Media coverage of the Reading attack was a tragedy of its own – Labour Article
The shocking attack in Reading over the weekend was an unmitigated tragedy. Yet, far from clarifying the situation, most media coverage obscures and politicizes the reality.
When glancing at Monday’s headlines, I couldn’t help but notice the word ‘Terror’ plastered all over the papers. The police quickly arrested a 25-year-old man on suspicion of murder in connection with the Reading attack. He was later rearrested under section 41 of the Terrorism Act 2000. The attack has since been treated as a ‘terrorist incident’.
Now, maybe I’ve listened to a few too many Lowkey tracks. Or perhaps I’m all too aware of the importance of this sort of language, given my interest in the Middle East. Either way, I was immediately on edge. The word is so charged that its use is rarely unproblematic and this latest case is no exception.
The attacker was known to the authorities, but it was concluded in 2019 that he posed no religious extremist threat. As a result, his name was not added to MI5’s 3,000 strong list of genuine terror suspects. What was found instead was a history of mental health issues and drug use, following his flight from the Libyan civil war to Britain in 2012. He was granted asylum status in 2018.
It was this final fact about his North African and Islamic origin that dominated the news coverage of the attack. Combined with paltry and discounted evidence of terrorist intentions, this was all it took for the label ‘terrorist’ to be used. Considering the connotations of the word terror and the obsession with the attacker’s nationality, the implication is instantly one of Islamist radicalism.
Given the coverage, it was made to seem like yet another assault in a string of lone-wolf Islamist terror attacks that the government urgently needs to address. Put simply, it is a question of emphasis. Granted, the attacker is of Libyan descent and has asylum status. However, the overwhelming focus on his origin paired with the omission of any serious discussion into his mental health and drug use is misleading. It plays into the ‘Muslim-Arab equals terrorist’ trope, and so coverage of the attack is inevitably skewed.
The fact that our media, monopolised as it is, distorts stories like this is nothing new. Journalist Mehdi Hasan makes the point that a Muslim/Arab attacker is described as an ideological terrorist. Comparatively, a white mass shooter, for example, is labelled mentally ill. Moreover, research shows that Muslim attacks in the US on average receive 4.5 times more coverage than attacks by non-Muslims.
What makes the coverage of the Reading attack so astounding, is that the perpetrator does not appear to have even been a Muslim. According to his family, he had converted to Christianity since his move to the UK and even got a tattoo of a cross! For most of our press, it is enough to be Arab and to come from a Muslim-majority country to be labelled a terrorist. Nothing else matters to them.
The narrative of Islamist terrorism is shamefully politicised. It is used by right-wing press and politicians, to support hardline immigration policies, specifically targeting refugees and asylum seekers from Muslim countries. Take for example how the Sun called for Home Secretary Priti Patel’s plans to pull out of the Human Rights Act.
Just as we hold criminals to account, media outlets must be held to account. Especially for their role in obscuring the real causes in attacks of this sort. Thus, perpetuating negative perceptions of minority groups.
Written by Labour Writer, Marco Dryburgh
Point of Information
The need for a more inclusive approach to terrorism – a Conservative response
Mr Dryburgh’s insightful piece on the horrifying events that unfolded last Saturday raises many questions. Particularly, on how we define terrorism, and the power of the press whilst reporting such events. No individual or religious group should face unjust hateful prejudice and discrimination. Hate, which too often perpetuates negative perceptions of minority groups.
For policing organisations to immediately jump to label the Reading attack as one of terrorism without definite evidential conviction is a decision flooded with assumption and one based upon existing narratives. I feel to blame the press, organisations that exist solely to report news and events as they unfold for using what they deem to be an accurate term is unsound. Any outlet that reports false or misleading information should, of course, face scrutiny, but not for following government guidelines or official reports.
I share Mr Dryburgh’s frustration about the connotations of the term. Especially given the suspect’s motive is yet to be confirmed and, as is highlighted above, most likely to stem from their long history of poor mental health, to include PTSD and depression. The attack, as Simon Jenkins notes for The Guardian, is highly likely to be the act of an unstable mind. As with the killing of the Palace of Westminster policeman in 2017 – a tragic accident, undoubtedly, but not one of terror.
There are, however, several realities that fail to be acknowledged within the article about terrorism in the UK that contribute to its reception by the public. Ones that make consuming media reports on ‘terrorism’ by migrants from Islamist countries so readily acceptable.
Britain’s most infamous terrorist attacks over the past two decades have been claimed by Islamist extremist groups. Firstly, the London 7/7 Tube Bombings of 2005 were proven to be responsible by al-Qaeda in a statement the extremist group issued via video. Secondly, the Islamic State also issued statements claiming responsibility for the London Bridge attacks and the Manchester Arena bombing, both in 2017.
The Reading suspect migrated in 2012 from Libya, a well-known origin of many previous extremist terrorists. This, combined with him being considered on multiple occasions to appear on the MI5 watch list, evidently ticks many boxes that previous attackers have similarly done.
There is much room to become more expansive to motives behind terror attacks. With every instance to be treated with caution before jumping to a label. For, even if a perpetrator may be religious, their motives for an attack may not be rooted in their faith. I feel that it is not the fault of the media, but moreover the government and its security sector. There is a blatant ignorance to difference in our diverse society.
Media can help to shift social perspectives on terrorism. It can also serve to highlight the rise of far-right extremist groups in the UK like National Action. However, it cannot fight this battle alone. Change must come from the top. It can be implemented through raising policy standards. Or through giving press briefings on attacks, like the devastating event last Saturday.
Written by Conservative Writer, Emily Taylor
Terrorism can come in all forms, it doesn’t mean everything is religious terrorism – A Liberal Response
Having read Mr Dryburgh’s article, I agree with its core premise. An attack by an individual of Islamic descent is not always an act of terrorism. It is racially and ideologically insensitive to assume that.
However, terrorism can come in many forms. It is evident the attack was an ‘act of terror’, but perhaps not ideologically supported. The word terrorism can mean a variety of things. However, when western society hears the word, they assume the worst of Islam. The IRA’s fight for Irish independence can be labelled as acts of terrorism. Yet, it is not often affiliated with the word.
The idea Mr Dryburgh brings up about the difference in label between a white man and someone of Islamic descent, in terms of terror attacks, is somewhat terrifying. Society has given the label of ‘terrorist’ to Muslim attackers yet labels a white man/woman as mentally ill. If both create terror and violence, why should they not be recognised as the same?
The racist tendencies of society and the media dictates how individuals are labelled, depending on their race. The media is able to manipulate events and narratives to distance the attacker from society; as if he were not really part of it. However, these individuals live among us.
The attack in Reading was a tragedy. I wish the best to the affected families, however, we can ‘judge a book by its cover’. As Mr Dryburgh mentioned, it turns out the attacker had converted to Christianity since coming to the UK, which is likely to alter the media coverage.
Written by Liberal Writer, Charlie Papamichael
I’m a third-year History and Arabic student at the University of Manchester, and have just returned to London after an abortive year abroad learning Arabic in Jordan (thanks, Covid). Travelling and living abroad in a country and culture as different to ours as Jordan’s is without the obligatory reflection of your own values and priorities is impossible.
I am a first year student reading Politics, Philosophy and Economics at the University of Exeter. After completing my degree, I wish to go on to study Public Policy at a postgraduate level.
I am a second year student currently reading International Relations and Modern Languages at the University of Exeter.