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Sun 20 September 2020
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A new report shows there can be no excuses for journalists, says Brian Cathcart: if Al Qaeda was ‘terror’, then so were the Christchurch killings and the murder of Jo Cox

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Does it matter if the Christchurch killer is called a terrorist in the media or not? We know he killed 51 people and we know he did it because he held savage anti-Muslim beliefs. What can a label add to that? 

The answers take us into the realm of institutional racism, whereby people and organisations act in ways which may seem reasonable and harmless, but which nonetheless put ethnic minority people at a disadvantage. If you care about fairness, you want to fix these things. If you don’t, you make excuses. 

But making excuses about this just got harder, because the Centre for Media Monitoring (CfMM), an offshoot of the Muslim Council of Britain, has just produced an exhaustive 200-page study, How the British Media Reports on Terrorism, that leaves journalists with few places to hide.

It opens with the blunt statement that “since 9/11, terrorism has become synonymous with Muslims” and then lays out in depressing detail the evidence of how this lazy and cruel assumption persists in the media despite the rise of violent acts of white supremacism.  


Benefit of the Doubt for White ‘Lone Wolves’

The case of Brenton Tarrant, the Christchurch killer, proves to be a kind of exception, partly because, just hours after the massacre on 15 March 2019, New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern took the bull by the horns and announced: “It is clear that this can now only be described as a terrorist attack.”

Those words – “can now only be described” – forced reporters and editors to acknowledge that, if the barbarities of violent Islamists are described as terrorism, then so should the mass killing of Muslims by white extremists. Newspapers such as the Sun and the Mail duly included the word “terror” in their coverage. 

But, on the evidence of the CfMM report, this was not a lesson successfully learned.

Last February, a 43-year-old man went on a shooting spree in Hanau, near Frankfurt in Germany, killing nine people in two shisha bars and then his mother and himself. His name was Tobias Rathjen, a far-right extremist who published a manifesto on his website expressing hatred for Muslims – and most of his victims were Muslims. 

“Twelve hours after the first reports emerged of the mass shooting, the UK online national news media did not use the words ‘terror’, ‘terrorist’ or ‘terrorism’ in any headlines or articles relating to the incident,” the CfMM report states. “This despite the… facts being known at the time.”

The report says that these included the following: “The attacker published a manifesto which highlighted the political motivation, as well as a letter and a video on his personal website. The German counter-terrorism police were investigating the attack. The party leader of the SPD, Saskia Esken, described the attack in Hanau as ‘right-wing terror’. Peter Beuth, the interior minister for the state of Hesse, said federal prosecutors had taken over the investigation of the crime and were treating it as an act of domestic terrorism.”

It’s a familiar story. The same reluctance to associate the word ‘terrorism’ with violence by white extremists in Europe and North America can be seen in cases going back to Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma bomber of 1995, but more recently with Anders Behring Brevik in Norway and Thomas Mair, the killer of the Labour MP Jo Cox.

Other cases include Darren Osborne, the Finsbury Park mosque murderer; Gregory Bowers, charged with killing 11 at a Pittsburgh synagogue; and Alexandre Bisonette, who murdered six people at a mosque in Quebec. 

The reluctance of the news media to accept that the actions of white supremacists are also terrorism diminishes the seriousness of white racist violence. 

Notoriously, as the CfMM report describes, the news media often prefer to stress in such cases that the perpetrator is a ‘lone wolf’, implying that his actions are less threatening because they are uncoordinated. The same courtesy is rarely extended to Muslim killers who act alone. Side-by-side studies, in which similar people act in similar ways and the only significant difference is that the attacker is Muslim, leave little doubt that the mildly reassuring label of ‘lone wolf’ is reserved for white supremacist killers. 

It is also, of course, a false reassurance. Although some white racist killers act without orders from any organisation or leader, they are still part of a network. They share their ideas and borrow from each other online and inspire and copy each other. They are not ‘alone’. In a similar way, the study shows, white killers are more likely to be labelled as ‘mentally unwell’ than Muslim killers. It’s as if they receive the benefit of the doubt.


Minorities Framed as Second-Class Citizens

Why should journalists worry about this?

One important reason is that it perpetuates unjustly the false conflation of terrorism with Islam. Terrorism existed before 9/11, at a time when the UK police and security services viewed the British Muslim population as admirably peaceful and law-abiding. 

Since 9/11 – as the police, successive governments and all reasonable and thoughtful people have acknowledged – British Muslims have remained overwhelmingly peaceful and law-abiding, and have been utterly horrified by the violence and the hateful ideologies of a tiny minority in their midst. 

Yet, far too much discussion of, and coverage of, terrorism has encouraged the idea – more or less actively – that Islam itself is a threat and that Muslims should be feared and hated. As the CfMM report says, terrorism has become synonymous with Muslims. 

The price of this is high for British Muslims, who must routinely endure suspicion and abuse of kinds that white people do not normally experience and who also bear the brunt of hate crime. These experiences make them less equal as citizens. 

This is not something like the weather, which we must simply accept. Nor is it something that British Muslims have brought upon themselves. It is an injustice that fair-minded people – and fair-minded journalists – should be concerned about. 

While the reluctance of many in the news media to accept that the actions of white supremacists are also terrorism helps sustain the myth that terrorism and Islam are inseparable, it also does something worse: it diminishes the seriousness of white racist violence. 

‘Terror’ is a strong word in the armoury of journalism and withholding it makes a difference. If a journalist is prepared to use it to describe stabbings by a mentally-ill Muslim man in the business district of Melbourne (and the CfMM report shows that most news organisations did so), then they should be prepared to use it about the Pittsburgh synagogue killings (and most news organisations were slow to do so or never did). 

The selective use of the word – whether it is done deliberately or thoughtlessly – is a way of demonising Muslims and of making their suffering, and the suffering of other minorities, seen less important. 

Yes, sometimes there are practical explanations for what the CfMM report calls ‘inconsistencies’ – what witnesses say, what the authorities say – but the report leaves no doubt that these explain only a minority of instances. 

There is a problem here and journalists and editors should want to fix it. What can they do?

They can start by reading the report and resisting any temptation to make excuses. Then they could consider its helpful recommendations, of which the first and simplest is this: adopt a definition of terrorism and use it consistently. 

Brian Cathcart is Professor of Journalism at Kingston University London and the author of ‘The Case of Stephen Lawrence’ (1999)


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