Choose your poison

The Forest Gate raid may or may not show flaws in police and intelligence practice, but it certainly

Here is what we learned from our newspapers about the police raid on a house in Forest Gate, east London, early on the morning of Friday 2 June.

The brothers who lived there were planning a terrorist attack using cyanide, sarin, anthrax, or bubonic plague germs. The noxious substance would be released from a vest or a canister. It would be a suicide attack or a remote-controlled explosion. The "bomb" was inside the house or "out there". Its use was imminent or it was nowhere near completion. The information came from an MI5 informant or a police informant. The police operation was code-named Volga or Volgo.

Officers entered the house by smashing a window or battering down the front door. One brother was shot by the police (either after a warning or not after a warning, and either after a scuffle or not after a scuffle), or he was shot by the other brother. The shot came from a Glock pistol or a Heckler & Koch sub-machine gun. Both brothers had criminal records or they didn't.

Conflicting briefings

The raid may or may not show flaws in police and intelligence practice, but it certainly suggests flaws in journalism. Two things were evident from the start. First, the police had not found any evidence of the device they were apparently seeking. Most papers translated this into "a desperate hunt"; the existence of the device was a given. Second, the operation involved both the police and MI5. These services, with a history of rivalry, were giving briefings to journalists which conflicted in important respects, not least because each wanted to pin the blame on the other if anything went wrong.

Almost inevitably, anti-terrorist operations depend on intelligence of questionable value. There is nothing new in this. Journalists of all people should know there is no such thing as a reliable source; the best you can get is a "usually reliable" one.

What makes anti-terrorist work different is the supreme importance of pre-emption. In most criminal investigations we accept a certain level of police failure; in anti-terrorism work, because of the potentially hugely damaging consequences, we cannot tolerate it.

The media have no register for this degree of uncertainty and contingency. Newspapers deal in facts (though not necessarily accurate ones) and narratives. Reporters ask the classic questions about who, what, why, when and where. If they don't get answers, they go and ask someone else and, if that fails, cry "Cover-up!"

So after the Forest Gate raid, the "poison bomb hunt" was the story, for most papers at least. By Monday the Guardian was reporting "diminishing optimism" among "counter-terrorism officials" that the intelligence "will be shown to be wholly or even partially correct". But the Mirror headlined that the "hunt for poison bomb goes on" and quoted "a Scotland Yard source" insisting that "we're 100 per cent certain the bomb has been constructed and an attack is planned". A day later the same paper announced: "Police doubt tip-off as hunt fails to find weapon". The Sun, however, still clung to the hope that we would all choke to death. A computer at the raided house, it reported, had revealed "potential links to Islamic extremism".

A policeman's lot

The surprising star of this story was the Daily Mail. It hedged its bets from the start, going for the "poison bomb" angle in its main headline on 2 June, but noting "echoes of de Menezes" (the innocent man shot dead by police last July) in the strap. On Monday its crime correspondent, Ben Taylor, acutely noted a statement by a senior police officer on the day of the raid: "The purpose of the investigation, after ensuring public safety, is to prove or disprove the intelligence that we have received."

On Tuesday it commissioned the spy expert Phillip Knightley to write by far the best account of the events that led up to the raid. Complaints about what the Express and Sun called the "wretched bureaucrats" of the Independent Police Complaints Commission, who went to Forest Gate to investigate the shooting, were conspicuous by their absence.

You might expect the Mail to stand squarely behind the police. But in Middle England's eyes, the police, as refracted through the Daily Mail, are no longer the fine body of men and women they once were. They persecute middle-class motorists and they are infected by political correctness. Paul Dacre, the Mail editor, has taken a dislike to Sir Ian Blair, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner. The only good police officer these days is a dead one, killed in the line of duty.

"The police don't enjoy the benefit of the doubt any more," explained Peter McKay, the Mail's Monday columnist. As this seems to put them into the same category as asylum-seekers, paedophiles, schoolteachers and new Labour ministers, it looks like very bad news for the constabulary.