Friday, 29 July 2011

Oslo atrocity should carry lessons for the media too

Firstly, the thoughts of all of us must go to the victims' friends and families. All respect to the Norwegians for the dignified way they've responded to what must be unprecedented in their history, on their soil at least. But it's the media response, as usual, that I wanted to comment on.

Firstly, our own expectations. After it became clear that this was not a Muslim fundamentalist attack, of which more in a moment, but a Norwegian killing Norwegians, I don't know about you, but I had an expectation of some shaven-headed, boggle-eyed hard case, covered in tattoos and looking the living embodiment of violent fury waiting to pop. What emerged, initially at least, was a faintly pleasant looking, seemingly ordinary kid, smiling back at the camera. Later, the press got hold of shots of him which better suited their imperatives - namely of him holding an automatic weapon - and we got the shots we probably subconsciously expected of him. Once again, the question occurs - did the press print the type of thing the public wanted, driven and encouraged by sales when they've done so in the past, or do they do this regardless, foisting a sensationalist agenda on us whether we like it or not?

Anyway. Whatever mad, unspeakable motives drove such appalling acts, it seems the press had made up their minds what was going on almost instantly, and certainly before the truth started to emerge. Al Qaeda, or some other agent, were certainly to blame. 'Helpers of Islamic Jihad' came up too, allegedly claiming responsibility. News media all over the world were quick to link the attacks to Norway's part in NATO operations in Afghanistan, for example.

I know it could be argued that the media merely observe what's going on and announce it as it happens, so had every right to report the Helpers' claim of responsibility for the attacks. But the fact is that Al Qaeda are now a very convenient bogey man that the press can hang the blame for pretty much anything on while they wait for the truth, or something more exciting, to come out. In the desperate rush to be first with the news, consideration seems to be sacrificed cheerfully. It's clear that atrocities are now being practised on both sides of this extremely ugly coin, by both Muslim extremists and anti-Muslim right-wing extremists. But matters are not being helpd by the fact that, by the strictly dictionary definition of terrorism, the noun at least, the press are fighting for both sides. Scaring people, making them think that Islamic terrorists are everywhere, can strike anywhere at any moment, is merely building them up stronger than they actually are, and doing one aspect of their work for them. Now we've got this apparently lone nutter being linked with the EDL in England. Giving that lot any credibility as a terrorist force is the very last thing we need in a country, and even a continent, already in the grip of the kind of hysterical reaction which inevitably follows such events.

It seems this sort of immoderate, reactionary, sensationalist stuff is far from unique to Britain, looking round at some of the world's press reacting in the first few hours after the attack. Perhaps, just perhaps, if the media took a more considered view of these things, and reported the facts once they'd come out rather than desperately scrambling to get any tosh out there first, the increasingly bitter divisions which are reaving even the most stable societies like Norway may have just a little bit less fire in them.

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