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.

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Why gender became the ultimate forum for self-expression

Gender identity is now embedded in many people’s self-perception, as well as in day-to-day bureaucracy.

In November, the British high-street bank Metro announced that it was expanding its gender and title options. Customers could now register as “non-binary” rather than male or female, and as “Mx” rather than Miss, Ms, Mrs or Mr. In some ways, this development parallels the rise of Ms in the 1970s, which was popularised by feminists who wanted a title that didn’t identify women by their marital status. In practice, Ms marks women by their political affiliation instead (if you’re talking to a Ms, you’re probably talking to a feminist) but, even so, its first intention was to conceal rather than reveal information.

Mx does something different. To declare yourself a Mx is to disclose something about yourself: that your identity is outside what has become known as “the gender binary”, and you are neither man nor woman but something either in between or entirely other. This is a statement about who you are, and it comes with an implicit understanding that not being able to make that statement – or not having it recognised – is damaging. As the father of one gender-non-binary teenager told BuzzFeed UK: “When . . . you don’t identify as male or female and you only see those two boxes, then you don’t see yourself there . . . You are absent. That must hurt, and that’s what makes me angry.”

While users of Ms hoped that their title would supersede the ranking of spinsters and matrons, Mx relies for its meaning on the persistence of alternatives. You can only be non-binary if there’s a binary against which to define yourself. It is now recommended practice at some US universities for students to declare their preferred pronouns, and mandatory that these should be observed by others. Failure to do so is considered more than a breach of etiquette: “misgendering” is looked on as an act of bigotry, even a kind of verbal violence. This use of gender as self-assertion has an obvious appeal to teenagers and young adults as a parent-baffling subculture, but it starts much younger, too, with a small but growing number of primary-age children announcing that they are trans.

On one of its covers in 2014, Time magazine famously described transgender activism as “America’s next civil rights frontier”, but the proliferation of gender identity is at least as much a consumer choice issue. This was also the year that Facebook introduced its “custom” gender options, though it would perhaps be more accurate to describe them as “expansive presets”. Users can choose anything from “agender” to “two-spirit” via “bigender”, “gender questioning” and “transmasculine”, but what they can’t do is subvert the system by selecting an unapproved option. A feminist wishing to register her objections to the class structure of gender by typing in the word “oppressive”, for example, would be stymied here. However diversified gender identity becomes, it is a precept that everyone has one (if your identity and your body “agree”, you are said to be cisgender).

For some, asserting their identity is enough. For others, aligning their presentation with their sense of self will involve altering their appearance. At the least invasive level, that might demand cross-dressing. A natal female might choose to “bind” her breasts, flattening them to achieve a more masculine silhouette. Many seek prescriptions for opposite-sex hormones. At the most extreme, a trans individual will opt for surgical removal of their secondary sexual characteristics and gonads (more rarely, for surgical construction of opposite-sex genitalia), coupled with a lifetime of hormone replacement therapy.

Hormonal and surgical treatments have been possible only since the mid-to-late 20th century, and for many who choose them, these alterations prove life-changing in a positive way. But beyond the confines of the National Health Service, a consumerist edge to treatment becomes more obvious. There are doctors specialising in private transition medicine whose websites include statements such as “the only person that can actually diagnose [gender dysphoria] is the person living with the feelings”. In other words, the prescription is based not on a doctor’s medical judgement of the patient’s needs but on what the patient asks for (and is willing to pay for).

Plastic surgeons promise to transform transgender patients from “caterpillars” into “beautiful butterflies”, holding out the prospect of becoming one’s “true self”, in the same way they have long sold boob jobs and liposuction to women.

Not everyone accepts this brave new world. For conservatives in the United States, trans issues have become the next battle in the culture wars, and Republican politicians have introduced “bathroom laws” that would legally compel trans men and women to use toilets or changing rooms in line with their birth sex. Gender identity was an issue in last year’s US presidential election; a Tea Party-supporting talk-radio host tweeted: “If you want a country with 63 different genders, vote Hillary. If you want a country where men are men and women are women, vote Trump.” This vehement rejection of gender self-identification creates its own kind of identity politics.

That Donald Trump said that Caitlyn Jenner (the former Olympic decathlete whose transition became public in 2015) would be free to use “any bathroom she wanted” at Trump Towers did little to stop the perception that a vote for Trump was a vote against gender nonconformity. And, in some ways, Trump’s acceptance of Jenner’s right to use the ladies’ lavatories is not wholly at odds with the idea of a world where “men are men and women are women”: it’s just that some of the feminine people were born male and some of the masculine ones were born female. It is unclear what Trump’s presidency will mean for trans rights, but whatever happens in America will influence gender ideology worldwide.

Threats to legal abortion and equal marriage could strain some of the alliances within the trans, LGBT and feminist movements. A trans woman who has undergone surgery is in a very different situation from a male who identifies as a woman but does not want any treatment. A gay, lesbian or bisexual person who is discriminated against for their sexuality does not experience the same oppressions as a trans person (it is an article of faith that gender identity and sexuality are separate things, although in practice the division is not that neat). The political priorities of women who are victimised because they are female will not overlap perfectly with the priorities of transgender women – some of whom complained that the “pussy hats” and signs referring to female genitalia on the anti-Trump women’s marches in January were “exclusionary”.

Gender identity is now embedded in many people’s self-perception, as well as in day-to-day bureaucracy. But the messy relationship between sex and self is not going to be settled imminently.

Sarah Ditum is a frequent contributor to the New Statesman

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times