Newswrong extremis

Ok so.

I am in complete shock over what happened in Oslo on Friday. I won’t pretend that I’ve got some humorous angle. This is bad. Really bad. Not just the actions of Breivik but the fact that he was able to spend over an hour uncaptured committing atrocity after atrocity. The fact that he released a manifesto, youtube footage and other indications but was not picked up on. The fact that he bought the bomb ingredients and obtained firearms with no-one raising an eyebrow? There are a lot of things that I cannot get my head round about the events of Friday. But one thing sticks. The coverage of this harrowing event from the ‘great’ British media has been awful. Just awful.

Let’s start at the beginning since this is an event many of us saw unravel in real-time via websites, twitter and that magic realism known as 24 hour news. The latter being magic realist because it’s free to make up whatever the fuck it wants and unapologetically brush over its inaccuracies as the real news comes in.

So I was at work when I saw on twitter that a bomb had gone off. First thing I did was email people I knew to see if they were ok. Then I reached out to the great British institution known as the BBC. A news resource that we, as a nation, are proud of. Surely the Beeb could tell me what was going on? Well no. The Beeb couldn’t. The Beeb had about as much idea as the next London-based observer. A bomb had gone off. That was all we knew. So what did the Beeb do? Look to news feeds from Oslo? Get on the spot reporters in? Tune in to official announcements as they broke?

No. They appealed for people affected to text them pictures, footage and eyewitness accounts from the scene of the disaster.

I cannot fathom the decision to make this appeal this quickly.

Now I know this is standard practice these days. It’s a quick (and cheap) means of obtaining on the spot information and footage and live news needs this shizzle to fill up airtime with endless loops of shaky images of broken glass and people screaming. But this appeal was within minutes of the explosion. WITHIN MINUTES. As though people in the middle of a terrorist attack should stop dragging people to safety or pulling broken glass out of themselves so they can upload a nifty bit of footage of people screaming and general carnage for BBC editors to loop through. As a matter of course you’d expect a tiny bit of the news to actually realise that this isn’t just insensitive but it can hinder efforts or endanger people who should perhaps be concerned about secondary attacks.

Gah. Angry as I was I had to persist with the Beeb. I was already hearing that Sky were doing a much worse job thanks to Kay Burley describing Norwegians as speaking in ‘whatever’ language they speak (nice insight Kay). But there was more to make me angrier coming. Next up the Beeb had got hold of a spokesperson engaged in the rescue efforts. The bloke was obviously in a state. He obviously wanted to just get on with saving people. After he rushed through a quick account if what he knew though the anchors just kept pressing him. Asking stupid questions like ‘who did this?’ (like he fucking knew!?). It was the news equivalent of Alan Partridge following a footballer into a shower to keep him talking. Except this was real and people were dying. In the end the interviewee just hung up.

There are times when only a computer programmer will do

But by now the Beeb had filled enough airtime to bring in some expert analysis. Taxi drivers all over London had probably been recruited to drag any opinion they could find (including themselves?) into the BBC studios to needlessly speculate on events until something truthful might happen. This is a process akin to monkeys and typewriters. If you cover every theory then one “might”, on reflection be close enough to the truth for you to claim a “win”. Now I’m not going to pretend that I’m an oracle here. I thought it was an Al Qaeda type attack too at first. It’s an unpleasant default view to have and one perpetuated by the press we slavishly follow. But I’m just a ‘bloke in the pub’ observer. A grunt. My opinions are not worth national airtime – I’d expect the media to run us through multiple scenarios. Speculate on a broad and intelligent basis not least to stop them haranguing people involved in the rescue efforts. Again. WRONG.

The only question that the news appeared to be asking was which Muslims did this? Was it Libya? Afghanistan? Cartoons of Mohammed (Yes. One “expert” analyst made this point as though Oslo was in Denmark)? There was no hint of suspicion on another perpetrator. Even when news of the shooting broke. Something that made even a grunt like me think that this might not be related to Islam.

Of course hindsight is a wonderful thing and no-one expects the news to get things right straight away. My critique of the BBC here is because I couldn’t bear to watch much worse and more cynical coverage on Sky (who by some accounts were weaving in allusions to Henning Mankell and Stieg Larsson books as though Oslo were actually part of Sweden). That said even as the real facts came in the BBC simply could not lift themselves out of the gutter in much of their reporting. Over the weekend I watched in horror as their interviewers tried to pump eyewitnesses for sensationalist, gut-wrenching soundbites more suited to a bad disaster film than a credible news channel. In one instance a teenage girl who had just given a pretty lucid account of her own experiences was pushed again and again by the interviewer to deepen some very nasty emotional scars “Did you see him? What did he look like, how did it feel to see your friends dead, how did it feel to be alive blah blah blah” they didn’t even relent when her voice started cracking under the strain of their line of questioning. In another interview the reporter actually interrupted one persons (again, quite informative) account of the bomb blast and aftermath to ask him how if felt when the bomb went off. “Did it knock the wind out of you?” chuckled the interviewer. Thanks Beeb.

On the subject of hindsight. You’d think that being given time to digest events would add caution to the newspaper headlines. But even news that this act of terror (and that is what it was, an act of terror) was the work of one right-wing activist didn’t stop the Sun opting for “Norway’s 911” on the front page with full reference to an Al Qaeda massacre.

Is that deliberate alliteration? Shame on you Sun

The broadsheets hardly covered themselves in glory either. The Sunday Times decided to helpfully put white circles around the pictures of dead people on its cover for us to gawp over like some sick version of where’s Wally. I’m not even going to dignify the coverage in the Mail or the Telegraph (with the latter ignoring the hatefulness of Breivik’s manifesto – deciding instead to wrongly count the number of references made to the Guardian in it) .

Just when I thought coverage had bottomed out I opened the Metro this morning to be greeted by this headline which takes things to sub-strata levels:

As bad as this headline is - check out the targeted advert on the right

Another thing about terrorism. As the story evolved and it became apparent that muslims could not be blamed for the attack the story changed from being a terrorist attack to a massacre perpetuated by a lone gunman. You see, the press don’t want to extend their “war on terror” to right-wing domestic christians. Who wants to worry about police stopping and searching white people. Who wants to see the USA taking action against the core republican electorate? Never mind that there is a precedent for these atrocities – the Oklahoma bombing in ’95, the London attacks in ’99 – both perpetuated by domestic right-wing activists. Having anyone other than Muslims engaged in terrorism is a difficult one to swallow isn’t it.

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2 responses to “Newswrong extremis

  1. Hi, I just wanted to say thanks for this post, I saw the page too and suddenly realised that news is no longer about reporting things that are happening. It is about delivering a fix to an addict. The better the quality of the gear, the more the addicts will come back to that dealer. What better gear than something sourced straight from the scene?

    Sadly this means that I cannot see the tabloids changing after the NOTW scumfest, since we’re a nation of addicts who want to see some vapid celebrity’s arse, and we’re prepared to pay for it by letting the tabloids fuck with our perceptions and sense of tolerance on far more important issues like racism and AV.

    So it seems we have the press we deserve.

    On the BBC site specifically, you have to laugh at the disclaimer – “at no point should you endanger yourself or infringe any laws”. Yeah, in the same way that at no point should a heroin user endager himself and should have an encyclopedic knowledge of chemistry and biology. Of course, BBC.

  2. Cheers. The good thing about all this though is that the blogosphere and twitter seems to highlight a lot of very aware people who are raising some uncomfortable questions for the media. And the whole news international affair has shown that change on the media front can be acheived.

    What depresses me though, is that we operate in a rarified bubble. If you ask the person on the street about the media apathy abounds. From a sample of people I’ve chatted to in pubs/taxi drivers etc who I don’t know within my peer group they really couldn’t care less. Really quite surreal.

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