Woolwich terror attack: Cameron and Miliband respond

"The terrorists never win because they cannot defeat the values we hold dear," says Cameron after the beheading of a British soldier in Woolwich.

David Cameron and Ed Miliband have now both responded to the suspected terrorist attack in Woolwich, which saw a British soldier beheaded by two men at 2:20pm this afternoon. The two suspects, one of whom declared in a grim video, "The only reasons we have done this is because Muslims are dying every day", were shot by police and are receiving emergency treatment in hospital. The full statement from the suspect with the bloodied machete was:

We swear by Almighty Allah we will never stop fighting you. The only reasons we have done this is because Muslims are dying every day. This British soldier is an eye for an eye a tooth for tooth. We apologise that women had to see this today but in our lands our women have to see the same. You people will never be safe. Remove your government. They don't care about you.

Cameron, who is in Paris for meetings with François Hollande, said at a press conference at the Elysée Palace:

I've been briefed by the Home Secretary about this sickening attack in Woolwich in London. It is the most appalling crime. We obviously are urgently seeking, the police are urgently seeking, the full facts about this case but there are strong indications that it is a terrorist incident.

Two people at the scene of the murder were wounded by the police and they are being treated as suspects. The Home Secretary is chairing COBRA tonight to bring together the police, the security services, all of the agencies, so that we can gather every piece of information that we can. The police and the security services in the UK will get all of the support that they need to deal with this or indeed any other incident.

I'll be returning to London later tonight, so that I can chair a COBRA meeting again in the morning to make sure that we have all of the facts of this case. Tonight, our thoughts should be with the victim, with their family, with their friends. People across Britain, people in every community, I believe, will utterly condemn this attack. We've had these sorts of attacks before in our country and we never buckle in the face of them. We show indomitable British spirit. The terrorists never win because they cannot defeat the values we hold dear.

He will travel back to London tonight and attend a COBRA meeting tomorrow morning.

Miliband, who cut short a visit to Germany to return to the UK, said:

This is a truly appalling murder which will shock the entire country. All of my thoughts are with the family and friends of the victim. The British people will be horrified by what has happened in Woolwich. They will be united in believing that this terror on our streets cannot be allowed to stand. The Labour Party will offer the Government our complete support in establishing the facts of what happened and ensuring that those responsible face the full force of British justice.

Although some MPs have suggested that parliament, which went into recess yesterday, should be recalled, a spokesman for John Bercow said that there had been no request from Downing Street for him to do so.

One of the Woolwich murder suspects is shown holding a bloodied machete. Photograph: ITV News.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder