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 there 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.