Did Press Get It Right Over Westminster Terror Attack Coverage?


As the immediacy of the Westminster terrorist attack starts to fade, and before we get entirely preoccupied with the forthcoming election, I wonder if an opportunity has been taken to reflect on how the fast-moving and deeply disturbing events of 23 March were covered by the media, and the press in particular.

I am clearly not alone in this.  The Guardian’s Vicky Frost wrote round to all of that newspaper’s “members” to solicit views.  As she rightly  wrote:  “Lots of things have to happen very quickly: we need to understand what’s happening and blog it live; monitor sources, competitors and social media to see what new facts are emerging; get reporters on the ground … begin assessing pictures and video as they come in; and of course decide what we should include in our coverage.”

Asking your readers if they thought your editorial decision making was correct is a welcome dollop of humility in a world of amour-propre.  It is also an explicit recognition of the power, still, in newspapers to set the news agenda rather than simply report on it.

The Guardian was following its own Simon Jenkins, who wrote on the morning after the attack that media hype had exaggerated the event to such an extent that they had become “an accomplice after the fact” and in effect constituted “an open invitation to every crazed malcontent to try it again.”

There is a historical resonance to this starving of the oxygen of publicity, as a former PM said about the IRA leadership.  The apartheid regime in South Arica used to simply ban references to/by people they didn’t like.

To be clear, Jenkins was not advocating state censorship, but he was calling for much greater self-restraint and a higher calibre of editorial control than currently exits. So was he right?  How should Guardian readers reply to Vicky Frost’s invitation?

I think that there are four areas of debate.

First, the exaggerated over-exposure.

I simply don’t agree.  There was no glamorisation.  This was a major news story.  It was a shock but surely not a surprise. And the shock-waves rippled far and wide. We can’t pretend it didn’t happen or it was somehow routine.

And in  this age of instant digital, multi-platform news,  in a physical space where these is a huge concentration of  journalists and  individuals  who are intensely media-savvy,  you have  perfect, potent combination  of  an arresting news story,  lots of news space to fill,  and lots of people who are adept at filling it.

Second, publishing pictures of people in distress

The decision to publish was proportionate.  We should be slow to hide the grief, destruction and violence of terrorism and the response (sometimes heroic) to it.

Third, publishing a picture of the attacker either dead or near-death

This is the trickiest one.  It is an exciting image which was widely circulated.  I suppose one argument is whether or not he had any legitimate expectation of privacy.  This generally disappears when one starts murdering passers-by and police officers.

Another argument would be the clear ethic identity of the attacker.  But was revealing this pejorative or discriminatory?  I don’t think so.

Fourth, why so much overage of what happened in Westminster, when events in the UK or abroad of equal or greater gravity are marginalised.  I refer you back to my first point.   And newspapers are almost universally preoccupied with what is happening closest to home.

So in a nutshell, I think the Guardian got it right, and Simon Jenkins’ argument is well and sincerely made but has no traction in this specific situation.

But there is no doubt that our self-regulated newspaper industry needs to raise its game. Desperately. To deliberately mislead or allow a partisan editorial stance to infuse news coverage is one thing – and partly actionable under the Editor’s Code – but entrenched xenophobia, racism and sexism is profoundly unhelpful was well as ethically wrong and potentially illegal.  We are scarily not so far from the infamous “Hurrah for the Blackshirts” headline and article, and the more recent “remoaners and sabboteurs” splash looks disturbingly like an invitation to lynch-mobbery.

We all need to be very careful indeed what we wish for.

Trump’s Travel Ban is a Revolution in Action (so what do we do?)

(photocredit: Jack Taylor/Getty Images)


President Trump’s travel ban is clearly controversial – but I would argue it is also revolutionary. Here’s why.

The ban is a triumph of belief over fact.  The seven “proscribed” countries omit those which have harboured or generated the most murderous of foreign nationals to have assaulted the US and its citizens – like Saudi Arabia.

If we look to the stated aim of keeping America safe, the greatest threat to US citizens in the US is not any foreign national but their own fellow citizens – Over 1000 deaths due to home-grown gun crime for each life lost to terrorism.

And the blanket ban on all refugees is a strikingly obdurate, almost paranoid act against some of the most vulnerable people on the planet, which has unsurprisingly been termed “un-American.”   It may only be 90 days (initially) but that is absolute purgatory if your life is hanging by a thread on a day-to-day basis.

Hang on though – we might not like it but to “dump Trump” is to overturn democracy. Right?

Wrong.  It is easy to see how the office and person of the President is being confused with the policies of his administration.  There certainly should be a distinction between the two.  But the personal responsibility and accountability that Mr Trump has taken for the leadership of his administration makes it difficult to disentangle this.  Nevertheless, if he suddenly comes to his senses and changes tack,   I would happily welcome him round for a cup of tea. (I’ve not put the kettle on just yet though).

“Ok,” you say, “even  if it is legitimate to “dump Trump”, all he is doing is honouring an election pledge?”

I would make two points here: First, what you say to gain power is not what you do to keep power.  Thank you Machiavelli for distilling that universal truth. Second, whatever you may want to do, in the US there is the small matter of the Constitution.

And this is where it gets even more disturbing.  The Attorney General, arguably the  most senior, learned and respected custodian of constitutional wisdom outside of the US Supreme Court, says “Hold on – really not sure about this.”  And the President sacks her.  And the White House describes her act as one of “betrayal”.   Breitbart really has got its feet under the Presidential table, hasn’t it? Disagreement will be not tolerated and vilified.

Three concluding points:  Where is all this going to go? What has all this got to do with us in the UK? And what on earth do we do about it?

The President’s apparent desire to not just “drain the swamp” but to throw every baby in reach out with the bathwater is unlikely to deliver what his supporters want – jobs and security. The instability that his administration is both reacting to and furthering   is not constructive.

So Trump may not see out his term.  Then we have Vice-President Pence.  The US has a history of conservative VPs becoming progressive part-term Presidents (step forward LBJ).  But Pence’s election statements are just as worrying, in many ways, as his boss’s.  It doesn’t look good, but Congressional elections in 2018 will be an early indicator either way.

What’s it to do with us?  Well it’s a global world.  We didn’t have a vote, but the US administration affects us all deeply.  We have a right to say clearly “Not in our name” and “No state visit”. And we certainly need to choose our friends and trading partners with great care as we plan for Brexit Britain. As the Observer said last weekend on a possible US-UK deal last weekend – Trump doesn’t want free trade, he wants a free ride.  Disturbingly it sounds like some senior UK ministers would be happy to accommodate him.

And then finally, what on earth to we – as honest, decent, caring compassionate, democratic civilised British citizens?

We have a great challenge in our own country, the encouragement of intolerance and the schisms in society pre-date Trump’s inauguration.  The “serenity prayer” (non-religious version)  is never far from my mind. There are many things we cannot control, but some things we surely can:  How we chose to live our lives, the values we display as we go about our daily business. Courtesy, respect, compassion. Being inclusive, treating others as we wold wish to be treated.  These are not platitudes or homilies but the defining characteristics of progressive human society underpinned by one factor: Hope.

A better society starts, as it always has, with us as individuals. I’d say it’s just our human instinct to search and find those “sunlit uplands”  and you can’t change that.

To outgoing US Attorney General Sally Yates we say “thank you”