"My humanity is bound up in yours, for we can only be human together." “When I hear people say politics and religion don't mix, I wonder what Bible they are reading.” (Archbishop Desmond Tutu)

"And what does the Lord require of you but to do justly, and to love kindness and mercy, and to humble yourself and walk humbly with your God?" Micah 6.8

"Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable--if anything is excellent or praiseworthy--think about such things." Philippians 4.19

"Work out your salvation with fear and trembling." Philippians 2.12

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Reflections on media coverage of the Norwegian atrocity

I was on holiday and away from the computer when news hit of the atrocities in and around Oslo. I watched the events unfolding with the same shock and horror as everyone else and followed the editorials in various newspapers and the talking heads on T.V. and radio. The media didn't come out of it very well at all. It seemed to me that significant chunks of the media fell into all the pitfalls I normally associate with the blogosphere as various outlets pandered in the most partisan way to the prejudices of their constituents, throwing out some incredibly ill-informed and dangerous opinion as fact.

In the U.S. on the night of the shootings, Laura Ingham, speaking on Faux News, opined about "two deadly terror attacks in Norway, in what appears to be the work, once again, of Muslim extremists" adding, "In the meantime, in New York City, the Muslims who want to build a Mosque at Ground Zero recently scored a huge legal victory."

Boom Boom: point scored there, then.

And so the tone was set: Its those uppity Muslims again. The early stages of the media coverage in my opinion was similar to garnering your sense of reality from the INTERNET. The mainstream media usually provides a balance to those who rely on the often perverted views of the conspiracy theorists found all over the web, "a vicious spiral of groupthink, reinforcing the worst kind of ideology, an internally consistent, systematic worldview, totally divorced from everyday humanity." as described by the journalist Timothy Garton Ash of the Guardian, but the reason and common sense the mainstream media ought to have provided seemed to be even more lacking than usual. There was too much jumping to conclusions, making two plus two equal five and running with that.

In the mainstream media I kept hearing that this was the work of a terrorist sleeper cell with links to Al Qaida and time after time these people, trotted out as informed commentators and experts, would talk knowledgeably about extremist Islamist terrorism, moving seamlessly from a 7/7 type bombing to a Mumbai style massacre. The problem was that these experts were speculating: they were wafflers, pontificators, guessers and ill-informed punters. They might just as well have been pulled into the studio from the street because they knew about as much as I did and often, it seemed, were less well informed. Don't get me wrong, I like experts on the T.V. but I do expect them to be better informed than me.

The script didn't strike me as very credible either: why Norway? Ah, because of its support for the war in Afghanistan and because its newspapers had reprinted the offensive cartoons of Muhammad first published in Danish newspapers, the talking heads told us. Really? Why not Denmark then, presumably as "soft" a target as Norway. It didn't ring true.

And then it all fell apart for the media commentators as frantic tweets and texts from the island confounded all this speculation by identifying the shooter as a blond, white man which didn't meet the off-the-peg terrorist profile one bit. Ah, but Muslims had been very busy trying to recruit "local" people to their extremist ideology all over Europe, so its probably still those Muslims. This was the view of The Sun which also noted, "We do not know if yesterday was the work of al-Qaida, which has threatened Norway before .... The lesson for us are clear. Osama Bin Laden may be dead. But the tentacles of al-Qaida, and groups linked to it, spread deep into the heart of Western nations." So having admitted it didn't know who had been responsible, the Sun still went in for a little Muslim bashing by throwing in Al Qaida and leaving its readership to join the dots.

Charlie Brooker of the Guardian sums up the next stage neatly: "By the time I went to bed, it had become clear to anyone within glancing distance of the INTERNET that this had more in common with the 1995 Oklahoma bombing or the 1999 London nail bombing campaign than the more recent horrors of Al Qaida .... The next morning I switched on the news and the Al Qaida talk had been largely dispensed with, and the pundits were now experts on far-right extremism, as though they'd been on a course and qualified for a diploma overnight."

Anders Behring Breivik, as we now know the killer is called, has had contact with a number of other European far-right groups including the English Defence League, with whom I have had a few tussles myself. And do you know, its still all the fault of those Muslims? After all if there hadn't been "wholesale" and "unfettered" immigration into Europe, folk like Breivik wouldn't have had a manifesto to promote and act on in the first place. And let's not believe his attitudes are the preserve of the fringe. Mainstream media outlets to their shame, now distancing themselves from Breivic as fast as their little legs will carry them, have been laying the "respectable" foundations for such views for decades. The Islamisation of Europe - Eurabia, the hatred of multiculturalism, dishonesty in mainstream politics about immigration subservient to the mantra of "political correctness" and all wrapped up in the language of "Christian values." As I asked one young man on an EDL rally in Leeds, "When did hatred become a Christian value?"

And now Breivik appears as a self-identifying Christian. Let's be clear: Breivik is to Christianity what Al Qaida is the Islam. NO RELATION AT ALL! So, while we are demonizing ALL Muslims on the basis of the actions of an unrepresentative few, we'd better start treating ALL Christians in the same way.

No, it doesn't make sense, does it?

Let's remember, too, that on these islands "Muslims" are the Johnny-come-latelys of the world of terrorism. While we may on occasion have been a bit short with our Irish neighbours and co-workers I don't remember a backlash against the IRA resulting in descriptions of Catholic terrorism.

How embarrassing, too, for columnists of the right-wing mainstream to find their views so widely used and directly quoted in Breivik's "manifesto". Poor Melanie Phillips, writer for that scion of all right (in every sense) thinking Little Englanders, The Daily Mail. Who in the end, Melanie and colleagues, actually stoke the flames of Islamophobia? Yes Dear. You do, together, of course, with our own Prime Minister who, to the unalloyed joy of the EDL has announced that he will now be taking on the "non-violent extremists" (definition please) because they influence those who embrace violence. Are we talking about those British Muslims who question British foreign policy? Ah, the fifth column. How different to the Norwegian Prime Minister who is determined that in the midst of grief and anger the voice of reason must be heard.

I await the day when I can read a balanced newspaper article that covers the achievements and contributions in a celebratory and positive way of ordinary Muslims in Britain, and indeed in Europe more widely. I shan't be holding my breath.

I'll leave the last word to Canon Dr Alan Billings, speaking on BBC Radio 4's Thought for the Day on 25th July: "There is a very revealing passage at the beginning of the Christian gospels where Jesus goes into the wilderness to reflect on his coming public career. In the account, the gospel writers tell us how the devil puts before him a series of temptations to achieve his objectives by inappropriate means. At one point the devil quotes scripture in justification. For this is how evil works. It uses something good – in this case a sacred text – to rationalise evil means.

We saw the same mechanism at work with Islamic terrorism where the concept of jihad - an inner struggle to overcome weakness - was hideously distorted to justify something evil – the casual disregard of human life.

If this savagery in Norway is alerting us to the possibility of another religion being hijacked in a similar way, then the religious response to it has to be as vigorous as the response to Islamic terror eventually became, namely, the bold assertion alike by religious leaders, ordinary believers and the institutions that guard the faith that there is no justification for such indiscriminate violence.

What stands in the way of those who seek to give a religious and moral justification for their violent actions, are the living convictions of others. And that may be all that stands in the way. But if we are to stop this repeating, those convictions may be the one thing that can make the difference."


  1. As we sat in our hotel room in Salisbury while BBC broadcast the PM of Norway disseminating what they knew and what they didn't, I couldn't get Timothy McVey out of my head, especially after seeing the explosion site in Oslo. I was glad that I couldn't figure out how to watch American news and didn't have access to internet at the time.

  2. Excellent essay, "Sir". You should send it to a newspaper as a "To-the-Editors" letter or to the Guardian's "Comments Are Free".

  3. Thank you, yes, excellent.

    Un abrazo fuerte,

  4. The quote by Timothy Garton Ash is an exellent one that I may have to borrow sometime. No group is exempt from the perils of unfettered groupthink, neither on the right nor on the left.

    But after reading your whole post, I'm left with the impression that NO British newspaper has yet provided "a balanced account" of the shootings and the shooter. Surely this is not so?

  5. You're right Russ. The issue here is that it is the lower circulation broadsheets that show restraint and circumspection (together with the BBC)and the high circulation tabloids that stoke the fires.

  6. Well thought through and well expressed. Thanks.