After Woolwich: how the media got it wrong and how the public can get it right

Too many titles handed the killers the megaphone they craved. Those who quietly reject the offer of hatred and division deserve to be heard too.

The horrific murder of a soldier in Woolwich naturally generates a deep sense of shock and disgust. Though they may be motivated by an extremely atavastic ideology, the killers would seem to have an unfortunately strong intuitive grasp of our modern media culture.

This creates dilemmas for broadcasters and newspapers. This is important news, which needs to be reported powerfully on the front pages, and the right responses to prevent such debated everywhere. Censorship is rightly resisted. But there are important editorial choices to be made. The fact that everything is available somewhere on the internet does not absolve editors. There is plenty of stuff out there on extremist jihadi websites that does not get put on TV. There can be little doubt that the media platform to spread the message of hatred, fear and division is an important, central motive for the crime. What can we do about the fact that the need to report the grisly news will give the perpetrators the platform that they crave?

This morning, the Metro, the Guardian and the Telegraph all offer headlines which primarily communicate the message of the murderers, so handing them the media megaphone which their crime was designed to create. They also, in print, can seem to give more shape to what seems a rather more rambling and incoherent rant. (None of us can yet know quite the precise balance of extremist ideology or mental illness behind this particular crime).

Perhaps surprisingly, it is the Guardian's front page which comes uncomfortably close to being the poster front which the murderer might have designed for himself, with its headline "You will never be safe". If there were an al-Qaeda version of Alastair Campbell somewhere on the Afghan-Pakistan borders, they would surely also be delighted by how the Telegraph - "An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. We won't stop fighting you until you leave us alone" - and the Metro - "You will never be safe, we will not stop fighting" have got the desired message across.

By contrast, the Mail - "Blood on his hands, hatred in his eyes" - and the Independent - "Sickening, deluded and uncomfortable" - chose headlines which editorialise against the killers on their front pages. Both the Times - "Soldier hacked to death in London terror attack" - and the Daily Star - "Soldier beheaded on London Street" - are among those to offer headlines which report the news.

In truth, despite yesterday's horror, violent Islamist extremism is considerably less effective than the promoters of its legend would have it, though it has, of course, taken much vigilance across the eight years since the last terrorist attack in London to keep us safe.

Events will always be more powerful than trends. Guardian writers often warn that an alarmist media culture is one reason why fear of crime can rise while levels of violent crime fall. It may, however, be more difficult in future for Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee to regard her own paper as an "honourable exception" to this general rule.

Perhaps it is a shame that no newspaper inverted the lens. As one of the killers told her "we want to start a war in London tonight", the astonishingly brave scout leader Ingrid Loyau-Kennett answered him: "it is only you versus many people. You are going to lose" Could that not have been the stuff of front page headlines too?

Politicians have condemned the murder and called for calm. There was little public appetite for the yobbish antics of the English Defence League in Woolwich last night. Both the EDL and the BNP are in potentially fatal disrepair, so will naturally seek to grasp a lifeline, but academic expert Matthew Goodwin notes how much weaker the extreme right is today than it was in 2005.

Many millions of decent Londoners feel impotent in the face of such evil, though we know that our city will reject the desire of the killers to "create a war in London", just as we did eight years ago, the last time there was a terrorist atrocity on our streets. But how can we show that? There are calls not to over-react, but that may put too much emphasis on how not to react. We should talk about how to react too. What would be the analogous response to the riots clean up two summers ago? 

Many people will donate to Help for Heroes or the Royal British Legion. The Challenge Network, which brings people together in social and voluntary activity, suggests a "peace march" across different faiths and communities. Many British Muslims are thinking, too, about whether, beyond the vociferous condemnation which quickly followed the atrocity, there is a more positive and constructive response to offer too.

The form such responses take will depend on what local in people in Woolwich decide that they want to do. There will be a broader appetite across London to make sure that it is not only the killers who grab the media megaphone. How might the voice of millions who quietly reject the offer of hatred and division make sure that we get a hearing too?

Flowers lie outside Woolwich Barracks. Photograph: Getty Images.

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.

Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.