Imagine, for a moment, that Neil Lewington, who is on trial at the Old Bailey for preparing for a “campaign of terrorism” using tennis-ball bombs, was a British Muslim. The story would be splashed across the front page of every newspaper in Britain, and Sky News would be rolling a loop of images of his scowling, bearded, dark face.
The reality, however, is that you’ve probably never heard of Lewington (who denies all eight charges of terrorism) because he is not Muslim, or black, or of Asian origin. He is white. And our gloriously impartial, truth-seeking, “colour-blind” media don’t seem to care. The coverage of the Lewington trial has been negligible – a few short stories buried deep inside a handful of newspapers, but, as I write, no rolling coverage on Sky News, and not a peep on the main BBC news bulletins or on Newsnight.
One veteran home affairs correspondent told me he had asked his editors why the Lewington trial wasn’t being covered. “They didn’t want to hear about it,” he said. “They just weren’t interested. It’s outrageous.”
Lewington is only the latest in a long line of white terror suspects who have “disappeared” from the mainstream media. Have you heard of Robert Cottage? He is the former British National Party candidate jailed in July 2007 for possessing explosive chemicals in his home – described by police at the time of his arrest as the largest amount of chemical explosive of its type ever found in this country. The national coverage of Cottage’s arrest in October 2006 amounted to exactly 56 words in a single “news in brief” item in the Sunday Times.
There is, too, the case of Martyn Gilleard, the Nazi sympathiser jailed in June 2008 after police found nail bombs, bullets, swords, axes and knives in his flat, as well as a note in which he had written, “I am so sick and tired of hearing nationalists talk of killing Muslims, of blowing up mosques, of fighting back. Only to see these acts of resistance fail to appear. The time has come to stop the talk and start to act.” What about Nathan Worrell? This neo-Nazi, described by police as a “dangerous individual”, hoarded bomb-making materials in his home, and was found guilty in December 2008 of possessing material for terrorist purposes and for racially aggravated harassment. His trial attracted two passing references in the popular national press, in the Daily Star and the Sun. And in February this year, not a single national newspaper reported on the self-professed racist Neil MacGregor’s guilty plea to threatening to blow up Glasgow Central Mosque and behead a Muslim every week until every mosque in Scotland was closed.
It is as if these crimes had never happened. For most British journalists today, the idea of non-Muslim terrorism perpetrated by non-Irish white folk is inconceivable. Why? Because too many of them reflexively subscribe to the notion that maybe not all Muslims are terrorists, but certainly all terrorists are Muslims.
Figures compiled by Europol, the European police agency, suggest that the threat of Islamist terrorism is minimal compared with “ethno-nationalist” and “separatist” terrorism – terrorism committed by white people, in other words. According to Europol, in 2006, one out of 498 documented terrorist attacks across Europe could be classed as “Islamist”; in 2007, the figure rose to just four out of 583 – that’s less than 1 per cent of the total. By contrast, 517 attacks across the continent were claimed by or attributed to nationalist or separatist terrorist groups, such as ETA in Spain.
It is not only liberals and aggrieved Muslims who are concerned about the under-reporting of white terrorism. One senior minister told me recently that he wished the British media would give greater coverage to non-Muslims on trial for terrorism and terror-related offences. “It would help us a great deal with the Muslim community,” the minister said. “It would show them that we prosecute violent extremists of all types – because they’re all nasty bastards, be they Islamists or white supremacists.”
Yet this, too, is slightly disingenuous. Compared to Islamists, who have been subjected to a battery of punitive measures – from detention without charge to control orders to torture abroad – white supremacists seem to be given preferential treatment by our criminal justice system. Robert Cottage was charged under the Explosive Substances Act 1883, not the panoply of modern anti-terror laws now at the disposal of the police and the Crown Prosecution Service. Neil MacGregor was tried in a sheriff’s court, rather than the high court where such cases normally go, and where he would have faced a much more severe sentence. He was also tried on the ludicrously lenient charge of breaching the peace. It seems that in Britain, a white racist threatening to behead a Muslim a week is taken no more seriously than a man who is drunk and disorderly in public, or who keeps waking his neighbours with loud music.
Terrorists – those who deploy illegitimate violence against civilians for political purposes – should be ruthlessly identified, relentlessly pursued, arrested, prosecuted and punished, regardless of race or creed. Justice must be colour-blind, and seen to be colour-blind. Any other approach, by the authorities or the media, risks further alienating and stigmatising Muslim communities in Britain.
As we went to press, anti-terror detectives finally acknowledged that the door has been left open to potentially “spectacular” terror attacks of the far-right, white-supremacist variety – but I have yet to see this reported on any front page.
“There is a growing right-wing threat, not just al-Qaeda,” said Sir Norman Bettison, chief constable of West Yorkshire Police, in the wake of raids on a network of alleged far-right extremists in possession of 300 weapons and 80 bombs. It was the biggest seizure of suspected terrorist materials in England since the early 1990s, when the IRA was active.
Terrorism, we know, is not the exclusive preserve or franchise of dark-skinned, bearded Muslims. But nowadays you might not know it from following the news.
Mehdi Hasan is the New Statesman’s senior editor (politics)
Next week: Martin Jacques