Terrorist Suspects in the Media

After the attack on Finsbury Park Mosque last Monday, the inconsistence of the media’s portrayal and discussion of terrorist attackers has once again become apparent, propagating islamophobia and shifting social norms

Gianna Seglias
UCL Law Student

After another in a series of recent devastating attacks took place on Monday at the Finsbury Park Mosque, much of London has come together to show solidarity with those affected and the city’s Muslim community. This includes widespread condemnation of the attack in the media across the political spectrum. However, as online commentators have been quick to observe, there has been, in this case and others, a discrepancy between media portrayal of attacks by non-Muslims and attacks labelled as “Islamic extremism”.  It has been pointed out that while the media is keen to humanise white attackers, finding motivations and explanations for their attacks often in mental health, depictions of Muslim attackers instead attribute their actions solely to their religion, perpetuate existing islamophobia and xenophobia.  In a year where multiple terror attacks have taken place and counter-terrorism measures have featured heavily in political discourse, it is worth taking a closer look at media bias in reporting terror attacks and considering its effects.

It should be noted that some allegations of bias in the Finsbury Park coverage have oversimplified the situation. JK Rowling’s popular condemnation of the Daily Mail for referring to the Finsbury suspect as a “van driver” rather than as a “terrorist” is one among many similar expressions of frustration. It is true that news media have referred to the man involved as a “suspect”, an “attacker”, or a “driver”, while after other violent incidents earlier this year they did not hesitate to refer to “terrorists”. However, as eloquently outlined by former BBC journalist Steve Parks, it is important to note a crucial difference between the Finsbury Park attack and those at Borough Market and Westminster; in this most recent attack, the alleged attacker did not die at the scene.  Where a suspect has been charged, journalists are subject to contempt of court law in order to ensure a fair trial.  News outlets accordingly may not publish material which may influence the jury and thus prejudice the defendant’s trial. Under the Contempt of Court Act 1981, reporting may be treated as contempt of court regardless of intention (the “strict liability rule”). Referring to a suspect as a “terrorist” would create an impression of guilt, the news outlet would risk being held in contempt of court, the prosecution’s chances of securing a conviction may also be damaged.

This caveat aside, there is little doubt that reporting on violent incidents in the UK is not, on the whole, unbiased or blind to race or religion.  A telling example of this is the Mail headline to which Rowling referred: “White van driver injures at least 10 after ploughing into a crowd outside London’s Finsbury Park mosque where hate cleric Abu Hamza once preached as Muslims finish their evening prayers”.  Admittedly, such distasteful journalism is practiced only by a handful of British papers who lose no opportunity to dehumanise and denounce Muslims and immigrants in general.  Apparently, the original Daily Mail headline was later judged by its editors to have gone just a bit too far; it has since been altered. However, even among mainstream media, bias rears its head, albeit more subtly.  Journalists are frequently keen to paint Muslim attackers as foreign or “other”.  Youssef Zaghba, one of the Borough Market suspects, was consistently referred to in news coverage as an “Italian national of Moroccan descent” rather than merely as an Italian national.  Similarly, where attackers are “homegrown”, journalists will emphasise that they are second- or third- generation immigrants.  This is not a phenomenon unique to the UK; In Germany, for instance, Muslim perpetrators are often euphemistically referred to as having a “migration background”.

Such discrepancies also arise in popular and media discussions of motive.  When Muslims stage attacks, they are presented as being driven by an ideology, and, crucially, their Weltanschauung is implicitly illustrated as being rooted in their religion. Their neighbours and past acquaintances are interviewed extensively and the public is given detailed information on whether they wore traditional Islamic robes, how often they visited the mosque and whether they drank alcohol. Extensive discussion in the media of the attackers’ ideology and religion, combined with a lack of discussion about anything else, encourages the inference that the two are necessarily linked – even inseparable.

The narrative surrounding white, non-Muslim attackers is invariably different from that outlined above. Even where attackers profess an ideological or political motive, they are swiftly humanised by references to their families and seemingly normal lives. Darren Osborne, the Finsbury Park suspect, has been repeatedly referred to as “father-of-four”.  Where possible, attackers are also presented as victims of circumstance.  Last year various news outlets speculated that Thomas Mair, who murdered Jo Cox, had been motivated by fear of losing his council house.  Had Osborne or Mair been shouting “Allahu Akbar” rather than “I want to kill all Muslims” or “Britain first”, respectively, media would likely not have been so keen to show to show them empathy.  Even where white attackers cannot be “humanised” in such a manner, they are portrayed not as ideologues, but as freaks, lone wolves or victims of mental illness.  After this week’s attack, journalist Nesrine Malik spoke about this phenomenon on Newsnight.  She concluded by pointing out the fundamental inequity of this portrayal: “It’s either an issue of individual disenfranchisement being preyed upon by ideology. Or it is ideology. But it cannot be one lot for one and different for the other.”

This creation and perpetuation of diverging narratives to describe violent attacks, depending on whether they are committed by Muslims or non-Muslims, has serious consequences. Where a terrorist attacker is portrayed as a disenfranchised family man or even as a lone violent criminal, the social or demographic groups to which he belongs do not appear threatening by implication. However, where he is constantly identified by reference to the religion to which he declares loyalty, which is simultaneously presented as linked to an extreme ideological system bent on destroying “British values”, terrorism becomes a problem of “us” (read: white people) against “them”.  This vilifies and ostracises Muslims, creates an idea of some vague collective group to which all Muslims belong, and legitimises islamophobia.  Moreover, it places the onus upon Muslims to discharge general societal suspicion by monitoring their own faith communities for possible signs of radicalisation.  Where attacks are successfully carried out, it follows that Muslim communities implicitly shoulder the blame for failing to prevent them. Increased hostility towards Islam and Muslims has resulted in a rapid increase in hate crime and reduced opportunity for social cohesion.  In the long run, such an environment will lead to callous disregard for the lives and rights of Muslims.  It will make the public more amenable to proposals to scrap human rights protections for terrorist suspects and to expand the much-maligned Prevent strategy.  And, within the wider context of world events, it allows Western governments to engage in conflicts in the Middle East and Africa with little concern for civilian casualties.

Such outcomes must be prevented. Media bias, of course, is not the only cause of anti-Muslim sentiment, nor would complete media impartiality resolve already-existing islamophobia. However, the media performs an important role as both a shifter and indicator of social norms. For this reason, it is important to continue to draw attention to discrepancies and biases in coverage of terror attacks.

The Newsnight video to which Gianna refers (see 6:25):

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