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.

Show Hide image

Will Euroscepticism prove an unbeatable advantage in the Conservative leadership race?

Conservative members who are eager for Brexit are still searching for a heavyweight champion - and they could yet inherit the earth.

Put your money on Liam Fox? The former Defence Secretary has been given a boost by the news that ConservativeHome’s rolling survey of party members preferences for the next Conservative leader. Jeremy Wilson at BusinessInsider and James Millar at the Sunday Post have both tipped Fox for the top job.

Are they right? The expectation among Conservative MPs is that there will be several candidates from the Tory right: Dominic Raab, Priti Patel and potentially Owen Paterson could all be candidates, while Boris Johnson, in the words of one: “rides both horses – is he the candidate of the left, of the right, or both?”

MPs will whittle down the field of candidates to a top two, who will then be voted on by the membership.  (As Graham Brady, chair of the 1922 Committee, notes in his interview with my colleague George Eaton, Conservative MPs could choose to offer a wider field if they so desired, but would be unlikely to surrender more power to party activists.)

The extreme likelihood is that that contest will be between two candidates: George Osborne and not-George Osborne.  “We know that the Chancellor has a bye to the final,” one minister observes, “But once you’re in the final – well, then it’s anyone’s game.”

Could “not-George Osborne” be Liam Fox? Well, the difficulty, as one MP observes, is we don’t really know what the Conservative leadership election is about:

“We don’t even know what the questions are to which the candidates will attempt to present themselves as the answer. Usually, that question would be: who can win us the election? But now that Labour have Corbyn, that question is taken care of.”

So what’s the question that MPs will be asking? We simply don’t know – and it may be that they come to a very different conclusion to their members, just as in 2001, when Ken Clarke won among MPs – before being defeated in a landslide by Conservative activists.

Much depends not only on the outcome of the European referendum, but also on its conduct. If the contest is particularly bruising, it may be that MPs are looking for a candidate who will “heal and settle”, in the words of one. That would disadvantage Fox, who will likely be a combative presence in the European referendum, and could benefit Boris Johnson, who, as one MP put it, “rides both horses” and will be less intimately linked with the referendum and its outcome than Osborne.

But equally, it could be that Euroscepticism proves to be a less powerful card than we currently expect. Ignoring the not inconsiderable organisational hurdles that have to be cleared to beat Theresa May, Boris Johnson, and potentially any or all of the “next generation” of Sajid Javid, Nicky Morgan or Stephen Crabb, we simply don’t know what the reaction of Conservative members to the In-Out referendum will be.

Firstly, there’s a non-trivial possibility that Leave could still win, despite its difficulties at centre-forward. The incentive to “reward” an Outer will be smaller. But if Britain votes to Remain – and if that vote is seen by Conservative members as the result of “dirty tricks” by the Conservative leadership – it could be that many members, far from sticking around for another three to four years to vote in the election, simply decide to leave. The last time that Cameron went against the dearest instincts of many of his party grassroots, the result was victory for the Prime Minister – and an activist base that, as the result of defections to Ukip and cancelled membership fees, is more socially liberal and more sympathetic to Cameron than it was before. Don’t forget that, for all the worry about “entryism” in the Labour leadership, it was “exitism” – of Labour members who supported David Miliband and liked the New Labour years  - that shifted that party towards Jeremy Corbyn.

It could be that if – as Brady predicts in this week’s New Statesman – the final two is an Inner and an Outer, the Eurosceptic candidate finds that the members who might have backed them are simply no longer around.

It comes back to the biggest known unknown in the race to succeed Cameron: Conservative members. For the first time in British political history, a Prime Minister will be chosen, not by MPs with an electoral mandate of their own or by voters at a general election but by an entirelyself-selecting group: party members. And we simply don't know enough about what they feel - yet. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.