The attack at Westminster Houses of Parliament on Wednesday has undoubtedly been the biggest news story of the past few days.
It was a frightening and ultimately tragic incident, and the nature of modern media, where news outlets fight for attention on a minute-by-minute basis, means we were always going to hear a lot about it. However, what purpose the amount of media coverage it has received actually serves, and whether or not the attention it gives to those behind it is harmful, is less clear.
I happened to be on holiday in London last week, as I have been many times before, and although this doesn’t give me anywhere near the emotional involvement in this story that Londoners themselves will feel, I have wondered: if I was to return to London in the next few days, would I feel any less safe in light of Wednesday’s incident?
The answer is no. I walked past Westminster Houses of Parliament a few days ago, just as I walked past many of London’s most iconic buildings, and I will feel no less safe doing so the next time. I don’t mean this as a brave or even proud statement. It’s simply that despite what the constant coverage, and tone of certain media outlets might suggest, I don’t believe that on Wednesday afternoon London was a city under attack. Rather, it was the location of a crime, which although serious, was in no way unprecedented.
As such, the media coverage it has received had felt overly intense, and has left me wondering a second thing: who is this helping?
On Wednesday afternoon, as it was reported that a policeman had been stabbed outside the houses of parliament, the first few bulletins of breaking news were as attention grabbing and frightening as any directly related to the UK in a long time. Yet as time passed, the news seemed to stop. The attacker had been quickly shot, and although sadly several people had died, there wasn’t an unfolding narrative of threatening events.
The media however, focused on the story as though there were. For hours, minutes’ worth of news updates were played almost on a loop. In the days since, websites have devoted their homepages to the ‘Westminster attack’, and flooded us with articles, live updates, timelines and opinion pieces.
Of course, some of this is necessary. It’s the biggest story of the last few days, will likely go down as one of the biggest stories of the year, and lots of things deserve to be talked about in light of it. Those who died should be mourned, and the police and emergency services that ensured the incident was contained should be publicly commended. However, this is not how it has generally been approached. Instead, the media has focused on the incident as an act of terrorism.
Speaking to Newsnight about the media’s actions, journalist and author Simon Jenkins said:
There is a choice, and the BBC today has made one. They’ve opted, if I may say so, with the terrorist. No one’s suggesting you ignore it…[but] the prominence given to them now is aiding and abetting terrorism.
This [attack] happens to have taken place at parliament, which is indeed serious, and people have died…it should be publicised, [but that’s] quite different to describing it with this tremendous clutter of politics and Islam and religion. It’s quite wrong…terrorism is just a method of publicity [and] we’re the ones that give them publicity.
This is when such intense coverage by the media can be viewed as dangerous. Terrorism is the use of violence and intimidation, especially against civilians, in the pursuit of political aims. It is a two-part process: an act, and then the attention that act receive which allows it to have a social and political impact. That the publicity is more important than the act itself can be seen by the fact that terrorist groups will often take responsibility for something they didn’t do, but will rarely deny something they did. As the police services strive to make the first part of this – the initial violence- as difficult and rare as possible, the media seems to be helping make the second part easy, by politicising and promoting it as much as possible.
On Newsnight, Jenkins later referred to the ISIS attacks in Nice last year, saying, ‘The BBC led on Nice for a week. What did ISIS want the BBC to do? Lead on it for a week.’
It’s true that for media outlets such as the BBC to choose to step away from these stories even slightly would be a major decision. But to concentrate on it, in so much detail is in itself a choice, and to step away from it slightly would not be an act of censorship but simply an editorial decision about what stories they choose to promote.
In this instance, it could well be a sensible one. The attacker in Westminster may have planned for more violence that he caused, but he could hardly have hoped for more media attention than he has already received. By continuing to give so much air-time to these incidents the media only serves to make such actions more appealing to those who may consider them, and risk increasing the chances of more terror attacks.
After all, much of the coverage over the last two days has suggested a weakness that could easily be targeted. Some areas have called it an attack on democracy. Yes, symbolically, based on location alone, Wednesday’s Westminster incident could be interpreted as an attack on British democracy, but choosing to look at it in this way is a dangerous and unnecessary leap. It suggests vulnerability, and potentially offers encouragement for further attacks.
A much more positive, but equally viable angle is to look on it as an attempted attack which, thanks to the services on hand, failed. Certainly this is the angle that much of the public has taken.
A picture circulated twitter showing a tube sign that read ‘All terrorists are politely reminded that THIS IS LONDON and whatever you do to us we will drink tea and jolly well carry on thank you.’ The image turned out to be a fake, but perhaps this is one example where that’s not important, because it echoes a publicly shared truth.
This typifies how the public has reacted with pride – in London’s emergency services and in the city itself – as much as anything else. The media seems to want us to stop and take notice, and often react with fear, but the public’s message that this attack won’t change London, and indeed won’t change anything, is much more powerful.
People have said they won’t give these attacks, or fear in general, the attention it craves to survive. Instead, without ignoring the heroes that helped suppress the damage, or forgetting those who sadly lost their lives, London will quietly move on, as it has done from bigger threats in the past.
In this process, the media, in what it says, or indeed chooses not to say too loudly, is well placed to lead the way. If it does so, then instead of increasing the impact and appeal of terror attacks, it can echo the sentiments of the British public who say that those attacks simply won’t work.