Sunday, 24 July 2011

Norway massacres expose media shortcomings

After all the mobile telephone hacking coverage over the last month, the media really need no more calamities. Newspapers in particular need to show level-headed awareness of the public’s mistrust, show they are responsible and get it right.
So what happens when a major news story comes along to divert us all from the navel-gazing, self-destructive hacking coverage? The media make a complete lash up.
The Norwegian bomb and shooting tragedy not only exposed the limitations of newspaper deadlines, it also exposed the degree to which speculation and downright guesses have replaced real news coverage. But worst of all it highlighted Islam-phobia of the crudest kind.
The worst performance came from the Sun, just the publication which had the most to gain from showing restraint in the wake of the News International scandal. Their headline on Saturday was Norway’s 9/11. It wasn’t September 11th, or even November 9th. There were not 3,000 dead. No plane flew into a building.
But of course the message they wanted to portray was that Muslim terrorists had struck in Europe. In this respect the Sun was no worse than the BBC who for hours on Friday afternoon and evening was parading expert after expert to say the bomb attack showed all the signs of Al-Quaeda.
Then when the shootings on Utoya became apparent, we were all reminded of Mumbai. There was much speculation about the attacks being Libyan revenge on the Norwegians for that country’s support of the rebels trying to overthrow General Gaddafi. This all turned out to be nonsense, as we now know.
It wasn’t that late on Friday night that it started to dawn on everyone that the man responsible for the two massacres was a lone, Nordic-looking man in a police uniform. But that didn’t stop the Northern Editions of the National newspapers getting it horribly wrong on Saturday morning, by which time their readers knew the awful truth.
The BBC spent most of Saturday trying to repair the damage to its credibility, with justified examination of Anders Behring Breivik’s Christian fundamentalism and right-wing views.
Fundamental Christians is not a phrase that crops up often in media coverage of terrorism, in marked contrast to the phrase fundamental Muslims.
I have had many challenging discussions with Muslim friends over the years about the way the Media seizes upon the fact that terrorists are labelled with the Islamic soubriquet.
“Why does the media always revel in calling terrorists Muslim when most followers of the religion are decent, law abiding citizens who find terrorism abhorrent?” they ask. It is a hard question to answer, especially when Irish terrorists were rarely labelled Catholic or Protestant, or Christian for that matter.
So when Sunday’s newspapers came out it was interesting to see how the newspapers would approach the story now they had the whole picture.
Well Norway’s disaster was displaced as the lead by Amy Winehouse’s death or Daniella Westbrook’s newly found Christian beliefs. The comprehensive coverage of the events of Oslo and Utoya was largely taken up with detailed descriptions to show the full horror of the events.
But there was very little examination of Breivik’s motives and background. The Guardian web-site was a notable exception, going for a line about his links with British right wing groups, the obvious follow-up in my view. But even they down-played the Christian angle.
The media was probably right not to labour his Christian beliefs, as no right-minded follower of the teachings of Jesus Christ would do what Breivik did, just as most Muslims would be horrified by the actions of fundamental terrorism by people who follow their religion.
It is no wonder so many young Muslims feel alienated by the British media. Let’s hope the headline writers remember Norway’s example when the next outrage is executed by a mentally-deranged loner or small group. I wouldn’t bet on it though.

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