Watching brief - Peter Wilby enlists against his will

So Londoners calmly went about their business. What on earth did we expect them to do? Rush around t

The belief that newspapers deserve special congratulation for coverage of big stories - riots, terrorist attacks, plane crashes - is, in my opinion, false. Crafting a newspaper is much harder during slow news periods. The inherent drama of events such as the 7 July bombings in London does its own work and provides ample stories of victims, relatives, rescuers and witnesses. Editors need only be quick, well organised and decisive.

Even so, they want to put events in a framework, to help readers make sense of them. Someone to blame is the first resort: the group responsible or the authorities who blundered. Neither worked initially as the theme for the London bombings. Several papers wanted to link the attacks to asylum policies, until it became apparent that the culprits could well be British. Though various foreign-born Muslim clerics emerged as potential "masterminds" - the Daily Mail targeted a red-haired Syrian (helpfully explaining that Celts settled in his home town, Aleppo, in 1098) - the evidence was thin. So was evidence that the police or intelligence services had ignored warnings: a claim that the Israelis had warned of the attacks proved unfounded. The papers made surprisingly little of how London constables went to protect our rulers at Gleneagles, leaving the capital's commuters less protected than normal.

With blame hard to pin down, a different story became dominant: Londoners were calm, resolute, defiant and, in all respects, admirable. This theme emerged within hours of the explosions, with BBC reporters marvelling at the lack of panic on the streets. A symphony of self-congratulation - and I say self-congratulation because nearly all national news journalists live in the London area - swelled in the following days. "Citizens refused to panic and went about their business," the Financial Times reported. In the Daily Mail, Maeve Haran wrote: "While post-disaster reports from other countries are heavy with hysterics . . . Londoners don't do panic." In the Sunday Telegraph, Anna Stothard was "utterly smitten with London's strength of character", while Trevor McDonald "caught a glimpse of the famous London spirit". In the Sunday Times, Simon Jenkins, normally reliable in his scepticism, quite lost his head: "[T]here is something in . . . the understatement of its [London's] architecture . . . that renders Londoners immune to panic." By Monday, the Daily Mail had "London defiant" as the slogan for its news pages on the bombs.

The theme reached heights of absurdity in reports on the Footsie, the index of top company shares, which fell after the explosions, then recovered to its highest point of the year. The Mail praised its "stellar performance", the Independent its "bulldog spirit". But the Footsie is just an index, for heaven's sake, and the traders who determine its level are just trying to make money as usual.

What might Londoners have done, given that, with the Tube and buses suspended, they could not easily flee the city? Might they have rushed around screaming? Attacked every Arab in sight? Marched on Whitehall, demanding British troops get out of Iraq? And do residents of Madrid, Baghdad, Jerusalem or Moscow behave differently when they are attacked? New Yorkers ran in all directions on 9/11, but so would we if we saw skyscrapers collapsing.

I do not wish to appear cynical. Much of the coverage will have been of comfort to the millions who use the Tube. Believing you are part of some collective act of defiance is better than just sitting there feeling terrified. And there was an admirable sub-plot to the "brave London" theme: that, as the names and faces of the missing showed, this city was truly cosmopolitan. The Sun's Saturday front page had pictures of two of the missing: "Two beautiful, decent women. One Christian. One Muslim."

I know ugly men also deserve sympathy, but it was brilliant and moving all the same. Nor shall I join cynics who suggest the capitalist press did exactly as the capitalist bosses would have wished, persuading readers to go to work as normal. But one theme was often absent: would these attacks have happened if Britain had kept out of Iraq? Only a few journalists, such as Gary Younge in the Guardian, explored that angle. Even fewer compared what Londoners suffered with what residents of Baghdad suffered during the Iraq war, and have continued to suffer, from other sources, every day since. "Planet of fear" maps in some papers showed bombs that have exploded across the world, but not those dropped from the sky.

And that is the nub of it. The "defiant London" theme confirms stereotypes of western superiority, enlists us all in a war that many of us opposed, and accuses us of bad taste and disloyalty if we continue to argue for military withdrawal from the Middle East.

Tony Blair often complains about the press, but in the past week he could not have wished for more helpful coverage.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.