbed into Islam. Judaism, polytheism and Hellenism paid very little attention to either heaven or its supposed joys. I think Sikhs and Hindus are similar in this respect.

    In customary doses, mood-altering drugs tend to help people do what at least part of them wants to do anyway but the placebo effect is considerable, as shown by numerous studies in which subjects behaved as if intoxicated when they only thought they had ingested a drug. In large and repeated doses, they can make people crazy but the results are then very unpredictable as well as causing physical effects ranging from somnolence and incoordination to tremulousness, none of which are useful in this context.

    Islamist suicide bombers are rather like the 4th C. Donatists who cheerfully killed themselves to get to heaven more quickly. They disappeared after a century or two when suicide was progressively anathematised - a facet of Canon Law that the C of E (but not the Vatican) has only very recently repealed. Islam has no central authority who could threaten suicide bombers with an Islamic equivalent of excommunication. In 1911, Lord Fisher (of the Dreadnoughts) wrote that 'the world has yet to see what the Mohammedan can do when once the holy fervour seizes him'. We're seeing it now, but let's all - including Muslims - stop insisting that it has 'nothing to do with Islam'.

  • 31 May 2017 at 6:41am
    Unanimus says:
    I just want to reinforce the following:
    Libya was the most prosperous country in Africa, and occupied a respectable position social and economically among nations, employing millions of people including western technicians. If the excuse was that the regime was mistreating its citizens…those who killed tens of thousands, displaced millions and created the failed state and the ongoing killings should be brought to the international court of law, to which they didn’t sign, but are very keen to advocate others be brought to, to explain their case.
    The same story was applied to Iraq. Then the most prosperous and cosmopolitan country in the Middle East. For ten years we have been proudly killing Iraqis and there is a lot more for us to proudly kill if they do not go to Iran or somewhere else.
    Syria, we are doing a great job . We are bombing every day and night but we never kill anybody….
    “‘Libya has become a failed state,’ the BBC’s security correspondent Frank Gardner declared on the Today programme after the bombing, as if this were an inexplicable and mysterious process, with no reference to the West’s disastrous intervention in the country.” (Freedman LBR)
    “What are we to make of the fact that the BBC’s leading news programmes dedicated only 63 seconds, out of nearly 13 hours of broadcasting following the terror attacks in Paris in November 2015, to the ‘blowback’ thesis, the idea that there is a connection between Western intervention and the growth of groups such as Islamic State? The thesis is hardly the invention of left-wing conspirators; its adherents include the UK’s Joint Intelligence Committee and Eliza Manningham-Buller, the former head of MI5.”
    What can I say to this? If everyone knows it why don’t they stop?
    The Western population are obviously very ignorant and naïve. Have anybody asked what we are doing for 15 years …FIFTEEN YEARS., 15 F———— YEARS… THINK… the most powerful armies in the world, tens of nations involved, bombardments day and night…against a ghost (I believe often invented ) enemy and or an enemy who are just a bunch of rat tag barefoot misfits, yet we are there for 15 years bombing day and night with the most sophisticate weaponry in the world…and what? Transformed beautiful cities like Bagdad and others into rubble and emptied their gold coffers and museums?
    When there is one stabbing or a bomb killing a few people or “us” heaven and earth come down. But again, How many people are we killing with our bombardments? Do they EVER mention in the news? NOOO! “We never count the enemy’s bodies” said the US commander years ago.
    So we will have to count ours. But the public who are the victims of bombings should also think where the money taken from the Education, health, Housing projects, goes…yes to the Bombings which never kill anybody. The truth is that they will have to kill EVERY Iraqi, because they don’t want ‘us’ there and they don’t want the clowns we put in power there, and that is why the war is never won.
    That suits us fine, because war is a good washing machine for the public money: Government collect taxes, put the money into war, the public money comes clean in our pockets after we sell them a few shells in the form of a bombs, that cost us ‘$10.00’ bucks’, for 75 Million. And the petrol that cost $3.00 a for how much? Uniforms, name it.
    I agree with everything Freedman writes he should add a bit of research on the field of why this is happening.

  • 31 May 2017 at 8:15am
    Roy says:
    I don't know which is more depressing, events like the Manchester atrocity or the pathetic squirming by which the liberal intelligentsia tries to evade the obvious conclusions about its genesis.
    The arrival of ever more muslims into Britain will have disastrous consequences - as if what we see so far isn't disastrous enough.
    I think that all three "great" monotheistic religions are a curse on humanity but one of them is the outright winner in terms of the damage it's currently causing.

  • 31 May 2017 at 8:21am
    Coldish says:
    T.May and the Manchester Brigade

    The following passage is extracted from an article in the Süddeutsche Zeitung (SZ), 30 May 2017 (my translation):

    "According to a spokesman of the Libyan ‘Rada’ militia...Ramadan Abedi (father of the Manchester bomber Salman Abedi) was a member of the militant Islamist ‘Libyan Islamic Fighting Group’ which in the 1990s tried to assassinate the dictator Muammar al-Gaddafi. The Rada militia is currently holding Salman’s father and his younger brother Hashim in custody at the Mitiga airport in Tripoli.
    Ramadan Abedi had to leave Libya in 1991 on account of his Islamistic attitudes and took refuge in Saudi Arabia until 1992 or 1993, when he settled in Britain with his family. Like other Libyan exiles with a similar background he returned to his homeland in 2011 to fight against Gaddafi. His three sons (the bomber Salman, Ismail - currently under arrest in Britain, and Hashim) accompanied him to Tunisia and possibly also to Libya, where he (Ramadan) joined the Tripoli Brigades, which took part in the rebel conquest of the capital. There is a photo of Hashim on the internet, published by his father, showing the son, then apparently aged 15, with an automatic weapon.
    Sources in Tripoli report that the number of Libyan exiles from the Manchester region among the rebels was so high that there was local talk of a ‘Manchester Brigade’. The British inland secret service MI5 is said to have ensured that these people could travel to Libya without hindrance.
    It is possible that this theme will be considered in the planned investigations."

    The above is what journalists P.-A. Krüger and C.Zaschke wrote in the SZ

    British readers should know that MI5 is supervised by the Home Office, whose chief at Cabinet level is the Home Secretary. And who was Home Secretary in 2011? One T.May.

    By its nature, blowback is unforeseen and unexpected. But it happens. Providing a refuge to a bunch of Islamist fighters and sending them to help overthrow a foreign government might have seemed a good idea at the time, but such actions can have unwelcome repercussions.

    Coldish, Munich

  • 31 May 2017 at 10:35am
    XopherO says:
    Why do they do it even though there is lots of evidence it is counterproductive? Well depends on your objectives, doesn't it, whether it is counterproductive? Let's not forget the military-industrial complex. When new weapons are developed, it's not good enough to just test them, they need to be tested under 'real' conditions. Your forces need to be tested under real conditions, all preferably away from your homelands. The more weapons destroyed the more it boosts fresh production, and boosts the economy. Does the CIA really want stability in the Middle East, or instability, particularly where former client states of the USSR are concerned? And the terrorists are exactly what the State needs to exert control, as in Orwell's 1984.

    Of course nuclear weapons remain unused in war since 1945. There will be increased pressure to use them because of the above reasons. It is after all why the US and USSR moved to Flexible Response from Mutual Assured Destruction - if you are going to have a nuclear war, best do it on someone else's territory, and keep it limited, rather than unleash MAD. And which is why Trident without a Flexible Response capacity is useless as a 'deterrent'.

    • 31 May 2017 at 11:05am
      XopherO says: @ XopherO
      I meant to add to the above that it really doesn't make much difference how journalists respond to terrorist attacks - either way they are are playing the 'game' that keeps the wheels turning. It is more than a tragedy that so many hundreds of thousands have had to die overseas, but that is the Western game, to fight 'wars' proxy or otherwise 'somewhere else'.

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