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
Show Hide image

What do Labour's lost voters make of the Labour leadership candidates?

What does Newsnight's focus group make of the Labour leadership candidates?

Tonight on Newsnight, an IpsosMori focus group of former Labour voters talks about the four Labour leadership candidates. What did they make of the four candidates?

On Andy Burnham:

“He’s the old guard, with Yvette Cooper”

“It’s the same message they were trying to portray right up to the election”​

“I thought that he acknowledged the fact that they didn’t say sorry during the time of the election, and how can you expect people to vote for you when you’re not actually acknowledging that you were part of the problem”​

“Strongish leader, and at least he’s acknowledging and saying let’s move on from here as opposed to wishy washy”

“I was surprised how long he’d been in politics if he was talking about Tony Blair years – he doesn’t look old enough”

On Jeremy Corbyn:

"“He’s the older guy with the grey hair who’s got all the policies straight out of the sixties and is a bit of a hippy as well is what he comes across as” 

“I agree with most of what he said, I must admit, but I don’t think as a country we can afford his principles”

“He was just going to be the opposite of Conservatives, but there might be policies on the Conservative side that, y’know, might be good policies”

“I’ve heard in the paper he’s the favourite to win the Labour leadership. Well, if that was him, then I won’t be voting for Labour, put it that way”

“I think he’s a very good politician but he’s unelectable as a Prime Minister”

On Yvette Cooper

“She sounds quite positive doesn’t she – for families and their everyday issues”

“Bedroom tax, working tax credits, mainly mum things as well”

“We had Margaret Thatcher obviously years ago, and then I’ve always thought about it being a man, I wanted a man, thinking they were stronger…  she was very strong and decisive as well”

“She was very clear – more so than the other guy [Burnham]”

“I think she’s trying to play down her economics background to sort of distance herself from her husband… I think she’s dumbing herself down”

On Liz Kendall

“None of it came from the heart”

“She just sounds like someone’s told her to say something, it’s not coming from the heart, she needs passion”

“Rather than saying what she’s going to do, she’s attacking”

“She reminded me of a headteacher when she was standing there, and she was quite boring. She just didn’t seem to have any sort of personality, and you can’t imagine her being a leader of a party”

“With Liz Kendall and Andy Burnham there’s a lot of rhetoric but there doesn’t seem to be a lot of direction behind what they’re saying. There seems to be a lot of words but no action.”

And, finally, a piece of advice for all four candidates, should they win the leadership election:

“Get down on your hands and knees and start praying”

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.